Thakur Ranjit Singh
As the formal ceremony commenced in vakatunoloa (community meeting hall) at Nasilai Village on an overcast morning on 14 October, 2015 at Nakelo, (Rewa) Fiji, the high tide was lapping on the shores some meters away from the meeting house. And the muffled lapping was audible inside. The sea was calm, and the high tide was receding.
However this was not the case some 131 years ago, on a stormy night when the raging waves on the Nasilai Reef claimed 59 lives through sinking of the Girmit ship, Syria, which was carrying Indian indentured labourers to Fiji. Then, the forebears of this current Nasilai villagers came to the rescue of the survivors and gave them shelter and displayed human love, compassion, hospitality and understanding of the universal language of love, even without understanding each other’s language.
On the day of our visit, the ride to the village reminded us of a wedding procession, with convey of government and high commission vehicles, including our bus. You drive through roads snaking through green vegetation past Nausori Airport, Naselai, Visama, Nakelo and thence to Nasilai Village through narrow, dusty and winding road. At the end of the road, very near to the sea there is a sign. It says: “Welcome to Nasilai Village.” Over a century ago, there was no road and no sign, but the “welcoming” gesture, character and trait of the village seems to have always been alive and bequeathed to successive generations.
This year’s theme for Girmit Foundation Commemoration in Auckland was the sinking of ship Syria on the Nasilai reef on May 11, 1884. The Founding President of Fiji Girmit Foundation NZ, Pundit Devakar Prasad had a dream to thank the villagers, but unfortunately passed away. A delegation from NZ travelled to Fiji to fulfil that dream of a thanksgiving trip. Without the villagers’ valuable, timely help, the traditional ITaukei culture of compassion, the loss of lives would have been much higher. Unfortunately, Fijian history has not resonated with such acts of compassion and sacrifice where our two communities stood by and for each other, in good times and in bad ones. Indeed, there is enormous reservoir of love, affection and goodwill between the two races, which needs to be revealed and cherished. Had it not been for the divide and rule technique of the colonists, there would have been better race relations in Fiji, as was displayed through human language of compassion on that fateful and eventful night over a century ago.
Fiji’s Minister for Foreign Affairs, Ratu Inoke Kubuabola was the Chief Guest in that Girmit Commemoration on May 17, 2015 in Auckland.The President of the Foundation, Master Shiu Charan commended Naselai villagers for their timely assistance and hospitality. Unfortunately due to doctor’s advice, he could not travel to Fiji and was deputised by Sardar Harnam Singh Golian.
Now, to fulfil our undertaking of honouring the villagers, a delegation from Fiji Girmit Foundation ventured on this pilgrimage. It included Trustee/Head of Delegation, Sardar Harnam Singh Golian, with a team of 8 from New Zealand. It also included New Zealand’s National Member of Parliament, Kanwal Singh Bakshi. In Fiji, the delegation was joined by NZ High Commissioner, Mark Ramsden, official of Indian High Commission and other local community leaders and media.
Gifts of food items, sporting goods and stationery were presented and very warmly received by the villagers in their meeting house. We were honoured with the traditional welcoming yagona (kava) ceremony followed by presentation of Tabua, (whale’s teeth) gifts and a commemorative plaque. There was networking and Talanoa session in which the delegate promised to maintain ongoing relations with the village and facilitate development through New Zealand and Indian High Commissions and other agencies on an ongoing basis for the wellbeing of the village.
It was an emotional event where praises were made to the forebears of the villagers for their compassionate, humanitarian and courageous act of rescue and hospitality. It was especially emotional for the great-granddaughter of one of the survivors of Syria tragedy, Mrs Padma Charan, who, with her son Vinesh, has made that special trip from New Zealand as part of the delegation. Her great grandfather, Thakur Kuldip Singh was a survivor of that fateful ship that met a fateful landing.
In general discussion, the villagers cited the immediate need for repairs to their meeting house, addition of a toilet block and completion of a Syria monument that was reportedly undertaken earlier by Indian High Commission. The villagers were thankful to be remembered, and they commented that others had visited before, but forgotten them. They were assured by Sardar Golian that they will not be forgotten, ‘We will work with other agencies to make sure that assistance is given where required, and we will make further visits in future.” he told the Chief Daunakelo. The NZ High Commissioner, also assured them of assistance.
The delegation was treated to a very tasty, healthy and mouth-watering, lunch, which was enjoyed by the delegation and a large media contingent who covered the event. The food appeared to have been very lovingly prepared, and that added to its taste. The event was well-publicised in Fiji media which helped in bringing awareness about Girmit and the inter-ethnic compassion that existed so early in Fiji’s history.
On our way, we visited Nasamila District School. This was facilitated by Ministry of Education. Once again the usual hospitality was displayed by the school teachers and students. It caters for four nearby villages, including Nasilai. The visitors were thrilled by the show of respect, and performance of cultural programmes. We presented the school with some sporting goods and stationery, and promised to extend development through educational aid agencies in New Zealand. Our eyes welled up when the Nasamila Cultural Group of students sang the ever haunting and melodious farewell song-Isa Lei.
As we departed Nasilai, one thing was certain. The love, compassion and hospitality that was displayed to the Indian Girmitiyas some 131 years ago was evident and inherited by the descendants of those villagers with a big heart. And the ITaukei hospitality so well-known worldwide again won the day. It was certain that it was not our last trip-there was some bond that was pulling us to come back to Nasilai Village.
It appears the whispered legends about spirit of those drowned Indian labourers at Nasilai reef are urging us to comeback. And by God, we will come back. In addition to development of the village and the school, we may also bring some priest or pundit (may be FIJI PUNDIT should be enough) to appease those wondering souls still seeking salvation.
Thakur Ranjit Singh is a founding Trustee and Secretary of Fiji Girmit Foundation New Zealand which came on the thanksgiving trip to Nasilai Village. He was a member of the delegation and communications link between Fiji Government and the Foundation. He is a community worker, a media commentator and scholar, and runs his blog site, FIJI PUNDIT at www.fijipundit.blogspot.co.nz]