Girmitiya Descendant Reminisces Hardship of Girmit Era



The high hopes with which our ancestors left India for Fiji turned into turmoil, sacrifice, abuse and broken dreams as they were absorbed into the Girmit era between 1879 and 1916.  

This was relayed by a second-generation descendant of a Girmitiya, Sheo Balak, a well-known devotional singer who resides in Nasinu with his family.  

“My father’s name was Ram Asre and mothers name was Ram Kali while my grandfather was named Umrao and grandmother was Suruj Kali,” Mr Balak said.  

“When our ancestors came to Fiji, the women were tricked into changing their name so that the Indian Government could not locate them. My maternal grandmother’s name was changed to Ojhiran, while my paternal grandmother’s name changed from Suruj Mati to Jahuran.”  

“When my grandfather came to Fiji, the overseers had brought only one ploughing machine and one horse,” he added. Mr Balak said that there was no road from Suva to Nausori back then and that the indentured labourers dug the land with the help of a plough to make the roads and the area in 10 miles was very swampy.  
“I was about six to seven years old and I recall my grandfather had three boats in Naselai which had the name Jamai, Sukhai and Ram Harak,” he said.  

“My grandmother told me that they used to get beaten by whips and they lived in a very strict environment during the Girmit days,” Mr Balak added.  

“They were not allowed to eat Indian food. They used to hide under the bed and eat roti (flatbread). The women also had their hair cut short and were banned from wearing saris and were told to wear a skirt and go to church.”  

“One time, they all got together and beat up the overseers in retaliation and told them that they will not leave their Indian way of living,” an emotional Mr Balak said.  

The 90-year-old veteran artist was in tears as he relayed that “the Britishers also used to kidnap our women and rape them – a very horrifying and sickening time of our history”.  

“On my trip to India in 1967, I stayed in a hotel in Calcutta and a hotel worker would ask me about my origins,” he said.  

“When I mentioned that I am from Fiji, he exclaimed “Oh, you are from Tapu. A lot of people here left for Tapu and their wives are still crying for them”.”  

“The worker took me to Bihar and I witnessed first-hand the many women who were in distress asking about the whereabouts of their husbands. The women asked me when their husbands would return while crying, and they then sang a folk song “Bidesiya” which is closely associated with the Girmityas.”  

Mr Balak said that he has been to India about 15 times to provide music classes in different cities and was always asked how he spoke and wrote good Hindi.  

“I said it’s broken Hindi because there are more than 300 languages spoken in India and the Girmitiyas came from many parts of India and spoke in different dialects which then made-up Fiji Hindi,” he said.  

Mr Balak also sang a song he had written on how the indentured labourers were duped to work in Fiji and their life during the Girmit era.