Editorial comment: Our special place in the world

Professor Brij Vilash Lal. Picture: SUPPLIED.

I couldn’t help but be drawn to the constant flow of emotions that came in the wake of the death of Professor Brij Lal on Christmas Day.

People from all walks of life shared their inner-most feelings. There was no holding back for many.

Although he wrote books and learned articles in academic journals, Professor Lal also wrote, when he had time, for The Fiji Times.

So he and I shared a correspondence. And what came through so often in his writing was that this man, whose intellect would carry him in any place in the world, regarded the country of his birth — our country — as a special place.

The good professor came from a farming family in Tabia, Vanua Levu. They weren’t rich, but that is from where he rose — to become an emeritus professor of Pacific and Asian history at the Australian National University.

He was your average farm boy, but he had it in him to become someone who would be held in very high regard.

He would eventually walk the corridors of the well-established, in many countries around the world, before he finally settled in Brisbane, Australia. Yet he never lost that touch of humility and appreciation of others.

Today we look at that connection. From Tabia to Brisbane! From a farm boy to an emeritus professor! Prof Lal’s life leaves many lessons to appreciate and value.

There are platforms for us to achieve, or aspire for. Yet despite the fact that he lived in a more developed country, with better available resources and the potential for a better life, Prof Lal never forgot his roots on Vanua Levu. He yearned to return to see once more the “green undulating hills of Tabia”.

He considered it a special place. We are fortunate to live in a beautiful country abundant with rich resources.

We are friendly people who have learnt to embrace multiracialism, religion and ethnicity. In the face of all our differences, we have learnt to live together, appreciating these differences, and instinctively embracing them.

For his part, Prof Lal was proud to tell the world about Tabia. He lived with very strong memories of his childhood, and the special connection he had with people he knew and grew up with.

Perhaps, when we are able to take a moment, to get a jolt of reality, to truly appreciate what we have now, and the endless possibilities, we should reflect on how hard it would be to be denied the right to return home.

In one of his most recent pieces for The Fiji Times, Prof Lal wrote: “Fiji is a bit like Churchill’s Russia, a ‘riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma’.

Here is a beautiful country full of a talented population, sophisticated infrastructure and abundant natural resources which is sadly prone to debilitating self-inflicted wounds that hobble its present and dent its future.”

Prof Lal epitomised the value Fijians have for their connection to their homeland.

In the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, we are reminded about this sense of appreciation and value. We are reminded about who we are — Fijians!

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