In debut novelist Nilima Rao’s A Disappearance in Fiji (Soho Crime, June), Akal, a 25-year-old Indian policeman who’s been transferred from Hong Kong to Fiji as punishment for an embarrassing mistake, investigates the disappearance of an indentured servant. The Fijian Indian Australian author spoke with PW about colonization and identity.
What’s the historical backdrop to your novel?
The book is set in 1914. At that time Fiji had been a British colony for about 30 years; there was a predominant Indigenous Fijian group, and then a British colonial administration running the country. The British colonizers brought in Indian indentured servants by the shipload to work in the sugarcane fields. At the end of the five years, the Indians could stay in the colonies with land allowances for their own farms, and then after five years as a free person the British would pay for you to go back if you wanted to.
It was an exploitative program. The people signing these contracts were the poorest of the poor, and illiterate. The people getting them to sign were lying about the working conditions and the contract’s terms—it was often much more than the five years—and even about where Fiji was; they said it was in India just past Calcutta. Still, the opportunities were better than their equivalents in India. If you could make it through the exploitation, you ended up better off.
What got you interested in this period?
My great-grandparents came to Fiji from India as indentured servants. Sixty thousand indentured servants went to Fiji, and thirty thousand returned. There are ongoing racial tensions between native Fijians and Indian Fijians; at one point the latter were more than 50% of the population. Any time Indians get traction politically, since the military is dominated by Fijians, there’s another coup. Since the coups have started, Indians have started to leave Fiji. My parents left before the coups started; it’s now an exodus.
I spent two months in Fiji in 2016 when I started to do research for the book. It was challenging to learn about these people in history because they were almost all illiterate, so there’s not much written down from their perspective. Most of what’s available is what’s in the newspaper reports, written by the British or Australians, often missionaries who would go there and condemn the whole program. I had to interpret and imagine a lot of it. However, there’s a lot of documentary evidence about their living conditions and the accommodations that were offered because the program was so regimented.
Why do you refer to yourself as “culturally confused”?
We moved to Australia when I was three, and I grew up in North Queensland. In the ’80s, the only Indians I knew were the ones I was related to. I grew up very Australianized despite my parents’ best efforts. I didn’t identify as Indian or Fijian until I was an adult living in L.A., when I started to recognize my other roots. When I went to India and saw all these people who looked like me, I got to understand my own Indianness a bit better.