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A brilliant

Siteri Sauvakacolo
Sunday, August 13, 2017

BEARING witness…

Does this word ring a bell?

I tried my best to put together what the term meant but asked for Mr Google's assistance and the response was just a short and simple one with a heavy meaning — to show that something exists or is true as in the term "his success bears witness to the value of hard work".

And this is exactly the fruit of hard work for one of Fiji's renowned sons in the global academic arena, Professor Brij Lal.

This name is synonymous not only in Fiji but in many renowned universities across the globe.

Recently a book titled Bearing Witness was launched at the Australian National University to honour the life of ProfLal.

Bearing Witness is the story of a remarkable man, a remarkable life journey, and a varied, rich and transformative set of intellectual, moral and cultural contributions to the world.

This sentiment was echoed by Prof Michael Wesley, the ANU dean for the College of Asia and the Pacific at the launch of the book of essays — Bearing Witness.

The book was edited by Doug Munro and Jack Corbet Festschrift for Prof Lal.

"Brij the man comes across in Bearing Witness in so many senses," Prof Wesley said.

"The first thing that strikes you is the enormous affection felt for him by his colleagues, as evidenced by the poems written by Tessa Morris-Suzuki and Robert Cribb.

"The really good festschrift is the true friend of the intellectual poseur — the person who believes he (and yes I use the gendered pronoun deliberately here) can speak with authority about an author whose primary works he's never read.

"I just escape this charge because I have read Brij's work and benefited greatly from having done so for 30 years now."

Prof Wesley highlighted that he first came across Brij's clear prose and unfaltering judgements as an undergraduate while studying the first Fiji coup in 1987.

In those pre-internet days, he shared that dog-eared copies of Prof Brij's articles would be shared around an undergraduate study group preparing essays on the coup.

"Inevitably, as the subsequent coups happened, thankfully in the internet age, I would Google Brij's name to access his dependably lucid and searching analyses of what had happened.

"Bearing Witness is a really, really good festschrift, and for reasons that go beyond what I've just said.

"It is a dangerous festschrift, as The Critical Spirit was. It is the sort of book that once you pick up, it drags you in and fascinates you to the end, and then sends you off to the internet and the library chasing down intriguing further reading.

"But most importantly, it is dangerous because of its subject matter."

Prof Wesley said that was too modest to mention was how much he himself was a major part of this culture: interested, engaging, highly collaborative, dazzlingly well-read.

Born in rural Labasa to illiterate parents, he shared how Prof Brij's life is a story of a restless intellect, great passion, dollops of good luck, and a ferocious appetite for grinding hard work

"Of course there was the magic of the written word — literatures and manifestoes from his reflections of his early studies at USP, at UBC, and then his arrival at ANU give us fascinating snapshots of those institutions at those times.

"And of course the story of Brij's ongoing entanglement with the politics of his place of birth, as it succumbed to the agonies of successive coups and growing inter-ethnic and communal antagonisms."

Prof Wesley highlighted that what stands out from these pages are his moral clarity, his courage, but also his deep pain at being cut off from his homeland.

And through this remarkable life journey was a scholar, an intellectual, an aesthete whose writings were truly profound and transformative

Brij's intellectual contributions can be clustered around at least three themes, and his contributions in any one of these three themes would be sufficient to mark him as a major scholar - let alone all three.

At the outset, Prof Wesley noted Brij as a quantitative historian, whose painstaking statistical mining of colonial immigration data became the basis of his PhD thesis, first book, and an enduring masterwork call Girmitiyas: Origins of the Fiji Indians.

The work of Prof Brij also stressed out to the books, papers and articles that followed the statistics which established a rock solid foundation for the rich communal histories that were the lives of Indian migrants communities in Fiji.

"Another theme, of course, were Brij's deep analyses of Fijian politics, and his enduring analyses of the causes of Fiji's political instability.

"These are works of political science, history, constitutional analysis and anthropology. If I can sum them up in one term, it'd probably be political ethnography.

"Glancing back through them one can't help but be struck by their freshness and immediacy but also by their enduring importance."

This latest collection of essays publication outlined the life of Prof Brij and his important pieces of work which have struck the lives of many academics and have even been used by many for research works and many others.

"Surely Brij has demonstrated to us that there are many ways of telling important stories, and perhaps it will be through his faction that his enduring contributions will live on most vitally," Prof Wesley concluded.

In acknowledging the great work by his fellow academics, Professor Brij showed his deep appreciation as a festschrift which is a rare, special honour in the academy.

"To have the respect and affection of your esteemed peers at the end of your career, in my case over 30 years is very special.

"In this case, scholars from the around the world: South Africa, Kenya, UK, the US, Hawaii, Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific Islands have written warmly about me: that is exhilarating."

Professor Brij Lal and his wife Dr Padma Lal have been banned indifinitely from coming to Fiji.

"My life's work has not been in vain. I am particularly touched by the memoirs of my graduate students whose lives I have evidently touched."

He also said it was sad to note that the life ban on them would not be lifted any time soon.

"We have done no wrong, We have broken no law, we are not criminals.

"All that I have done is stand up for the values of true representative democracy, processes of transparent governance, the rue of law and free, unfettered speech.

"They may ban me from Fiji, but they will not be able to ban my ideas nor steal my memory. 'The music must play on; the lights must never go out.' Fiji will always be in my heart wherever I live."

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