“Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet...”
Rudyard Kipling, The Ballad of East and West
The big Fijian island of Viti Levu is divided by more than its central mountain range, and West is East, and East is South. Robyn and I found out about the West is East part, during a two-week Fiji diversion, on our way to begin a new life in New Zealand. We landed at Nadi’s airport at the same time we would always land at Nadi’s airport- in the heaviest frangipani-laden tropical torpor of a Southern Sea predawn. We carried our packs and lethargy onto the tarmac, and into the dimly-lit incandescence of the shabby open terminal. We were greeted by massive moths on mustard walls, and massive black men, with massive black brillo hair. A deep resonant noise came out of the blue shirt and white triangle-hemmed sulu skirt, who took our passports.
“Bula.” He said, stamping them with such force that the imprint, but for the fixed date, might have been good for a few more arrivals. Colorful posters were tacked on the walls, warning of AIDS and elephantiasis. Outside, the insect swarms around the streetlights grew smaller with the increasing crimson of the horizon, and the flame trees that burst into the day, along the curb. Robyn and I had landed on the Cannibal Isles. All we needed now, were cannibals. Instead, a thin dark moustache pulled his car alongside, and rolled down his window, like he was using his last ounce of energy. A flock of mynas, black heads on chocolate brown bodies, squawked and foraged around us.
“Nadi town?” Asked the Indian taxi driver. West is East. We negotiated a price that converged on correct, when his head bobbled, and piled in the back. He drove out of the airport slowly.
“First time to Fiji?” He said. But he didn’t really care.
I was reminded of what James Mitchener had written. It is almost impossible to like the Indians of Fiji. They are suspicious, vengeful, whining, unassimilated, provocative aliens in a land where they have lived for more than seventy years. They hate everything: black natives, white Englishmen, brown Polynesians and friendly Americans. They will not marry with Fijians, who they despise. They avoid English ways, which they abhor. They cannot be depended on to support necessary government policies. Above all, they are surly and unpleasant. It is possible for a traveler to spend a week in Fiji without ever seeing an Indian smile. I wasn’t convinced that any of this was true and, if it was, I had some understanding of why.
The tragedy of Fiji’s Indians began in 1879, with the arrival of the Leonidas, a Mayflower of misery, bringing 463 indentured workers from Calcutta to the sugarcane plantations beyond the port of Levuka. It was the predecessor of other labor transport ships that would land another sixty thousand over the next 37 years. Indentured Hindus and Moslems from Madras and Calcutta were herded down into the lower decks of these coolie ships. The women were often victims of sexual predation by the European crew. Condemned to eat, sleep, and sit amid their own waste, many did not survive the long brutal ‘middle passage.’ Their dead bodies were unceremoniously thrown overboard. Every one of them had signed agreements, which they knew as ‘girmits,’ requiring them to live in the squalid shacks and work in the cane fields for five years, before their bond would be repaid, until the planter paid their passage home. It seldom happened. Their descendents were called ‘girmityas,’ like the one driving our taxi.
“The Polynesians brought black rats, and the British planters brought us, and the mongoose to kill the rats in the cane fields.” He said. “But the mongoose is awake during the day, and the rats are awake during nighttime. They never meet.”
Just like the Indians and the Fijians. I asked how everyone was getting along.
“The situation is dormant.” He said, like he was describing a volcano. The Prime Minister at the time was Major-General Sitiveni Ligamamada Rabuka, OBE, MSD, OStJ, otherwise know as Colonel Steve Rambo. Rambo had previously staged two military coups the year before we arrived, and was on record as wanting to ‘send the Indians home,’ even the ones that had been born in Fiji. The Indians considered the Fijians ‘jungalis,’ poor backward hillbillies occupying the southern coasts and mountains, and the capital of Suva. East is South. Mitchener liked the Fijians as much as he disliked the Indians. It is doubtful if anyone but an Indian can dislike Fijians. They are immense Negros modified by Polynesian blood. They wear their hair frizzled straight out from the head...They are one of the happiest peoples on earth and laugh constantly.
In some peculiar Disney fashion, the unintended admixture of Fijians and Indians worked for us, tempering happy, sleepy and dopey Melanesian dysfunction, with an Indian dose of bashful, grumpy and stealthy Indian efficiency.
Our taxi turned off onto a dusty side road lined with multicolored Bougainvillea, yellow orchids, red hibiscus, bananas, palms and papayas, and pulled up in front of a white trellised façade. There was a hand painted sign above the entrance. Sunseekers.
“It is the most economical hostel in town.” Said our driver. We paid him, and entered to a hospitable reception, scoring the only double room in a ramshackle rabbit warren of dorm beds. I locked the door with our own padlock, and Robyn and I headed back down the lane, across the Nadi River Bridge, and down the single market street of double-storied pastel houses, demarcated by external air conditioners, like rows of double-six dominoes. The shops sold clothing and jewelry and too many duty-free tchotchkes and trinkets, heavy on the trinkets. The largest emporium of artifacts and handicrafts and souvenirs was Jack’s of Fiji. Robyn and I entered the air-con, to look at jack shit. Inside were brash Australians, sizing up the Kava tanoas for salad bowels, and the hardwood cannibal weaponry for serving implements. I picked up an iculanibokola replica, the multipronged fork that had been used by attendants, for feeding chiefs considered too holy to touch their own food. I seemed to have touched off a homing signal, and was immediately surrounded by several Indian floor staff.
“Fork.” Said the tall one who had closed the gap the fastest. “For eating.”
“For eating people.” I said. Head bobbles all round.
“You are needing one perhaps?” Another asked.
“Perhaps.” I said, picking my teeth with a fingernail, and watching them all back away.