By Samantha Magick
A new detective novel set in Fiji brings to life a time rarely discussed beyond academic texts; the experiences of Indian labourers under Girmit.
A Disappearance in Fiji follows Akal Singh, a 25-year-old Sikh police officer, sent to Fiji in disgrace after an indiscretion in his previous posting of Hong Kong. He does not want to be in Fiji, and his new boss does not want him there either. Then he is given the task of investigating the disappearance of an indentured Indian woman, Kunti, and is quickly exposed to the complexities of local politics, the indenture system and its injustices, perceptions of women in this world, and deeply entrenched racism.
Writer Nilima Rao was born in Fiji, migrating to Australia with her family when she was three years old. She says growing up she did not know much about the lives or stories of her ancestors. In writing A Disappearance in Fiji, she was focused on depicting Fiji for readers with little understanding of the country’s history, and who might wonder ‘why there are so many Indians there’.
So what does she hope local readers might take from the novel?
“I would hope that for the Fijian Indians, or the Indians like me who are descended from the Girmitiyas, that it would give, not a sense of pride necessarily, but a sense of an acknowledgement of that history, that it’s important and relevant and not something to be ashamed of. I don’t know if that sense of shame is something I have correctly interpreted, but that was the sense that I always got, that it’s just something we don’t talk about because it’s negative and it’s in the past and so let’s just move on from it.”
Rao adds: “I know that there’s plenty of academic texts out there that talk about [the Girmit experience] but this is a little bit different in the sense that it’s trying to imagine what that experience would be in a fictional setting, where you can sort of get immersed in the world and hopefully move through it as the characters move through.”
Writing A Disappearance in Fiji involved deep research at the Fiji National Archives, and hours and hours of reading The Fiji Times on microfiche there. Modified snippets from the paper appear at the start of each chapter. For descriptions of the time, such as the ‘lines’ or living quarters of the Indian families, she relied on official documents regulating their size and structure, writing from missionaries and some photos. A bigger challenge was understanding what the workers and their families would have been feeling. “That I’ve had to imagine basically, based on all of the things I’ve heard of what actually happened; I had to imagine what their reaction would be,” Rao says.
By the end of A Disappearance in Fiji, Akal has begun to think about Fiji differently. Life in the Indian communities he visits during his investigation stir memories of home, and he finds friendship with a fellow policeman and a crusading doctor.
Similarly, writing the novel has changed the way Rao now thinks about Fiji and her connection to the country.
“I think I have more deeper understanding of the experience of Indians, and to a lesser extent, I hope that I understand iTaukei people a little bit better,” she told Fiji Traveller. Her two months in Fiji in 2016 researching the novel “was the first time I went to Fiji on my own, without my parents, as an independent adult. And I got a much greater appreciation of just how to how to function in Fiji. I would never have said before that it felt like home and I still wouldn’t necessarily say it felt like home, but it feels more like home than it used to.”
This article first appeared in Fiji Traveller, July-September 2023.