From the Himalayas to the Pacific Islands
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.
The accompanying article on Nepalis in Fiji is based on information provided by Charoiette 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.
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 ram in the middle of the Pacific.