Image via Esha Pillay

Stories in Motion

My stories are always in motion. They move through generations and live in the present, even though I might not always have the language to capture them. I can’t count on history books to tell my stories because the layers to each story won’t be there. Storytelling has been important in learning about the histories that I come from and arriving at the truth that I need all of my stories to exist alongside one another.

I am a descendant of indentured labourers who were brought over from Madras to work on colonial plantations in Fiji. I learned about my history by listening to grandmothers, aunts and cousins and witnessing how our stories kept shifting through time because they couldn’t stay still. Every time I heard a new story, I wanted to know more about the women who spent most of their lives without the presence of their husbands, earning money working multiple jobs and making sure that their children lived with dignity.  When I think about these stories, especially about the women in my family, I realize that some stories have taken entire decades to finally reach me. Sometimes I wonder why I didn't ask questions sooner, but it was never easy asking them, especially about our background.

Within these Girmitiya histories and my experiences as a Madraji from Fiji, I have also carried my family’s stories with caste violence.

Descendants of indentured labour face a very specific casteism from caste-privileged South Asians from the subcontinent because of our labouring histories and displacement. There has been ongoing violence from caste-privileged communities who freely migrated to Fiji (i.e. not as indentured labourers), as well as from those whom we meet outside of Fiji.  Caste-privileged individuals box descendants of indenture as uncultured and disconnected, while simultaneously dismissing diverse stories among context-specific histories and identities.

There’s also an oversimplified understanding across different indentured communities, which is the belief that caste disappeared once our communities left the subcontinent because our various caste locations didn’t matter on colonial plantations. Another assumption is that only “lower” caste and Dalit communities were apart of indentured labour movements to European colonies across different diasporas. It’s important to remember that indentured labour in itself is a caste-based history and it cannot go away that easily. It’s also necessary to understand that the demographics of labourers were much more complex because there was a mix of various casted, Dalit and Adivasi communities that’s specific to each indentured diaspora. The histories and stories of descendants in different contexts vary. We are not all the same, even if we come from the same places. It’s critical to acknowledge that indentured labour movements outside of the subcontinent are not simple to understand, and that there are hierarchies even within each of our coolie histories spread out across different countries and islands.

Read: Caste Away?

Any time the topic of caste comes up with other Indo-Fijians, or descendants from other indentured communities, there is usually a “post-caste” conversation or straight appropriation of lower-caste identities without any deep understanding of just how complicated, insidious, and alive caste-based structures are. I understand for many descendants of indentured labourers people do not know their caste backgrounds, but that does not excuse casteism in our specific contexts or casually claiming identities as if they don’t have real consequences.

Stories about caste and how generations of my family had been experiencing casteism made their way to me. Different communities in Fiji talked about our lower-caste status openly, even though my family tried to portray that casteism no longer existed in Fiji. Casteist slurs were thrown at my family, both in public spaces and in private about the kind of people we were and why violence towards us was justified. It was the main reason other families in Fiji revolted to marry into our family. It was also the reason why my paternal great grandfather changed his name before leaving Madras to hide his low-caste identity. Many stories are left unsaid because my family didn’t want to talk about caste violence or actually confront the fact that we were still living with caste oppression. Without the language to describe these stories, how was I ever going to combat caste? Was I really going to escape caste so easily by ignoring it?

Ignoring caste in our indentured communities perpetuates casteism and further erases my family’s experiences in Fiji. For descendants, who do not know, it’s more important to fight against all forms of casteist violence in your own communities because any bit of "culture" or religious identities you want to hold onto from South Asia are tied to caste. That’s why representation only works from an individual perspective because it benefits those with power time and time again, with any context. To have representation from an indentured diaspora context for the sake of visibility, without critically looking at one’s own positioning, only reinforces existing power dynamics within these labouring communities and their descendants.

I am a low caste Madraji and I do not want to hide these stories anymore. I speak about being lower-caste because I am. It is generational violence for my ancestors, my family, and for me —  not historical statistics about indentured labour diasporas. When descendants uphold the idea that caste no longer exists, or appropriate oppressed caste identities in order to homogenize indentured labour histories and experiences, they harm descendants like me who do face casteism within our indentured diaspora communities. My lived experiences become even more invisible within Indo-Fijian narratives that enable generations of silence, hiding and minimizing caste violence. Caste oppression is not a mythical story of the past, it’s a part of my family’s reality in this generation.

Years ago, I couldn’t speak about being a low-caste Madraji in the ways that I do now. I used to hold back on different parts of my stories, because explaining them was difficult, especially without the language to describe the complexity of my experiences. My stories don’t stay still — they bounce back and forth. However, I don’t want to hide parts of who I am to fit into dominant caste and class narratives. Multiple layers of oppression can, and do, exist at the same time, and not all descendants have the same stories. Developing a language to share my family’s experiences with casteism in Fiji is a continuous process and what I hope for is that by sharing my stories I can disrupt powers that benefit from our silence. Brahminical supremacy is an ongoing battle for descendants of indenture and there is a need for a larger collective and critical understanding of how caste manifests in different diasporas and contexts. In order to fight all forms of supremacy, our experiences and identities cannot be forced into monolithic narratives of indenture because our stories and lived realities are way more complicated than that.

Presenting a singular Indo-Fijian or coolie identity is not only impossible but it allows caste violence within indentured diasporas to continue without any pushback. I carry my ancestor’s stories, but I only know a handful of them. My family’s stories have different meanings across generations because our stories are never static, they are changing — which has been important for surviving caste violence.