My Pacific Adventures
We were 3 hours away from Fiji when we were suddenly summoned by the Prime Minister. A cold sweat ran down our spine. What wrong did we do? Did we miss out on some coverage in the previous days in Indonesia in the first leg of our 17 day tour? Or, did we err in our conduct or in tenue? Did we breach any propriety during this long flight? For, it was very unusual for a Doordarshan team to be requisitioned to meet the PM as instructions and orders were generally conveyed to us by officials in the PMO. Any reprimand would come from our own bosses at the behest of the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting. The Press Advisor/Press Secretary would communicate to the media instructions regarding the coverage of the PM's engagements, or any displeasure to us in person during the course of the tour. So, why this audience with the PM?
Assailed by quandary, we were led into the PM's cabin. Mrs. Indira Gandhi raised her head from the file she was reading, looked at us. The eyes, the face did not seem to bear any expression. The agony of suspense was overwhelming for us. Did I see a thin smile flash as the poker face turned benign? With a faint nod she beckoned us. The face seemed to just lose its tautness. The three of us heaved a sigh of relief. She looked at us with intense, demanding eyes. "As soon as we land, we'll be driven to the National Stadium for a ceremonial reception." Has the PM called us to give this bit of routine information – something that we already knew even before the tour began? "It'll be a long ceremony in which the tribal chiefs will pound and grind a root to prepare a ceremonial drink called Kava which shall be served to me in a coconut shell called Bilo to drink. For the entire duration of the ceremony, an absolute silence is to be observed. And remember, no movement is to be made. In the earlier days, anybody found moving was shot. That won't happen now. But any movement by any person during the ceremony is considered an insult to the host and the indigenous culture. Please bear in mind these protocols."
Upon landing at the Nadi [pronounced Nandi] airport, we were rushed to the National Stadium and shown our place: an enclosure fenced by ropes which was about three meters behind the VVIP seats. From my camera's position, I'd get only a back shot of the PM, and at best, just a quarter of her profile. That was unacceptable. Entreaty with the Australian team who were responsible for PR and media management on behalf of the Fiji Government fell on deaf ears. I made up my mind: as soon as people settled down and the ceremony began, I'd slink forward, creeping by inches and simultaneously pushing and maneuvering the tripod mounted camera. I had barely crawled a foot when I felt someone pulling me by my legs. It was a fuming Harish Awasthi, News Editor and the leader of our team with horror written on his face. I stopped; the grip around my legs loosened; the pounding and grinding of the venerable root had begun to the chanting by a tribal chief. There were scores of bare bodied men dressed in straw skirts, the Bose Levu Vakaturaga (Great Council of Chiefs), a body composed of the hereditary leaders of the 70 major Fijian clans, had started preparing the yanggona or Kava. My furtive fare resumed, but only for a while; I could not have crossed the Lakshman Rekha.
At last, the arduous undertaking was over and a Chief offered the revered brew to Mrs. Gandhi. In keeping with the protocol, the first Indian Prime Minister to visit Fiji stood up, said bula (hello), clapped once, received the bowl, drank the kava in one gulp, clapped thrice and said vinaka (thank you). The Fijian PM, Ratu, Sir Kamisese Mara walked up to the podium to deliver his welcome speech. My heart sank. The podium was a good five feet further away, in the front. What would I do? I caught Mrs. Gandhi's eye and gestured to her to turn towards the camera when she spoke. At the mike, she did that as often as she could, her face gracefully arcing!
Immediately after the welcome ceremony the entourage headed back to the airport. We had to board a smaller aircraft to go to Suva, the capital city. We learnt that the airport at Suva couldn't handle bigger or wide-bodied planes. After covering the PM's banquet speech in the evening, we left for a newly opened Indian restaurant owned by a Gujarati businessman to have our dinner. After dinner, another Gujarati trader opened his shop to let us buy well known Japanese still cameras at a discount.
While we were driving around Suva the next morning to cover the PM's engagements, our young taxi driver made an unusual request: that we speak to him in Hindi instead of English. He was of Indian descent who spoke in pidgin Hindi – Fijian Hindi, formed from different languages and dialects of India but with a heavy content of Awadhi and Bhojpuri. He had overheard my colleagues and I conversing in Hindi. He told us that he found our lingo sweet and musical.
The next day, 27th September, 1981, we flew back to Nadi from where we drove to a meeting where Mrs. Gandhi was to address the members of the Indian community, known locally as girmitiyas, a corruption of the word 'permit' holders.
Between 1879 and 1916, the British brought around 60,000 Indian labourers, mainly from the present day East UP and Bihar, under the indentured system, to work on sugarcane plantations. These indentured labourers were covered under an 'agreement' whereby they would work in Fiji for a set number of years and then be 'free' to return to India — at their own expense. Most didn't have enough money to return to their native land. They remained back. Many started their own enterprise, and in due course, they became a dominant force. The Economist reported in 1977 "that ethnic Fijians were a minority of 255,000, in a total population of 600,000 of which fully half were of Indian descent, with the remainder Chinese, European and of mixed ancestry."
Mrs. Gandhi's meeting with the girmitiyas ended on a high note. The emotional connect of the Indo Fijians with the prime minister of the land of their ancestors was both palpable and overwhelming. As the PM next had a private engagement at 4 pm, we were in no hurry to reach the airport for our departure to Suva at 6 pm. During the event, I had met interesting people like the DG of Fiji Radio, university professors, other professionals and our Gujarati hosts. They invited me for tea and offered to drop me at the airport. The opportunity to make new friends, especially of one's own ethnicity in a foreign land, was tempting. My colleagues agreed to carry back my equipment.
As I drove into the Nadi Airport at 5 pm, I saw a plane take off. My heart missed a beat. Could it be our flight? But how could that be, as our departure was scheduled for an hour later? Saying goodbye to the new found friends, I rushed into the airport. I asked the lady constable at the entry the whereabouts of the Indian delegation and she said that it had left. No, that can't be, I told myself. I ran to the hangar nearby where our Air India jumbo was parked and was being guarded by PM's security. The chap looked quizzically at me. And with a deliberate wave of his hand which rose up and up, he made a flying gesture. Stunned, I broke into a cold sweat. Dragging myself, I reached the Fiji Air counter overflowing with passengers. I asked for a ticket to Suva. I was told that all flights until the following morning were full. I felt the world collapsing. I had never experienced a panic attack before. What was I to do? The following morning at 7 we were to fly off from Suva to the Kingdom of Tonga, 3 hours by flight. How to reach my colleagues in Suva in time? The only trains that ran in Fiji were the goods trains meant to transport sugarcane to factories. Taxi? I reckoned that that was the only alternative to cover about 200 km. But will I be able to find one with so many people wanting to return to Suva? Bus? I wasn't sure if it would ply at that time. Even if it did, how long would it take on that hilly terrain to reach my destination?
Gingerly, I mentioned to the airline staff that I was a member of the Indian PM's delegation and that I'd missed the official flight as it had departed an hour before its scheduled time, and if I could buy a ticket. He told me to wait and disappeared into a cabin. How moments can be eternity! "Yes, I can book you on the 6 pm flight." Words had never sounded so euphonic and halcyonic! Now, I wanted to push my luck a bit further. Could he, instead, book me on the 7 o'clock flight by which my new friends were travelling? Without ado he handed me a ticket. "How much do I pay?" "Nothing. It's on the house." I looked at this ethnic young Fijian with incredulous astonishment. "That's not fair, Sir!" I nearly stammered. "Yes, it's very fair. You are our guest. There'll be a coach at the airport to drop you at your hotel." Hesitatingly, I requested if a telex message [those days there was no fax or email] could be sent to our hotel to let my colleagues know of my schedule. Request accepted, I joined my friends in the lounge.
Seated next to me in the aircraft was an old lady who I had briefly met at the PM's function. She, like the others, had come to Nadi to participate in the said function. On reaching Suva, she insisted on dropping me to my hotel. A limousine appeared on the scene. I was introduced to the driver who happened to be the lady's son-in-law and the top boss of Fiji's sugar mill. While on the way to my hotel, she urged me to contact her second daughter who lived in Melbourne, Australia, the city to which we were ultimately headed to attend the CHOGM (Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting).
At the hotel I learnt from Rukmini Pathy, my sound recordist colleague that our extremely worried team leader wanted to inform the PM's Press Advisor about his missing cameraman. But Pathy was hopeful that I'd surface in time and so he advised Harish Awasthi accordingly. With none of the officials getting wind of my absence from the flight, no protocols were breached, no panic created. The following morning we flew into Nukuʻalofa, the capital of the Kingdom of Tonga in the South Pacific as per our schedule. [It's interesting to note that the capital city is located in Tongatapu, the main and the largest of 170 islands. It is also Tonga's centre of government and the seat of its monarchy.
Mrs. Indira Gandhi received an enthusiastic welcome from King Tāufaʻāhau Tupou IV who had visited India twice earlier. After our hectic schedule, we reached the lunch venue which was in the open. At the entrance I was informed by the usher that there were only two vegetarian members as per the official guest list and that both of them had already entered the venue. She wasn't sure if she could arrange for another vegetarian platter for me. We were led into the pavilion where guests in clusters of six sat on floor cushions around wooden tables set under small thatched roofs in the open. These five-foot tables were laden mostly with a variety of meat and some fruit; the plat du jour at each was a roasted pig suspended from an elaborate frame.
Mrs. Indira Gandhi and her royal host King Tāufaʻāhau Tupou IV were seated along with other dignitaries on a raised platform, and at some distance away. Suddenly, I remembered that the same King had visited India in 1976. Along with him came his custom made large chair which, I was told, travelled with him whenever he visited a foreign country. Even by the Tongan standards, HRH Tupou IV was fairly large and heavy. $
While I waited for my vegetarian meal to arrive, I hardly saw any member of our delegation partaking of the 'culinary masterpiece', whereas, the pièce de résistance seemed to be a hit with the local populace. I was transfixed to see a sophisticated lady tearing the flesh of a dangling piglet with her long-nailed fingers. The few fruits laid on my table had been taken. I grabbed the lone tender coconut lest that also disappear and perforce I'd go without a morsel. While the PM and her officials were at the State banquet in the evening, I had to contend with bread and butter at the hotel. Next morning we reached Nadi from where we boarded our AI plane to go to Melbourne, Australia. After two days of being almost famished, I had a gratifying meal on board our AI flight.
Sudhir Tandon is a former President, Osian's Connoisseurs of Art, Founding Executive Director, LSTV & Additional Director General, Doordarshan.