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Learning About Indenture

Esha was interviewed by Bava Dharani on November 21st, 2020.

Bava Dharani  0:02 

Hello, my name is Bava Dharani and I’m here to interview Esha Pillay on her family history. Hi, do you mind stating your name?

Esha Pillay  0:17

Hi Bula everyone, my name is Esha Pillay.

Bava Dharani  0:23 

This interview is happening on 21st, November 2020. I just would like to let you know that this interview will go on for about 45 minutes. And thank you very much for agreeing to this interview. So shall we start? 

Esha Pillay  0:45 

Yeah, and thank you for inviting me to interview, especially with you means a lot to me.

Bava Dharani  0:52 

Thank you. So we’ll be talking about your family history and so I’ll start asking questions. So when did you first hear the word indenture?

Esha Pillay  1:08 

I think for me when I first started to learn about my family history, it wasn’t introduced to me as the word indenture. I think the questions always started off with how our family ended up in Fiji or the very general thing like why are there Indians in Fiji? So that was one way I was introduced to the indentured history but then probably later on when I was an adult and I was looking more into the historical background and just trying to figure out how my family ended up in Fiji or how our ancestors came to Fiji? I think that’s when I was like ‘Oh this thing is called indentured labour or indentured history’.

Bava Dharani  2:09 

Do you remember the first person who told you about your family history?

Esha Pillay  2:18 

I think definitely for me it was always the women in my family. So if I think about it, maybe it was my mother, because my mom knows and understands a lot of the historical context of like our history in Fiji and she would tell me stories here and there of how you know, her grandmother, so who was my great grandmother, like how she came on a ship from address to Fiji or how her thought that like hard grabbed her grandfather, you know, left his village and came to Fiji I think these those are the kinds of stories I was initially listening. And then it always kind of transitioned into you know, them working on the plantations like the sugar cane farms. Um, yeah, it was just like bits of stories here and there, but to be honest and I think like a lot of other descendants, especially from Fiji, this stuff is not talked about a lot. So, I think even my early exposure to learning about our history was just bits of information and I was like, oh, okay, you know, I got one story here, for I’m carrying another story there at family gatherings. Um, but it wasn’t like somebody proper sat me down and explained our history. Um, yeah, because that stuff. That’s just not how it goes. Um, so I was working with pieces for a long time.

Bava Dharani  3:54 

Thank you. So do you remember what all these versions told you about the journey that your family took from India to Fiji?

Esha Pillay  4:06 

I’m sorry, can you repeat that one more time? I think I thought I was going to answer but then this needs a good detailed answer. So if you can repeat that I can think about it. 

Bava Dharani 4:22 

Sure. Yeah, of course. So from all the versions your heard, did any version tell you the specific journey that your family took from India to Fiji?

Esha Pillay  4:39 

No, not not really. It was sort of like, you know, I wasn’t from what I understood. This was like a consequence or something that was a part of colonialism. That’s how I sort of took in that information. It really wasn’t like, Oh, they were like, Oh, you know, we’re just travelling to another country. This is going to be a fun time getting on a ship and then spending three months on the ship, going to a place where they had no idea what it was going to be like for them. So I did understand that it was something that happened through colonialism. And I mean, even if I asked my parents or other family members now, those experiences are the history of why people left or how people were taken, like, I don’t have access to that stuff. Um, yeah, it would, it would be, like, difficult to try to see why each specific person ended up in Fiji. Um, but definitely, you know, like, European colonialism, like played a huge role in that.

Bava Dharani  5:40 

So, thank you for sharing that. Um, what about life in Fiji? Do you remember any stories that stick in your head?

Esha Pillay  5:52 

I think for my family, I mean, I guess to answer this question, if I just start off with looking at the history that I do know, and my family being from Fiji we are very much Fijian, we are from Fiji, that’s the context my family understands. So it’s not even like the subcontinent or from India. And now we have a whole different journey or experience in Fiji. It’s like we are Fijian you can say we’re descendants of indenture or we’re like Indo-Fijian. But our understanding and everything is very much like being in Fiji and that would be, that just means that their experience being in Fiji is like anybody else who’s living somewhere else. Just because that’s our context now.

Bava Dharani  6:49 

Thank you.

Esha Pillay  6:51 

I can add something else. I don’t know if this answers your question but it’s not like there’s some immediate connection to India for us. You know India’s the homeland and over in Fiji, our homeland is is Fiji. Just because we wouldn’t know where in India to go to. Culturally we’re very different. Just from what I understand both sides of my family come from Indian indentured labour backgrounds. Both my parents are from two different islands. So for my father’s side, who’s from Labasa, Vanua Levu which is the smaller Island, I still have a lot of family members who work on the sugarcane farms and they still do sugar cane farming. So that’s a very much a part of their everyday reality, like a direct connection to our Girmit heritage or like the sugar cane plantation heritage. Then for my mother’s side they’re a bit more distanced. So she’s from Lautoka, Viti Levu  which is the main island. They’re a bit more distance from the sugar cane farms. I don’t have a lot of immediate family members on my mother’s side who still work on sugar cane farms. It’s like everybody is trying to survive and to make it, for my relatives who are living in Fiji, that sort of their day to day day to day reality.

Bava Dharani  8:36 

So when you think of Fiji what comes to mind first?

Esha Pillay  8:42 

I love Fiji. I don’t know, I don’t even know how to answer that question. Because for me, Fiji is home. So my family story is we came over to the states on a lottery visa. So this was back in 1995. And for the folks who don’t know, so we had military crews on the island and that was one of the main reasons why a lot of indo Fijian specifically migrated in the late 80s to early 90s. For my family they have no intention of coming to the States; they were hoping if they were going to leave Fiji, they would go to Australia, just because it’s a bit closer. But during that time immigration was very tight and then at that time the other option was the lottery visa. So when my parents applied and ended up getting it and they weren’t too sure if they wanted to come but they thought if this was the only way that they could migrate and maybe give their kids access to more work opportunities, educational opportunities, like this was one way to do it. So we migrated over on a lottery visa in 1995. And I, so I mostly have grown up here in the States. And so that I think, for me being Indo Fijian or being like a descendant of indenture that definitely does shape a lot of my experiences, specifically being a part of, like the diaspora. So like the Fijian diaspora, not the Indian diaspora but I have got when I was younger we would try to make trips back to Fiji, we would try to go back like every five years or so, because I had a lot of family members. And going back to Fiji was really, really expensive, like from California back to Fiji. So I would go back with my family every five years or so and every time that we would come back from Fiji, it was really devastating for me and my sisters. We had a really hard time coming back to the States and I think when we are back in Fiji, that’s definitely home for us. That’s where we feel, you know, the most comfortable. We have all of our family because I think growing up outside of Fiji is difficult when you don’t have a lot of other indo Fijians around you. But I have been fortunate now as an older person because I don’t know just how my life is right now going back to Fiji, even by myself is a lot more easier. So I’ve been fortunate enough to spend longer periods of time in Fiji. I’m living there, being with my family and eventually, that’s where I would want to be long term, because that’s where I belong. That’s where I want to live. Hopefully if there’s a work Opportunity, that would be my first choice. Fiji, there’s just so many things. It’s not just even my, like background of being a descendant that connects me to Fiji. It’s like I’m a part of the place. Maybe that answers your question. I don’t know if it does!

Bava Dharani  12:33 

Thank you for sharing. But you were saying, as an adult, you just gone back to Fiji and as an adult, you have been interested in learning about your family history. Can you tell me how was it for you to try to access this history that you felt like you did not have access to? 

Esha Pillay  13:02 

I guess I can start off with my post grad education, I think that’s when I really got into it. That’s when I “professionally” got into learning about indentured labour or my family history. So I went to grad school, I went to SOAS University of London, from 2016 to 2017. And that’s when I knew, during this time I’m going to do my masters. So I did my Masters in Migration and Diaspora studies. And I was like, you know, what, I’m going to use this opportunity to really learn about my history, but also produce work that I can share with other people in my community plus other descendants from different places and whoever else is not attached to these histories. That was my intention. I guess it was during that time when I was doing the research and writing my thesis that I really started to understand how violent the history of indentured labour is and specifically looking within the Fijian context. It’s also hard to find material that’s critical enough, because, you know, here I’m at a point in my life where I’m not just looking for any kind of information on indenture. Well, I sort of am and that’s because information is limited, but I’m entering this process with my own set of politics coming from a certain background, I am looking for very specific things. And of course, I’m getting general information, which I’m thankful for when there isn’t that much information but it’s hard. First of all, it’s hard to access this material and then when I’m coming to the material, it’s really traumatising. Like I was really triggered throughout my whole time when I was reading things. Or even trying to get access to the archives at the British Archives, I couldn’t even get access. That was like a whole nother dilemma of racism, they needed all these forms of ID for me to access colonial records. So it’s a difficult process and then also being a descendent, we learn about our histories through storytelling, that’s how I was first introduced to our history. But there’s a limit to how much people also know themselves, like how much my own family knows, how much my own grandparents know. And also, when older folks start passing away that information doesn’t get passed down that much. On top of that, you add the shame that comes with asking these questions about our background. And then, you know, people not giving you all bits of information, just giving you like tidbits. So there’s lots of different layers involved. But I think when I was doing my Masters, I was getting more, I was trying to understand more of the historical context and it was okay, it was okay. But I will say what did help is, I came into that position already having some conversations with my family members, and also having some conversations with other other descendants. I also have friends from the Caribbean, from Trinidad, Guyana, South Africa and I’ve had some conversations with them. I will say honestly, that growing up in a place where I didn’t have many Indo-Fijians around me, meeting Caribbean folks, meeting Indo Caribbean folks helped a lot. Like just forming friendships with them, learning about their history, just having finally other people to connect with. Even though our contexts are so different, still there was something we could share. So I think all of that sort of helped by the time I got to doing my Masters, at SOAS, but then again, even when I now look back at those kinds of things that I was reading, it’s not always accessible information, it is still very academic. Some of the stuff is outdated. A lot of the stuff is like general information. And then of course you know these academic journals also have their own biases, depending on the whose writing them. So basically, I kind of just had to take pieces from all of these different places and work with what I had. Also during that time when I wrote the thesis the book Coolie Woman by Gaiutra Bahadur also definitely had so much information. It also was a very important reading and resource to have during that process. But then again it’s not the Fijian context. It’s rooted in the Caribbean context. So I just had to pull stuff from different places but I think that’s how it goes with our histories.


Bava Dharani  18:24 

Thank you. So what was it like for you, having grown up in the States, going to England to study, what was it like, being in London, SOAS…

Esha Pillay  18:43 

So honestly it was a huge deal. It was a really huge deal but I was going to London to study. So just a little bit about my educational background, I went to a community college here in California. So I went to community college for the first two years. Because of my family’s economic background at that time I had my tuition covered for so I was like chill, cruising through that. And then I went to a state school, I went to San Francisco State University to finish my undergraduate degree. I took out loans for that and I was like okay, you know take out loans, finished my bachelor’s. I worked for a few years and then I was like what I really want to invest in our indentured histories, I really want to be a part of something, just like creating more material for our communities. I want to apply to grad school. Also, I knew I would also have to take out loans again to go to school but this is an investment, something I really want to do. So I spent some time looking at graduate schools. And what I did realise when it comes to indentured histories, it was a little bit challenging to find programmes where people could support me on studying that. And then finally somehow I came across Universities in the UK. And you know, that is the motherland. I was like, you know, what, if I’m going to have access to archival material, journals, readings, I’m going to get the most material and use sources there. So I ended up applying to SOAS and then somebody who played a huge role in me applying was the programme advisor for migration and diaspora studies. So that was Dr Paru Raman. And I actually had emailed her a few years before I applied to SOAS and the reason I chose that programme is because she also had experience in looking at indentured histories in that context within South Africa. So I reached out to her and I told her what I’m interested in applying, I know you have some background in this, what do you think, I’m from Fiji, I come from an indentured background and she was really supportive. And she was like you should go ahead and apply when the time is right for you. So I applied, finally got to SOAS and was super excited and I think it was kind of a mindfuck! Being in London, being in Britain and also for my family, it was a really big deal. You know everyone in the family was like she was going to London to study. Honestly, people around me like when I told them what I was gonna go do they were like ‘What does diaspora mean?’ and I kind of had to explain diaspora. So you know, they really don’t know what I’m doing. And then it was like why are you going to go study this? My family didn’t think, my family didn’t understand why I was going to go and look at indentured labour and our histories of being from Fiji, but it was a bigger deal for them that, you know, she was going to London, she was going to go do her master’s degree. So for them, it kind of just stopped at their master’s degree in London. So when I got there it was a different experience. For me, I think growing up in the States I have a certain set of politics, especially around like race politics, and going to the UK, understanding, you know, their political movements, their histories, specifically based in London, it was all new for me and at the same time the kinds of different South Asian communities and diasporas I met there, were also different to what I was exposed to, and what I knew in the US, so that also played a role into me understanding what’s happening in the UK. But I don’t think I fully understood what I had done with my thesis until after I wrote it. During that time I was hyper active on my Instagram stories and I remember right after I submitted my thesis I was like five generations later, 100 years later, here I am, in in the Motherland, in the UK, in London, and I have produced this thesis about how this empire was responsible for the fact that, was responsible for my family’s displacement. Basically, I think I really understood how and what that meant afterwards. But I just think when it came to approaching researchers and academics and even other people in my programme it was a bit easier for me to start the conversation about indentured labour and why I was there studying it. Because I think it was already a bit difficult finding that kind of understanding in the US, especially when you’re in Britain in the UK, that ties very close. I don’t know what else to add to that but I think that’s where I needed to be at that moment in my life.

Bava Dharani  24:44 

Thank you for sharing that. I also wanted to ask what was it like for you, being in London in the middle of empire? Did you learn something new about indenture when you were there?

Esha Pillay  25:06 

Yes, I did. So while I was there I’m really thankful I got connected with other descendants. I don’t think I met anybody from Fiji but I did meet other Caribbean descendants. So from Trinidad, from Guyana, from Jamaica and I ended up learning also a lot about the Windrush generation. So I ended up going to one of the events that was hosted- I can’t remember the official group but Dr. Maria Kaladeen was a part of that, about organising and hosting that event. I’m really glad I went to that event, because again it gave me a better understanding of the descendant experiences in the UK. So you know, like being a descendant of indenture but then their family migrating back, not migrating back migrating to the centre of Empire and what that history looks like. I also got to connect with other people, other descendants who were very welcoming, in the fact that I wanted to look into indentured labour. And very encouraging and them also telling me the things that they had found out about Fiji when they were in the archives doing thorough research, even though they weren’t from Fiji. They came across like material during their work and just give me a deeper insight about different things within indentured histories.

Bava Dharani  26:49 

So after your postgraduate and your thesis you then returned to the US?

Esha Pillay  26:57 

Yes, so I came back to the US. I was back in the states for a few months and I was back in the states for three, four months and then after that, I went to Fiji. I think it had been five years since I was back but this time I came with the intention that I was going to stay for a long time, and I was actually looking for work specifically because I wanted to live there long term.

Bava Dharani  27:27 

What was it like for you? Going to Fiji and being there for a while, talking about history- was the history talked about in Fiji that way or did you find it different?

Esha Pillay  27:43 

I think when I came there a friend that I had made while I was in the UK, who is an activist in Fiji, her name is Roshika Deo, she does a lot of on the ground, organising for human rights, different women’s groups. So I actually had met her in London. And when I came back to Fiji, I connected with her again and she was like, hey why don’t you give a presentation on your talk, because I wrote about intergenerational traumas. And she was like I can set you up at the University of the South Pacific, in Suva. And she was like when you come into town, let’s set you up. You can give a talk. And I was like, ‘Oh my God’- I was really nervous. Because even though I’ve done all of this research, and a lot of the research in my thesis was based on my family’s specific stories. Even now, I would never say I know everything about indentured labour. I’m an expert. What I write and what I talk about is because of what I’ve seen, what I’ve heard and experienced within my own family dynamics and then also I grew up outside of Fiji. So here, I was invited to give this talk and I was so nervous but I was like I should give this talk because it’s just another opportunity for us to publicly speak about our history. And then I told myself I’ll just see how the audience deals with it or engages with it. And actually that talk was really great because I was just able to bring up a lot of historical context but the people in the audience because they were mainly folks who live and work in Fiji. They told me they saw a lot of similarities, especially when it comes to certain, like mental health issues in the community, like intimate partner violence issues, just different things that are currently happening, reflected in what I shared about the historical background of being descendants of indentured labour or Girmit. And they were like we actually are working with people trying to find solutions for our community. So people on the ground just thought knowing the historical context was helpful. And people were also asking me specific current research, trends or things that are happening in Fiji. And I was hold up, I don’t have that information, that’s not my expert area and I said I’m here so I can kind of share with the knowledge I do have. But with what’s happening in Fiji, only the people in Fiji could give me that information. And I would like to work with them, if we were going to do something. So that was cool. Also, my family when I got back, they were like, Oh, you know, Esha, here comes Esha, she just did her degree in London, she was looking at her histories, people kind of had an idea that I was looking into her family history. So when I got back to Fiji, people were sharing more stories with me. And that was really nice. And, you know, sometimes they would call up like other people in the village and be like oh, Esha, this person used to work at the sugar mill and they still have stories of how, of the kinds of experiences they had with the people who ran the sugar Mills, like the white people. So it was like, it was just it, I was gaining a lot more basically, when I was back in Fiji. But then also, at the same time, I’m like, I’ve come back to Fiji. And as an adult, I’m not with my parents anymore, I was living and looking for work in the main city of Suva. So that was also a very different experience with me because my family is not from that area. So I was also in a new city, trying to learn the landscape of this new city. So that was like a whole other layer of the experience. But I did apply for a job opportunity, I didn’t get it- had to do with some passport issues. But it just gave me the opportunity to really spend time with my family. Yeah, so that time of my life was really special. And yeah, I do want to go back and see what happens in the future. It was like, it was a mix of stuff.

Bava Dharani  32:43 

Thank you. I just wanted to ask as well, is there any specific story where you went back and people were sharing that kind of stuck in your head when you return back? The recent trip that you did?

Esha Pillay  33:03 

Let me think about this. (pause 33:04-33:29) I think one thing that I can think of, this is something I don’t know much about but I definitely want to look into it. How people are moving around in colonial plantations in Fiji because once I was there so my Aggi, which is my paternal grandmother, I know that she’s from Labasa because that’s where her home is, anytime I would go back to Fiji. But I had learned she was actually on a different side of the island; that’s where she grew up. And it was when she married my grandfather, she moved to Labasa. I guess that’s something I didn’t think about how  people are moving around in colonial plantations. So even when I think about where my family is from in Fiji. I don’t know all of the different places that they moved around to that was an interesting story that I picked up on. And I’m trying to think I’m sure I’ve heard a bunch of other stuff. I also met like people who were just like, we think it’s really cool that you went, you know, and studied in London. We think it’s really cool. You went to India, you know, to South India, you know, trying to see where our ancestors came from. But like, I can’t tell you anything. There was a lot of like, there’s a lot of elders who were just like, I can’t tell you anything, though. We think it’s really cool what you did, but we have nothing to add. I think that was something important for me to hear as well because I think also something that’s really difficult when you’re trying to learn more about your history and then being a descendant is, it’s just hard for like people to pass on these stories. So I don’t know, I don’t know what to think about that. I think that’s where I’m just gonna leave it. Maybe that was a boring answer to your question.


Bava Dharani  35:53 

That was not a boring. Thank you for saying that. It sounds difficult.

Esha Pillay  36:00 

Because for them, they’re like, maybe if I asked them what it was, like growing up, where they grew up in Fiji, they would have so much to tell me, you know, so much. Like, actually, when I went back to Fiji, you might have spent a lot of time so my authers, they are my father’s older sisters, they spent a lot of time just telling me about how it was growing up, how they would go to school and how they would have one part of their meal and my father would have another half of their meal. And then during when it was lunchtime, they would come together and they would eat together. Or you know, the tin home that they lived in before they actually built like a concrete house. That stuff. I got a lot of details on, their lives, you know, growing up their childhoods, those were most of the stories that I was listening to and my people were sharing with me.

Bava Dharani  36:58 

Thank you. So you were saying that you then went to South India. So you Your family is on South Indian heritage?

Esha Pillay  37:09 

Yes. So, um, yes. So my ancestors came from South India. From what I know, my father’s side they are Tamil and my mother’s side they are mixed Tamil and Telugu. So they all came from the port of Madras. And so the first time I went to India was in 2017. I wasn’t there for too long, maybe seven, eight days or something. But I went straight to South India. That’s where I wanted to be. I was like, I don’t think to go anywhere else. But it’s funny, well actually it was my first time in South Asia. So my first place that I ever went in South Asia was Dhaka, Bangladesh. That’s where I arrived. I was there with a friend and then from there we flew, we were gonna we’re gonna go to Chennai but before we could get to Chennai, we crossed over to Kolkata. And then so yeah, I guess I entered through North India through the other port but then I went straight down South. I think I will say I don’t know much about these cities in South India, but I will say, getting to when I first landed in Chennai it was a big deal. I remember I got out of the plane and then my one of my best friends they took a photograph of me of like the sign that I think said like Chennai and I was super excited. So for me it was a really big deal. That trip was mostly like a very positive experience. But I also travelled a little bit further down south from Chennai me and my friends we went to Cuddalore and that was really nice because actually that area reminded me a lot of Fiji; like the landscape the farming that was a lot more familiar to me than what I saw in Chennai. Because I think Chennai, from what I know, is its own little bubble. But definitely when I got to Cuddalore I was like, ‘Oh my god this is so familiar’. So and then within the Fijian context my family very much identifies as being South Indians from Fiji. And some people will say they are Tamil or Telugu or Malayalam, so Malayalam is like Malayalam and but I grew up just using the word Madraji. And basically that’s like the Fiji Hindi version of Madrassi; so anybody who came from South India, it’s like the colonial switch of like a colonial term. So in the Fiji and our indo Fijian context, yeah, South Indians would identify like that, and my family definitely does. Yeah.

Bava Dharani  40:18

So what did you what were your thoughts on; what did your family tell you about like, being a minority within the Indo-Fijian community because your South Indian?


Esha Pillay  40:31 

So I grew up knowing. So I grew up knowing definitely like about the racism, like, that’s just like, that’s a fact of life. So, I from a young age, like I always knew that so even before I understood South Asian history in depth, or the the hierarchies like the racial stuff in South Asia, I already know knew within my indo Fijian or Fijian context, there was a difference between us. It definitely had a lot to do with looks skin color, culturally, were very different. So I grew up hearing stories about the racism my family faced, my current family members but then also here we are, we speak Fiji and Hindi, unfortunately that’s a that’s another part of the history that’s not addressed when it comes to like the mainstream Indo Fijian history. So when I learned that some family members or relatives still speak Tamil or Telugu, I’m like ‘Oh, wow!’ because some people do speak but my immediate family members they don’t but we still have Tamil or Telugu words in the Fijian Hindi and Madraji’s. We definitely speak Fijian Hindi differently. So when I was in Suva back in 2018 and I was speaking in Fiji and Hindi all the time I didn’t speak English as much but when I was talking to other indo Fijians I was definitely speaking Fiji and Hindi. The first thing they would say or nobody actually picked up on the fact that I was American or that I was foreign. And I think definitely, it has a lot to do with the way that I look and my skin color and stuff. They always were like oh we thought you were like the village girl or like the girl who lives next door but I’m like, really? You haven’t seen me for the past? What, 30 year? I live next door. So they never thought I was from overseas. So when they heard me speaking, they’d be like, Oh, are you South Indian? And I’d be like, yeah. Like, how did you know? And they’d be like, Oh, because of the way you speak, you know? Or when I lived with my roommates, who were both North Indian, they would be like, I would say something and then I would hear someone one of the whisper there would be like, What did she say? Like, what is she saying? And then another one would like nudge them and be like, Madraji. She’s like, South Indian, she talks like that. And, or they would be like, they would smell my cooking. They would smell my cooking and be like, Oh, the tomatoes? Yeah. You all like the khattas or the sour, you know you like all the sour foods. So Khatta means sour in Fiji-Hindi. I was like, what is what is going on? But yeah, I always knew it. And actually, the language thing, I think the language thing is very sad. And I think even now, you know, a lot of when I talk about indentured labour I really strongly try to focus on the fact that I am of South Indian heritage and my identity as a Madraji, just to assert that narrative because even when it comes to the whole language thing why is it that like, my ancestors had to lose their language? Right. It just because there’s a historical pattern of racism, there is a real racial divide and I also remember my aunts talking about- even when they were growing up, their parents who knew how to speak, the South languages wanted to really encourage them to speak. But outside of the home they would get made fun of and bullied for it and we need to assimilate a bit more. And that’s just how the loss of the language continued and got worse. But yeah, it’s for my family. It’s a no brainer. We know what it feels like to be a minority within the Indo Fijian community.

Bava Dharani  45:18

Do you remember any story or sentiment that your South Indian family in Fiji told you about? And you know, how it was like in Fiji for them?

Esha Pillay  45:37

Um, it always comes back to the language. I think as a South Indian speaking Fijian Hindi, I feel weird about it. I think I honestly feel really weird about it. And when I explain that to people, people don’t understand. So I, you know, so I think what that has, what it I don’t know, it’s difficult, because I think when the language is so important, and when language makes a huge part of your identity, if I can no longer speak that language, how can I claim to be Tamil? Or, you know, how do I assert like being of South Indian heritage. So even when I hear the stories of my family members, it always comes back to the language and the marriage thing the North Indian families wouldn’t prefer to marry into a South Indian family and I for my family members who have married they always have racist experiences to talk about. I think most of the stories are about language and just the the marriage issues that come up but also it’s really hard not to assimilate in the Indo Fijian context, it’s really hard not to assimilate. Because even when it comes to like, celebrating like religious festivals, or you know, the consumption of Bollywood, that’s a whole other level of nonsense that’s really impacted our community because see with Bollywood, a lot of indo-Fijians in Fiji I will say, within my even my family that I’ve noticed, they watch Bollywood movies a lot. And even for me, I grew up watching a lot of Bollywood movies. And Bollywood was one of those things when even when I watched with my parents, they would think they’re learning about their Indian heritage or culture. So even with the whole Bollywood consumption, it adds to the layer of not really having the opportunity to learn about our South Indian heritage. So only in my mid 20s to now have in my late 20s, having like best friends who are of South Indian heritage or who are Tamil specifically, watching South Indian movies and watching Tamil movies has really been life changing. And I’m not saying that movies on the South aren’t problematic as Bollywood. But I watch really good South Indian movies. So the stuff I watch is quality content. And that also has been a nice way of me to, just to see, like just to learn more about like those communities and reconnect in that way. So I think watching Tamil movies has definitely also played a huge role and trying to if I’m going to learn about like Indian stuff, I would rather prefer to do it through that way. If it’s like one like entertainment or medium. So that’s been, that’s been interesting. And it’s been like a relatively good experience.

Bava Dharani  49:09 

Thank you for sharing all that you shared about your experiences and your family, your identity. So we’re reaching the end of the interview. Is there anything you’d like to add?

Esha Pillay  49:37

I think the point where I’m at now, I don’t know if it’s like career wise or if it’s my age or because of the types of things I’ve been privileged enough to access. I will say it was a huge privilege going to grad school, especially in London. Having the opportunity to write a master’s thesis kind of made, what I was doing more legitimate. It gave me clout. I was like Oh, Esha, this Indo Fijian person, talks about indentured labor now has gone to London, done her thesis; it gave me some power. And I think that power gave me confidence to want to talk about indenture more. And it also gave me power to be ‘I want to talk about indenture in the ways that I want to talk about indenture.’ So I don’t have to rely on existing material, I’m gonna do my own shit. That’s what had happened. So I think when I decided that I’m going to focus on very specific things when it comes to the indentured labor narrative. That was that was empowering, in a way because I didn’t have to only rely on what exists, that was going to give me information to learn about my history, I’m going to create it. And it gave me a better understanding, like when I was in Fiji, that when I talk about a lot of the stuff, I’m not a Fijian, or I’m not an indo Fijian in Fiji, I am diaspora. And that impacts a lot of the ways I talk about my history. That also impacts a lot of my experiences with other descendants. So that stuff just became a bit more clear to me that, I’m coming from a very specific context and even talk about being Indo Fijian and maybe not a lot of Indonesians can relate or they would, but I was like, you know what, maybe somebody might find my stuff useful. So that’s been a positive experience so far and I also had, I think after I came back from Fiji, or maybe it was before I went and can’t remember but I started up an Instagram account. And it was called Cooley return so on there, I posted about different marginalized histories within different indenture context. So I don’t like doing very general stuff. Like if I when I would post stuff on there, it was, like very specific, like it would be Muslim South Indians in Fiji and something about their historical context. You know, also Muslim Indo Fijians are another minority and you know, they face a whole like another set of racism. And their ancestors also faced like another set of violences so it just made me a bit more interested to learn about like other minority communities, you know, within indenture communities. So I think setting up that Instagram, when I as like sharing posts, it was it was also giving me the opportunity to learn, so that was cool. It was just cool having the control to post whatever I wanted. But I know it was also helpful for tons of other descendants who maybe weren’t actively trying to look into these histories. So I think doing something like that was good for me. But also through that I connected with lots of other descendants who would send me messages like telling me more about their stories or third context. So overall, running that account was a really good exchange of just learning about different indenture stories that I wouldn’t have also known about if I wasn’t running a page like that. So that was good. But where I’m at now, I’m definitely at the peak of being, as somebody who’s involved in telling indentured history. So in the past year and a half or two years, I’ve been doing collective work. So I have a research partner, her name is Quishile Charan. She’s based in New Zealand. And I met her through Roshika, so I met her through Roshika when I was back in Fiji. And through that experience we’ve come together and done like projects around Girmit resistance histories, women’s stories, leading resistance during the Girmit period. That has also been a positive experience just working with another Indo Fijian person and doing collective work. I think another thing I’ve learned is working with other people, whether it’s other individuals or other descendants is a whole lot more valuable than just doing and digging up stuff on on my history by myself. Once I started working with other people, I realized the work just becomes a bit more critical, it becomes more powerful because you’ve got different lived experiences that are allowed to exist when you’re presenting the information. So the collective work that I do, that’s under the name of Bad Fiji Gyals, so you can find our work because it’s just a plug, to promote my stuff- hosts a lot of the collective work that I’m involved in. And even that work, it would only it’s only possible because we got a grant we’ve been funded through a grant in New Zealand, that Quishile has worked with in the past. So right now that stuff and I say it’s the peak because without the resources, the connections and the money, I would not be able to produce indenture material. Without anybody telling me you can’t talk this way, you can’t write this way and the stuff you’re talking about is not important. So that’s another thing I think when it comes to accessing information about our histories or presenting it,  there’s a limit to the resources of the money that our communities have access to, to talk about our histories. So I think that’s another important thing I just want to mention. Without like money a lot of the stuff also wouldn’t be possible but even when I see on social media with like other groups and other people, I see a whole lot more different people, different descendents from different places doing work on just like sharing and telling her history, it’s definitely become maybe in the past 10 years on social media, specifically, way more visible, way more visible than it was before. Not to say that, you know, this work wasn’t happening before but it’s it’s just a whole new different world on social media when it comes to Cooley histories, indentured descendants and history. So yeah, there’s just a lot more stuff happening now. And also a lot more like younger people wanting to talk about it, and wanting to actively learn. Yeah, I guess that’s that’s like the another thing I just wanted to share. It’s we’re moving in a better direction, I think.

Bava Dharani  57:31

Thank you for sharing that. You’re well go. Yeah again I really appreciate you taking the time and doing this interview.


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