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Monday, March 12, 2001

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Indo-Fijians put woes behind for 'Holi'

By Amit Baruah

MUANIWENI (Fiji), MARCH 11. Even before millions of Indians woke up to play Holi this morning, Indo-Fijians were completing their unique celebration of ``phagua'' as Holi is known in this distant South Pacific nation.

Six-and-a-half hours ahead of IST, Indo-Fijians had begun moving in their ``mandlis'' singing ``chautal'', an oral tradition of celebration, when those in the land of their origin were still sound asleep. For the Indian residents of Muaniweni, it was the first celebration since May 1999, when several houses were burnt and stoned after Mr. George Speight and his band of armed men attempted to take over the Government in the capital Suva, some 35 km from here.

Some of those who were singing ``chautal'' in a small temple on the banks of the Waidina (good water) river had only returned in January from the refugee camp in Lautoka in the western part of Viti Levu, Fiji's biggest island on which Suva is also situated.

``Bhole Baba maha bardani hain... bhare pichkari Kanha mare... ik bar khele Kunwar-Kanhaiya, ik bar khele Radha holi ho... (Bhole Baba gives to all... Krishna sprays coloured water, first he plays with Radha and she with him),'' the sounds of the chautal sound loud and clear.

It is evident that these people here, who have now returned and repaired their homes after being attacked by persons whose motive was to terrorise the hapless Indians, were trying to put their woes behind them.

It was also evident that these Indians, whose forefathers (some 60,000 persons in all between 1879 and 1916 to work in sugarcane plantations) were brought by the colonial Britishers from India, have preserved their Indian culture and traditions.

However, in urban Suva, ``phagua'' didn't create much an impact. But in Muaniweni and in other areas where Indians practicing agriculture live, it is very much alive and kicking.

After singing the chautal in three small temples, the mandli moved on to an Indo-Fijian house where we were served ``gulgulas'' - a sweet pakora and some juice.

Here also, we are liberally sprayed with purple- coloured water not in a pichkari (water piston of the type used by Lord Krishna) but in a Coca Cola bottle. Mr. Mann Bhori, a farmer, tells me the coloured water has been made from the ``abir'' flower, available in plenty in Fiji.

However, the celebration is not over. As we sit down to hear some more chautal from the mandli (the tempo is rising as the day progresses) in Mr. Bhori's house, the owner comes out with some Johnson's baby powder, which he proceeds to smear with great zeal on the faces of all his guests - an ingenious solution to make up for the lack of gulal, the coloured powder which is a must for Holi in much of north India.

For more than 300,000 Indians, for whom Fiji is the only home they have known, there was no Diwali celebration last year following the ouster of the Mahendra Chaudhry Government and the attacks on Indian homes in several parts of the country. In a comment published in the weekly Ramneek Jyoti, one of the two Hindi language newspapers here, the author makes out a case for ethnic Indians celebrating Holi.

``Gat varsh mein satta paltav se desh me jo khalbali machi usse tyohar manane ki umang hee nahin rahi. Pichle saal Diwali ki raatbhi sunsaan andhere mein soi pari rahi. Is sal Holi ke tyohar ko lekar bhi kuch sansthaon ne hall machaya ki Holi na manayee jaye. Lekin jo ho gaya so ho gaya - Holi to yahi kehti hai... (Last year, after the overthrow of the Government, there was considerable consternation during which the desire to celebrate vanished. Diwali was a dark and lonely night. Some groups even argued that Holi should not be celebrated. But what has happened has happened - that's the message of Holi),'' the newspaper noted.

However, as the men and boys of Muaniweni celebrated Holi (women were conspicuous by their absence) one incident indicated that tensions were only dormant. At one point, the mandli wanted to proceed with their chautal singing only to be told by an ethnic Fijian, who owned the land on which the little Kali temple is situated, that they should not do so since it was a Saturday and involved religious observances for his family.

``But this is our big festival,'' one of the Indians told him. There were some murmurs in the group, but finally after ``biniti'' (prayer), the Indians moved to another temple nearby to proceed with their singing. The decision to move on and not argue is a sign of the ground reality for ethnic Indians. Holi, or no Holi, signs of assertiveness are not welcome here despite the fact that Indians have economic clout in this country.

In his isolated home, Bijay Dutt says that he sleeps in his bed now, but not soundly. Others used to go and sleep in the nearby forests in May last year for fear of being attacked after sending their womenfolk away.

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