I had the chance of meeting Pooja, whose family is Fijan and of South Asian descent. She talked to me about how Indians or Pakistanis either group her into being Indian, or reject her as being South Asian at all.
“People ask me what are you and who are you then automatically choose to identify me as Indian because of my looks. When you do that you erase my history and the history of millions of girmits/coolies who’ve been taken from their mother and shipped off to different lands. I don’t know where in South Asia my ancestors are from, but I am part of the South Asian diaspora. I am Indian and I am Fijan. All of my identities are valid and all of my history makes me who I am. We are a lost history, an untold story which is time to be brought into light.”
Throughout the shoot we talked a lot about how no one really talks about how millions of Indians were sent to different British colonies to work on little to no wage under poor working conditions. It’s almost as if people have swept the Indentured Labor System under the carpet a few decades ago. Not every South Asian is going to be fair skinned with straight hair, eating jalebis and rotis, or listening to Bollywood music on weekends. Indian culture has spread to other countries and blended with other cultures.
Starting in 1834, the British Colonies targeted people in rural India to use and transport them as indentured labour workers. They were taken to places such as Fiji, Trinidad, Malaysia, and South Africa. Many of the indentured workers were illiterate and could not understand the contract they were signing. However, they were told that they would leave their home for a few years, paid wage, and will be able to return to their home country. Little did they know that these promises were not going to be fulfilled. They were treated poorly on the ship as they were transported, and their working conditions were also severe. They were treated as slaves.
The indentured workers began to assimilate to the culture they were now in while at the same time keeping the culture and traditions of their family history.
It is unfair to invalidate or question someone being South Asian if their family was part of the indenture system. Nowadays, because of Instagram and social media, when a majority of us picture a South Asian girl in our minds then it will be a fair skinned girl wearing a lengha, teeka, and gold jewelry. Similarly when we begin to picture a South Asian boy, he’s is also fair skinned and wearing a kurta. There are many types of people within the South Asian diaspora from Siddis to Indo-Fijans and we need to recognize and represent each.
As an artist whose goal is to help bring representation to all South Asians, it’s important to me to bring awareness to all groups of the South Asian diaspora regardless of if their family still resides there or not.
P.S I kept this informational blurb short, so I do encourage you all to research more about the Indentured Labour System and the entire South Asian diaspora.
Enjoy these photos I took of Pooja!
Her instagram: @poojapallavi