India in Fiji
By Tom Koppel, photos by Annie Palovcik

Traveling through different regions of the South Pacific islands of Fiji, a visitor finds food, traditions, and temples from a country far away.

Fiji travel

Santosh Kumar, a young artist from the southern Indian state of Kerala, squats on the floor of a spacious, open-sided Hindu temple. He is putting the final touches on a colorful poster-size painting. Featuring the voluptuous goddess Lakshmi, it will become a huge outdoor billboard announcing Diwali, the upcoming annual festival of lights. A specialized religious painter, Kumar tells us that he has worked here for four years, creating dramatic ceiling images of almost psychedelic brightness in modern acrylics.

But this is not India. We are visiting Fiji, but we keep meeting people of Indian origin. They are the descendants of indentured plantation laborers first brought out to Fiji by the British in the 19th century. Eventually, those lowly workers and their children were free to seek education, move into cities and towns, and to pursue whatever career paths they liked. Liberated from the oppressive caste system prevailing in India, they thrived. Today they are a largely separate community coexisting alongside that of the native Fijians.

While riding the ferry to the island of Ovalau, we chat with an electrical contractor named Sharma. On board are his company trucks and young Indo-Fijian technicians, all heading out to put up new power lines. While on Ovalau, I need some Band-aids and enter a small general store. The proprietor, Bhupendra Kumar, is thrilled to meet a visiting journalist. "I'm a writer, too," he beams and shows me a book on the history of his town. He had written the chapter on commerce and trade and had once served for several years as mayor.

It becomes clear that the Indo-Fijians, just under 40 percent of the population, are predominant in urban life and modern sectors of the economy. They own and operate most of the stores, drive the buses and taxis, staff government offices, maintain the water, sewage and electrical systems, and keep the entire commercial and technological infrastructure running.

Indian saris

Naan in Nadi
The Indians also contribute a distinctive cultural flavor to a country that is physically lush and beautiful but full of contrasts. The city of Nadi is a gritty, sun-baked place with a Third World feeling. Metal grillwork covers the windows of many shops, and lethargic men lounge in the shade of awnings or large trees. But when we duck into a shop on the main street, we find ourselves in a dazzling emporium of brilliant saris and South Asian fabrics. At the open-air market, we weave through milling throngs of locals who browse and schmooze as well as buy. Counters are decoratively piled with a cornucopia of enticing tropical produce: papayas and jackfruits, pumpkins and tomatoes, oranges and okra, radishes and watermelons.

Around the fringe are stalls where Indian women weigh out lentils, beans, chilis, rice and grains. The fragrance of ground cumin and turmeric wafts on the breeze. In a cool air-conditioned room, fisherman Saiman sells his fresh catch. He goes out in his 32-foot plywood boat for several days at a time, with only two boys as crew, and hand-lines for sea bream, red snapper and barracuda. Because the Indians have been marginalized politically by the Fijian majority, in recent decades tens of thousands have emigrated. Saiman's own mother, he tells us, now lives in Canada.

All this colorful and fragrant food whets our appetite for dinner. Near Nadi's Hindu temple, the largest in the southern hemisphere, we find a simple but very popular screened-in restaurant, Tata's, where unique local ingredients have been incorporated into traditional Indian cuisine. The highlight is succulent curried fresh-water mussels on rice. We also try the bone-in lamb biryani. Together with two cold bottles of good Fiji beer, our bill comes to US$ 12.

Indian curry

Traditions from a Distant Land
A week later, having flown to the scenic northern port town of Savusavu, we meet a wiry young contortionist, Rajesh Kanna, who puts on shows in the larger cities. He demonstrates some of his seemingly impossible positions and hands us his card.

Adjacent to the market is a tiny take-out place with only a few tables and chairs. The owner, Kamla Pati, cooks us a spicy chicken curry lunch, with dal, rice and rotis, for a laughably low price. Her daughter Rita, 20, is engaged to be wed. It is an "arranged" marriage, but only in the sense that the families have to approve the match and are negotiating over important details. However, the two young people had already met where the fiancé works and felt a strong immediate attraction. Then younger daughter, Briya, 16, shows up. Still in high school, she aspires to a career managing a department store. She proudly takes us to see the one-room temple where her family worships, the men on Friday nights and the women on Mondays.

One of our drivers, Kasim, turns out to be an Indian Moslem with a Hindu wife. Mosques are scattered across towns and rural areas, but such intermarriage is unusual. Although Indians and native Fijians seem to mix comfortably in public places and at work, there is seldom more intimate contact.

Indian temple in Fiji

We come to see how Fiji's Indians inhabit an unusual cultural world. After more than a century, memories of the Indian past are fading. Hardly any of them have ever set foot in that distant country. And with English taught in school, few can read or write proper Hindi. On the other hand, many still speak it with parents and grandparents, and some still identify with their great-grandparents' regions of origin. "I am from northern India," says our last driver, Hamesh Sanjay (who in fact has never been there) "but my wife is from the south, and when we married, it had to be according to the southern way." Fortunately, he confides, he personally prefers south Indian cooking, "with lots of lemon and tamarind." There are also significant north-south differences, he adds, in religion and funeral customs. Although generations removed, the Indians of Fiji continue to hear echoes of life from their ancestral homeland.

Tom Koppel is a veteran Canadian author, journalist and travel writer who has contributed travel features to numerous newspapers and magazines for over 25 years, including the LA Times, Chicago Tribune, Dallas Morning News, Columbus Dispatch, Georgia Straight, Globe & Mail, National Post, Islands Magazine, Sydney Morning Herald and Canadian World Traveller magazine. He has also published four popular non-fiction books on history and science, mainly with a maritime connection. The most recent book, Ebb and Flow: Tides and Life on Our Once and Future Planet, dealt with the ocean tides, worldwide and throughout human history.

Related stories:

A Marvelous Trance in the Highlands of Fiji by Bruce Northam
Hell, Heaven, and Home in Kathmandu by Jeff Greenwald
Into the Heart of India's Punjab by Joel Carillet

Other Australia, New Zealand, and South Pacific stories from the Archives

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