Reflections on Subaltern Narratives in Fiji Hindi Literature by way of an imagined interview by Vijay Mishra

1.Why this book?

Only 400,000 people worldwide speak Fiji Hindi. Of that number, less than half read the Devanagari (Sanskrit) script in which this language is written. There was then a challenge: How to expose this language to a wider readership? I chose to engage with the question of exposure through a close reading of two remarkable novels in Fiji Hindi by Subramani: Dauka Puran (2001) and Fiji Maa (2018).

2.What is the central theme of the book?

The central thesis of the book is the role of a subaltern language in expressing the life-worlds of the people who speak it. Taking up the insights of subaltern theory, it is argued that only through an understanding of the subaltern’s own voice (and given in her own language) can one understand what their life-worlds are like. There is a close correlation between language, thought and reality, and that correlation is explored at length in the book. The book, then, argues that the subaltern speaks but in her own language. A serious scholar must come to terms with their language.

3.Is there an account of the subaltern language in the book?

The book turns to historical linguistics to explain the evolution and transmission of the language. The origins of the language go back to the depots in Calcutta where the coolies spent some months before departure as indentured labourers. They came, in the main, from the Hindi heartland where people spoke mutually intelligible dialects of Hindi. Social levelling (the vast majority were illiterate coolies from a wide range of Indian religions and castes) produced linguistic levelling and that process continued when they came to the sugar plantations.

4.How have you made the language accessible to the reader?

The source texts are written in the Hindi (Devanagari/Sanskrit) script. To make the passages cited from the novels accessible, all quotations are given in the roman script (with appropriate diacritical marks) followed by a translation in English. All obscure references are explained in the discussion of the quoted passages that follow.

5.How have you framed the novels with reference to world literature?

Even subaltern novels are not free from influences, and the novels discussed in this book are no exception. Exemplary picaresque novels such as Cervantes’ Don Quixote and the anonymous novel Lazarillo de Tormes are an obvious influence on Subramani’s novels. But so is Rabelais’ Gargantua and Pantagruel where the scatological and the carnivalesque figure prominently. The book also uses Bakhtin’s foundational study of Rabelais and the carnivalesque.

6.Is there a subtitle which you have not given?

The erased subtitle of the book was: ‘Can the subaltern Speak?’ This subtitle was meant to address Gayatri Chakraborty Spivak’s early pronouncement (later modified) that the subaltern cannot speak. The book takes this up but claims that the subaltern can speak but only in their own language and only to themselves. This issue is taken up in the Conclusion of the book.

7.How will this book be remembered?

This book will be remembered for its originality and for the space it provides for writing in a vernacular that will not be placed on par with national vernaculars that have their own long histories. The Fiji Hindi demotic has a history of some 140 years, but it is not seen as a prestige language even in Fiji where official documents, newspapers, radio and TV programmes addressed principally to Fiji Indians are in standard Hindi. Along with the novels discussed, the book will stand as a work of subaltern legitimation and as a source text for an ethnography of the language if and when the demotic itself disappears (which it will, given the demotic’s disappearance elsewhere in the sugar plantations).