Some thoughts on the writing of Subaltern Narratives in Fiji Hindi Literature by Vijay Mishra

I came to  this book very much towards the end of my academic career. For many years, I  had written on  the Indian diaspora with, where possible, an emphasis on the old sugar plantation diaspora that began with the movement of coolies to work as indentured labourers in the nineteenth century.  More recently, as I worked on a book on V S Naipaul, I became interested in the language that Naipaul had lost as a child even as his parents,  aunts and uncles spoke  it. This language, common to indentured labourers, was a Hindi demotic which grew out of the Hindi dialects the coolies brought with them. In spite of the   differences in locality – from South Africa and   Mauritius to Fiji, Trinidad and Guyana – this was a uniform demotic. As I began to think through this linguistic phenomenon, it struck me that the demotic had disappeared in all the sugar plantation diasporas except Fiji where it exists even now as a fully-formed language and   a social semiotic. There is the unusual case of Suriname, a Dutch colony, where, through an arrangement with Britain, coolies were also sent in the 19th century. Here, a fossilized version of Bhojpuri, a Hindi dialect brought to the colony by the Bihari speakers, continues to be spoken. In Suriname, however, Bhojpuri has not undergone any significant change as its grammar has remained largely intact. In Fiji,   the demotic once also spoken in the other British sugar plantation colonies mentioned above remains a living language. 

As I began to write   this book,   a theoretical premise   aroused my interest. In the wake of postcolonial theory, a number of Indian historians and social scientists led by Ranajit Guha began to rethink links, if any, between independence leaders and the subaltern classes whose values these leaders seemingly espoused. The research of Guha and his colleagues – now known as the Subaltern Group of scholars – showed that there was a serious mismatch between the politics of the   leaders and this underclass. Indeed, the anticolonial struggle simply replicated   the discourses and practices of the imperial masters themselves; the subaltern class had no input. This class were ruled no doubt, but the spectres of   hegemonic colonial history totally bypassed them. There was in a sense what may be called a bifurcation or a schizophrenia as the leaders and the people they claimed to represent had nothing in common. And when independence came, all that happened was that colonial institutions and power structures remained intact. There was no new revolutionary spirit because the latter (contained within the subaltern) found no representation in social or historical practice. Subaltern Studies provided me with a theoretical entry point, and because Fiji Hindi demotic was a subaltern language (a creation of and by the coolies), I was faced with another question: ‘What defines   the subaltern world   if   read through the demotic itself?’ In writing alternative histories, subaltern scholars had gone to the experience of the subalterns themselves, and with an understanding of that experience, some quite remarkable studies were done. However,   the subaltern ‘voice’ in these writings was always a ‘mediated’ voice as the archival narratives that formed the basis of analysis existed in national vernaculars or in metropolitan colonial languages. To understand how the subaltern thought and how their lived experiences were articulated, one had to turn to their language. It struck me that the subaltern speaks but only to themselves because their language is a private language, an ‘anti-language’, through which they make meaning of their lives. I therefore turned to two remarkable novels in the Fiji Hindi demotic by Subramani (Dauka Puran [2001] and Fiji Maa [2018]) to understand subaltern life worlds. This book grew out of that challenge. It was only after I had written it that it occurred to me that I alone could have written this book. Now in literary scholarship it is a vain claim to make. Sadly, it is true.