In the land of my father
30 July, 2017, 12:00 am
THERE’S something about the Grand Pacific Hotel that instantly makes you feel like you’ve entered a different time zone. Perhaps the antique furnishings in the foyer and the framed pictures on the wall of a bygone era made the grand old lady the perfect place to relive history.
And this seemed the case when we met Australian Labor Senator Lisa Singh on Tuesday to recount her family heritage and link to Fiji. Her week-long visit was one she felt was “long overdue”, having last visited her family in Bua, Vanua Levu when she was 12 years old.
That was 33 years ago. But vivid memories of life with her paternal family during that visit have not faded, and reliving those experiences that Tuesday afternoon felt as though it happened only yesterday.
Lisa, who became the first person of South Asian descent to be elected to the Australian Parliament in 2010, representing the state of Tasmania as a Labor senator, is an accomplished daughter of Fiji through her paternal heritage to Luvuluvu in Bua on Vanua Levu.
She was re-elected for a second term during the 2016 Federal election, securing 20,741 below-the-line votes to overturn the Australian Labour Party’s ticket order and become the 10th elected senator for Tasmania.
Her political career stems from the inspiration of her grandfather, Ram Jati Singh (OBE), who was a Fijian of Indian descent, landlord, farmer and schoolteacher elected to the Legislative Council in the 1996 general election on the National Federation Party ticket.
He was re-elected in the 1968 by-election with an increased majority. A passionate advocate for reform, Ram Jati made a substantial contribution to Fiji and was bestowed the Order of the British Empire by the Queen of England through the nomination of the then prime minister Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara for his service to the community and people of Fiji.
His drive and dedication were attributes Lisa remembered when she met him in Fiji more than three decades ago.
Lisa’s paternal great grandfather, Lachman Singh, was an indentured labourer in Fiji and left India in 1902 on a month-long voyage to chase dreams of economic prosperity. He was 19 years old at the time when he boarded the ship Virawa (SS) at depot number 592.
On his Man’s Emigration Pass on the Colonial Emigration Form No.44, Lachman was the son of Bhoop Singh from the village of Lalpura in the district of Gowaliar. He was a labourer from the Thakur caste (Madaujia).
He married a local girl, the daughter of a policeman, had Lisa’s grandfather, Ram Jati, who was born on a boat during their travel from Taveuni to Suva. Her grandfather married Ram Varti, daughter of Ram Dour, from Nausori. They had sons Nidhendra, Raman, Narendra and Uppi.
“My grandad was once given a Resuscitation Certificate by the Royal Humane Society in England in 1964 for saving a young Fijian girl’s life,” said Lisa, citing an article on the heroic act published in The Fiji Times on December 10, 1963 under the title ‘Bua Indian Farmer Saves Life of Fijian Child’.
“He was travelling on a bus and saw her on the side of the road. He had to gain the trust of the local community to perform the resuscitation. He revived her after she had almost drowned. He learnt CPR (cardiopulmonary resuscitation) when he joined the Scouts.”
Nidhendra or uncle Nidhi to Lisa, he is Fiji’s counsellor to the Fiji mission in Brussels working in the Fiji sugar export trade to the European Union and other countries.
Her uncle Raman is a lawyer and politician who contested the 1994 election and won the Bua district seat in the House of Representatives. He also contested other elections including the 2014 election.
Uncle Narendra worked as a civil servant for more than 20 years after his tertiary education in Australia. He was district administrator and later appointed Commissioner Western. He also helped form and headed Fiji’s Economic Development Board, which is the Fiji Trade and Investment Board.
He also served as the deputy ambassador for Fiji to the UN and wrote a book about the family’s tragic shipwreck in Bligh Water titled With the Gods and the Sea, an experience Lisa’s father, Uppi, shares from his memories as a 10-year-old boy when it happened.
Her father, on the other hand, studied at Dilkusha Boys School and Lelean Memorial School in Nausori until the age of 17 when he left Fiji for Australia where he attended Hobart High School and later the University of Tasmania.
He worked in Tasmania at the Edgell Pea factory in Devonport before going on to work in finance and administration at the University of Tasmania where he retired after 35 years of service. He has lived in Tasmania since 1963.
Lisa was born in Hobart and has lived in Tasmania most of her life. Her mother, Lorraine, is from Sydney. Her father remarried and had her sister, Abilene, who also accompanied her on her Fiji trip.
Lisa has two sons — Darcy, 23, and Jack, 21, Lupton.
Her trip to Fiji 33 years ago was a childhood experience she continues to cherish. It was experiencing a different lifestyle from the urban way of life in Australia.
“Walking around barefoot for sure, that’s what I remember, and travelling in their Ram Jati Singh & Sons pick-up truck,” Lisa recalled.
“There was a piece of wood, a plank, at the back and we’d all get in and hold on. And the road was quite bumpy and rough, muddy dirt road and off you go. It was very adventurous, something like out of Raiders of the Lost Ark. My sister wasn’t born then so dad brought me to Fiji.
“I remember one night, it’s funny what you remember, but I was tucked in bed under the mosquito net, really tucked in tight, when all of a sudden I heard this noise. It sounded like clapping and it started getting faster and faster.
“I sat up and looked down and there were all these toads everywhere in my bedroom and I screamed in fright. Then there were things like geckos on the wall, it was a completely different environment. Here, you are so in touch with nature, it’s like nature is in your face.
“There was a local store, which was also the local post office, and they let me in behind the counter so I felt like a shopkeeper. Walking. I did a lot of walking when I last came and we’d come across Fijian communities, villages and sit down for a chat. We would sometimes sit under this bure and share stories with my grandparents.”
At the time, Lisa said, her grandmother would make the best food as she watched her cook roti on a metal placed on the open fire.
“She was an incredibly strong woman and that strength dad’s shared with me, about her strength through the shipwreck. It was a huge ordeal and dad was only 10 years old when it happened.”
The true-life drama of her dad, uncles and grandparents in the South Pacific Ocean is a family legend and one her dad often shares with the family.
According to Lisa, her dad, uncles Narendra and Nidhi, and her grandparents drifted on a raft without food and water in Bligh Water between the two main islands.
“It is a remarkable story of the human spirit in the face of danger. My dad was going to school in Suva as there was no school in Bua after Year 5. As a 10-year-old boy, he set out with his family on their boat, Tui Bua, from Viti Levu to Vanua Levu,” she said.
“Their journey by sea between Fiji’s two largest islands was expected to take about four hours. During the day, it was seen as safer because of visibility of jutting rocks and passages between reefs.”
However, they never reached their destination Ellington wharf, which was an old sugar loading port. Their journey was interrupted by a fierce rain storm, which left them shipwrecked and adrift.
“They spent three harrowing days and nights afloat, clinging on to a makeshift raft made from two single beds and an oil drum,” Lisa shared.
“Without food or water and with sharks swimming by, they were almost certain to die. But after three days drifting through the Bligh Water, they were rescued by local fishermen. Their survival was indeed a miracle.”
Her grandmother, Ram Varti, learnt to swim from her many days washing clothes down at the Rewa River. According to dad Uppi, Ram Varti was one of the reasons they survived.
“My mum was from Nausori and you know the Rewa River is not that far so she learnt to swim. If she didn’t know how to swim when that ordeal happened, we would be gone,” Uppi explained as daughter Lisa looked on.
“When we were shipwrecked, my mum prayed to all the Hindu gods she could think of. We floated on the raft when it was high tide and when the tide went out, the reef would surface and we would rest on the reef.
“We didn’t have many clothes on because it had all been washed away. It came to a stage where my dad said it was now survival of the fittest but I remember my mum saying if anything was going to happen, if we die then we all die together. We consumed so much salt water and felt dizzy.
“We sat where the reef at one point and the tide was coming in when suddenly there was a shark swimming at the bottom. My mum said there was something at the bottom, but my father assured her it was her turban, he didn’t want to scare her but it was shark. When we were rescued, my dad just collapsed, it was a miracle we survived.”
Years later, old school friend, Professor Vijay Mishra, wrote in a book titled Bitter Sweet about how Uppi came to Dilkusha Boys School in 1995 and shared a desk with him, his skin had broken into sores and had a yellowish sickly look to it.
On Lisa’s Fiji travel itinerary is a ferry ride from Nabouwalu to Natovi in the path of her grandfather’s journey on the boat that wrecked and sank in the 1950s.
Fiji visit after 33 years
This personal journey was one Lisa had planned for a very long time but the life of politics meant her life was ruled by the Parliament sitting schedule, which sits 18 weeks a year on top of the committee work as senators that take them all over the country. But this time around, she made it her goal to reach Fiji with her dad and sister.
“This connection is so important to me. Australia is a fantastic country. We have a proud multicultural way of life but because of that, it does make you want to explore your own multicultural background more and more,” she said.
“And that’s what this trip’s been about. This is certainly not the last time I’ll visit. I want to frequent Fiji more often and also to just look at ways the Australia-Fiji relationship can be strengthened. My first impression of Suva — amazing! I looked out the window as the plane was landing and the sun was going down, I saw this lush tropical landscape scattered about with a few houses and I thought, ‘oh wow, this is paradise, such a magical place’.
“At home I get a lot of aches and pain in my back but as soon as we got here, it just goes away. It’s something about the Fiji climate that makes my body very happy to be here,” she gushed.
Lisa paid a special visit to Shiri Gurunanak Khalsa College and Primary School as well as Luvuluvu Estate where her family was raised. She also visited Bua Primary School, which was established by her grandfather.
“Today (Friday) we went in a small speed boat down Bua River to its mouth at Bua Bay. We followed the same journey from where my father and grandparents set out on their boat Tui Bua before it’s wreck,” she said.
“Dad shouted out ‘bula!’ and spoke in Fijian to the people living in the villages along the river and pointed out the mangrove forests. My sister Abilene went for a swim in bay and in the far distance I could just make out Viti Levu.
“I stood on a sand cay and thought of how it must have been for my dad floating in that vast amount of water for all those days.
“It was a really special journey to take.”
For Lisa, this personal journey is one she will always treasure and appreciate knowing the land her forefathers came to call home will hold a special place in her heart.
She also hopes her successes and accomplishments will inspire other young girls and women to work hard and persevere in life despite the odds stacked against them.