Nepali’s living under palm trees and close to long white sand beaches? A contradiction in terms, one would think. Yet 10,000 Nepalis live on an island in the Pacific, Viti Levu, the largest island in the Republic of Fiji.
Nepalis immigrated to Fiji in large numbers around the turn of the century. Fiji was then a British Crown Colony and the English overlords were looking to populate their farflung empire with subject people slated for work on the plantations and in menial labour. Although a few Nepalis came as free settlers, most were part of the “girmit”, the indentured labour system. At the time, however, the authorities in Kathmandu ruled against the recruitment of its citizens for such purposes. Those who wanted to join the British work force had to do so clandestinely.
The Nepalis settled first in Suva, the capital of Fiji, and then moved around the island to Navua, another large town, and eventually to Kavanagasau, now home of the largest Nepali community in the islands.
It is not difficult to understand why the trail ended where it did. Situated in the “Sand dunes of Singatoka”, Kavanagasau is the one place in Viti Levu with mist-shrouded hills and valleys, landscape guaranteed to appeal to anyone homesick for the Himalayan foothills. Ironically, like much of the Nepalis’ home country, Kavanagasau is not favoured with large tracts of productive land. Here they lease farmland from the native Fijians and grow sugarcane and vegetables for the market. Most children end their studies after getting a basic high school education and the majority follow in their parent’s footsteps as peasant farmers.
Far from their country of origin, the Fiji-born Nepalis hold on to their way of life. They celebrate Dasain with particular gusto and keep their khukuris sharp. The only contact they have with the old country is through Hong Kong based Gurkhas who come to Fiji for jungle warfare training. During their off duty hours, these Nepali soldiers head for Kavanagasau to enjoy the unfailingly warm hospitality, Nepali talk and perhaps a sip of rum in the middle of the Pacific.
The Nepalis of Fiji tend to be clannish despite considerable intermarriage with women from the Indian community on the island. The fact is that there were no Nepali women in the early days, only men came as labourers. The Nepali identity has nevertheless remained intact and traditional festivals continue to be observed. They have strictly segregated themselves from the native Fijians, feeling a greater kinship for their counterparts in the Indian population. Lately, particularly among third generation immigrants, the distinction between the Nepalis and Indians has begun to fade.
Originally from Uttar Pradesh, the Indians of Fiji also came to the islands as immigrant workers, although in larger numbers, around the same time as the Nepali influx. Over the years, they have prospered and since independence in 1970 they have played a dominant role in the political and professional life of Fiji.
During the past two years, native Fijians, fearful of losing their political power, moved to curb what they perceived as the Indian march towards political supremacy. The native Fijians saw the Indians as a privileged group enjoying life at their expense. In May 1987, the Fijian military ousted an Indian backed civilian government. They conducted another coup in September of that year and remain in power today. Indian professionals began to emigrate to Australia, Canada and other Western countries, taking with them their expertise and capital.
The Nepalis of Kavanagasau, traditionally uninvolved in local politics and less visible than the Indian community, at first were not affected by the unsettled situation. Nonetheless, the recent upheaval devastated the country’s economy- to such an extent that the Nepalis have suffered as much as other islanders. Although they have for the most past maintained a very separate identity, in the perceptions of the native Fijians, there is not much difference between a Nepali and an Indian. Hopefully, as the Republic stabilizes, ethnic hostility will diminish and the peaceful life down among the palms will resume for Nepalis.
One Person’s Journey
The accompanying article on Nepalis in Fiji is based on information provided by Charolette Ram Padarath, a 70 year old Fijian of Nepali descent. She was an English teacher near Suva, until retirement a few years ago, when she immigrated to Vancouver, Canada.
Mrs. Padarath’s father, Ratan Bahadur Singh, was a soldier in the Nepali army at the turn of the century. He heard that the British were recruiting labourers in Uttar Pradesh for the cane plantations in the Pacific. The Rana Prime Minister had asked the British not to recruit Nepalis. Ratan Bahadur left disguised as a sadhu and changed his name so as not to give himself away.
The immigrant workers left by ship from Calcutta. Conditions on board were subhuman and many died during the passage to Fiji. When they arrived, the island was far from the paradise that the British had promised. Life was hard and the rewards few.
Ratan Bahadur married a lady from U.P. They had five children, two boys and three girls, including Mrs. Padarath, who was born Shiva Kumari. Disillusioned with life in Fiji, Ratan Bahadur returned to the Sub-continent with his two sons, Dal Bahadur and Nar Bahadur, promising to be back.
Little is known about what happened to them. The family heard that Ratan Bahadur had died during the time of Partition, as he was making his way on foot back to Nepal.
Mrs. Padarath’s parents and siblings are all dead, as is her husband, who was a headmaster in Fiji. Her two daughters, both nurses, live close by in Vancouver and her two sons in Apstralia and New York. She keeps busy as a volunteer with the elderly and campaigned for John Turner, the Liberal candidate for Prime Minister who lost to Brian Mulrony in November.