Year 8 elective choices were due the next day. My eyes travelled to the bottom of the page where a line sat unsigned. Mum has given me an ultimatum: “You can learn to play the keyboard or you don’t do music at all.” An odd curveball considering that I originally told her I was planning on learning guitar.
I was 13 and so I frowned at the injustice of it all. “What? Why?”
“Bhabi, Aunty’s daughter, Priya? She plays the harmonium in Centre, you could do the same. Otherwise, no.” I could tell by the dangerous edge clipping her voice that that was the end of this discussion.
I should’ve been happy that I’d even gotten half of what I wanted but I couldn’t stop thinking about the compromise that transpired. I could only play the keyboard so I can play at the centre which was our place of worship, our Hindu church. My mother’s logic seeped through the subtext: It’s got to be worthwhile to you, to us. Picking a music elective in Year 8 can’t lead to a remotely stable career option for a Fijian-Indian girl in 2010 but it could make my family look good if I did what my mother asked. My sister and I learned from a young age that every choice we made had to be wrung out for the opportunities they could give.
My parent’s own choice to leave Fiji for a better life when I was a baby was not an uncommon one. The allure of better opportunities overseas combined with a fragile political climate in Fiji convinced many to leave, majority of them from Fijian-Indian backgrounds. This fixation with a supposed better life where the grass is greener and opportunity rife is coded into our DNA as the descendants of Girmitiyas. I remember when a classically blond-headed blue-eyed boy named Jake, remarked in a bored tone that it was cool that as a Fijian-Indian I had one Indian parent and one Fijian parent. I rolled my eyes, the burger joint we both worked at spinning in my vision. I corrected him, explaining the history of the Girmitiyas, how my grandmother’s grandfather was brought from India to Fiji, coerced by British colonisers into indentured labour working on sugarcane farms for a next to nothing wage just so he could try and build a different life for himself from scratch. Jake rolled his eyes back when he said, “I actually don’t care that much. Pass the buns.”
I remember when a classically blond-headed blue-eyed boy named Jake, remarked in a bored tone that it was cool that as a Fijian Indian I had one Indian parent and one Fijian parent.
That was the first time that it occurred to me that people in Australia didn’t know what the term Fijian-Indian meant. Why would they? There is no call for our school curriculum to teach us about our Pacific neighbours. No, because that would open up a can of worms into Australia’s own history of the ever-wide British colonialism and blackbirding, the indentured labour and slavery of Fijians, kidnapped and made to work in Australia’s sugarcane farms.
Simplified, we Fijian-Indians are not iTaukei, Indigneous Fijians which Fiji rightly belongs to. But Fiji is still thought of as home to my parents and their parents and theirs. Since the British had brought Girmitiyas from India as indentured labourers to be left in Fiji, we found ourselves spreading to Australia, Aotearoa, Canada, and elsewhere. Thus, for me to claim Fiji as home like my parents do, feels ingenuine; I have more in common with tourists visiting for a holiday than with Fijian-Indians returning to the islands they grew up on. The legacy of the Girmitiyas lives on as we continue searching for that fabled better life. My parents did so by working three jobs between them, always looking for ways we could become smarter, richer and envied throughout the Fijian-Indian community.
I have more in common with tourists visiting for a holiday than with Fijian-Indians returning to the islands they grew up on.
But at 14, all I cared about was my music elective. I thought about appealing my case about the guitar to Pa but I knew it was useless. School was Mum’s domain; he didn’t like getting involved. Various sentiments about my sister and I getting degrees was his sole contribution to the academic careers of his children. It was also unwise to involve him. Recently, our nights would go one of two ways, a 50/50 chance that Pa would be met with either silence or Mum would start an argument when he came home.
I wondered if the only thing holding them back from getting divorced was our culture. A divorce would ruin the picture-perfect image my parents worked to the bone for. It would destroy the union between two families who arranged their daughter to marry their son and would cast the shadow of a broken home over my sister and I to the community Mum so wanted to impress. But in that moment, clutching the permission slip in my hand, I watched Dad disassociate on the couch by flicking through the news not paying attention to anything or anyone around him; I prayed that a divorce would happen.
As I walked to my room to put the signed note in my bag, I laughed at the idea that the divorce would mean finally having something in common with some of my Australian friends, instead of them teasing me about how I was a try-hard at school, when I always tried to weasel out their marks to know if I had gotten better than them.
My parents never officially announced their divorce. But later that same year Mum rushed out of the house one day, leaving her clothes and all her things behind. Blaming her for ruining her marriage, I refused to visit Mum or speak to her, cutting all ties then. I watched Pa become skinny and gaunt, not eating or sleeping, he just kept working instead. My sister and I eavesdropped on hushed phone calls to relatives in Fiji who kept trying to fix what was irrevocably broken, confirming what we expected. I leaned into the divorce in all my selfishness and morbid curiosity. I couldn’t look past my imagined freedoms to see those 14 years of my parents’ life demolished in a manner of months.
In this new life, Pa went from a 12 hour/seven-day worker to a single father who had two teenage daughters overnight, ironically, ending up with more tabs on us than Mum ever had. We went to the Centre afterwards once, twice, and then abandoned it completely, not feeling God’s presence so much as the presence of those looking down on us. Family members picked sides. Family friends who we desperately asked for loans to stop our childhood home and our shop being surrendered in the divorce, awkwardly disentangled themselves from our complicated life with apologetic smiles and sad shakes of the head. The biggest comeuppance was not the parties that I didn’t get to go to, it was the village that left when Mum did, and the life and culture that I recklessly threw away. At 24, I understand that Mum’s pushing, although misguided in method, was formed by her own experiences, and was her way of trying to open up the world to us. At the end of the day, being an immigrant came with too many expectations that neither Mum, Pa, nor I could ever live up to.
Varuna Naicker is a Fijian-Indian writer from Penrith, immigrating here when her parents moved from Fiji in 1999. She holds a Bachelor of Communication degree and a Master degree in Public Policy and Governance.
This article is part of SBS Voices' Straight Up Islander series, showcasing the work of writers with ancestral ties across Oceania. It has been edited by Winnie Dunn, in partnership with Sweatshop Literacy Movement Inc.