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A trailblazer in indenture and a perfect gentleman

Professor Brij Lal.

Professor Brij Lal.

Published Jan 7, 2022

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Prof Brij Maharaj

Opinion: Professor Brij Lal, pioneering trailblazer in the field of indentured labour and their origins in India, passed away on 25 December 2021, just after the publication of his last edited book which focused on autobiographical reflections of scholars on indenture, including South Africans like Professors Goolam Vahed, Kalpana Hiralal (UKZN); Ashwin Desai (UJ), Rajend Mesthrie (UCT) and Uma Mesthrie (UWC).

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Blessed by Mother Saraswathi (Hindu Goddess of learning) with an extra-ordinary intellect, Professor Brij Lal was a multi-talented, internationally renowned scholar, activist for human rights and social justice (for which he was exiled from his beloved Fiji and had to move to Australia), with enviable writing skills

I knew Professor Brij Lal for about twenty years. He was the quintessential historian, and as an urban-political geographer, I was very much an interloper in South Asian diaspora studies, our point of intersection. Despite our disciplinary differences, we shared several similarities – we had a common first name (I respectfully called him Bada Bhai (big brother), and he affectionately called me Chota Bhai (younger brother); we were both third generation descendants of indenture labourers from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, respectively; we followed cricket avidly; were fond of Indian music; had a self-deprecating sense of humour; opposed religious fundamentalism; and perhaps, above all, were committed to public intellectualism.

He nominated me to serve on the International Advisory Board of the Global Girmit Institute, and its flagship journal, Indenture Papers.

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He taught history at several tertiary institutions, including the University of the South Pacific, the University of Papua New Guinea, the University of Hawaii at Manoa and the Australian National University where he was Professor of Pacific and Asian History from 1990-2016.

Professor Brij Lal’s scholarship had three strands – history of indentured labourers and their descendants; political and social challenges in Fiji; and experiments in creative writing by blending facts and fiction, which he called “faction”.

His ‘faction’ writing was very evident in his book, Road from Mr Tulsi’s Store. In my review of this book, I contended that: “Drawing from the experiences of the indentured Fiji community, Brij Lal has in this collection fused fact and fiction with eloquence and integrity and skill and passion, the hallmarks of his scholarship to produce a masterly work of enduring value about the life and journeys of a people in flux, the Fiji Indians. An exemplary achievement. Comparisons with VS Naipaul’s House for Mr Biswas are inevitable”.

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He straddled the worlds of an academic historian; political activist and public intellectual. He said: “I think there’s a tension in my life: I inhabit the interface between scholarship and practical action … Being an academic is not only an occupation, it is a sacred responsibility”. Professor Brij Lal emphasised that he wrote “not as some casual, disinterested bystander on the side lines passing lofty judgement. I write as an involved insider. I live within my history, not above or outside it. I declare my hand at the outset so that the reader is fully aware of my stance”.

He believed that any study of history must have contemporary relevance. At a public address on Fiji Remembrance Day in 2014, Professor Brij Lal said: “One of my life’s ambition[s] has been to remember what others have forgotten or chosen to forget—to give our people [the indentured] a voice and a modicum of humanity, to give them a place at the table of history… I do not celebrate struggles and sacrifices and sufferings of our people. What I marvel at is how ordinary people did extraordinary things in extraordinary circumstances”.

In a career spanning over forty years, Professor Brij Lal had a phenomenal record of peer-reviewed publications, which few peers could match. His prolific scholarship included: ten books; thirty edited volumes, including the magnum opus, The Encyclopaedia of the Indian Diaspora; and scores of peer-reviewed journal articles.

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He was dismayed by political developments in Fiji. He was not an ‘armchair critic’ but was actively involved in trying to contribute to a better society. He served on the Fiji Constitution Review Commission in the 1990s which influenced the adoption of Fiji’s democratic constitution. Professor Brij Lal argued that “Fiji was a country of cacophonous voices, sometimes discordant even, but that was a condition for a vibrant democratic society. The Parliament was not a bull pit for belligerent politicians with insufferable egos and overweening ambition. The Parliament was the people’s house to discuss matters with dignity and decorum (and, yes, a bit of pungent humour, too).

He was vocal in his opposition to the military coups which displaced democratically elected governments. He hoped that “the coup culture of the last three decades in Fiji will not permanently corrode the spirit of critical enquiry”. He argued that the coups “were not about race and are best thought of as a competition between vested interests to maintain or expand their own power”.

In 2009, the Fiji military junta deported him from Fiji and he and his wife Padma were banned for life from returning to the country. He told my colleague Professor Goolam Vahed that the ban “is so silly. I lecture to students in Fiji via skype. They see my face, hear my voice, read my words and discuss my ideas and yet the government won’t allow us in. It is petty vindictiveness, … They can banish me but they can’t ignore my work”.

He was critical of “those in Fiji who could, but did not speak out against the violations sustained to its civic and international integrity … One cannot be neutral on a moral battlefield, and for me what is happening in Fiji raises both political as well as moral questions: the fate of democracy, the rule of law, freedom of speech … I will speak out whenever and wherever I see injustice and oppression.”

Professor Brij Lal had some foreboding or premonition that he had limited time, as is evident in his opinion piece published in the Islands Business on 30 November 2021: ‘Three scores and ten’ is the age allotted to humans, the Good Book tells us. Modern medicine might add 10 odd years, but the end is in sight, the shadow lengthening visibly. By that measure, my time is up or will soon be ...”. He concluded by quoting TS Eliot: “Where is the life we have lost in living? Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information”?

Notwithstanding his outstanding academic achievements, Professor Brij Lal was above all, a kind, humble, simple human being – in many respects a perfect gentleman.

*Maharaj is a Professor, University of KwaZulu-Natal, Durban, South Africa

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