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The Contemporary Pacific 15.1 (2003) 226-229

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Dauka Puran, by Subramani. New Delhi: Star Publications, 2001. ISBN81-7650-035-6, 521 pages. Written in Indo-Fijian. Distributed by University Book Centre, University of the South Pacific.

The publication of Subramani's Dauka Puran is an important event in the literary and cultural history of the Indo-Fijian community in particular, and of Fiji in general. At over five hundred pages, the novel may also be the longest piece of sustained prose in a vernacular language in the entire written literature of the Pacific Islands. This is no mean achievement. That it is written by a scholar and teacher of English literature makes that achievement even more remarkable (I have vivid memories of Subramani introducing us in Labasa Secondary School to Joseph Conrad's Lord Jim, T S Eliot's Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, and Hamlet's soliloquies).

Subramani is not the first Fiji writer to use Fiji-Hindi. Pandit Babu Ram Sharma of Ba published a small book in Fiji-Hindi in the early 1990s, which provides tantalizing glimpses into the inner world of the rural Indo-Fijian community. Around the same time, Raymond Pillay completed his play, Adhura Sapana (Unfulfilled Dream). And several other writers have over the years used the language to lend credibility and authenticity to their literary explorations of Indo-Fijian life. But Subramani is the first major writer to exploit fully the creative possibilities of a language often assumed to have no redeeming linguistic features, and to be limited and limiting in its vocabulary and cultural and emotional range. Subramani demonstrates these assumptions to be palpably untrue. This is one of the enduring contributions of the novel.

Dauka is a difficult word to translate into English. Very broadly, it could be interpreted to mean a scoundrel or, better still perhaps, a subaltern—at any rate, a person of unremarkable social pedigree, unpretentious, certainly not among the movers and shakers of society. Fiji Lal, an aptly named dauka, is the central character of the novel. He was born around the 1930s when the memory of indenture was still fresh in people's minds, in a small village on the outskirts of the town, near the sugar mill on the Qawa River, perhaps in a village like Batinikama where [End Page 226] Subramani himself grew up. It is a mixed village of Hindus and Muslims and North and South Indians, with some Fijians on the outer edges. Fiji Lal is unlettered but intelligent, inventive and resourceful with a wry sense of humor, and above all, an astute judge of people and places around him. Fiji Lal is no fool.

And he is also improbably lucky (although not in love, for the girl of his dreams—Kamini—is lost to him). He begins his career life as a casual employee in the local school, moving on to become a hired hand in the village, a cleaner (topaz) in a local European's house, a gardener, and eventually a hawker (courtesy of a man named Nanhu who leaves his shop to him when he dies). Fiji Lal is conscientious at whatever he does, even cleaning toilets: work is work. Didn't Mahatma Gandhi himself clean toilets in South Africa? But Fiji Lal is not content to live as a village hawker, as a big frog in a small pond. So he sells his business, deposits his money in the bank (itself a novel experience for people unused to western institutions), and embarks on a tiraath, a pilgrimage, or a journey of personal exploration and discovery. "Go and see the world," a man tells him, "the ways of the world. This is where we fall short. Property, this and that, engrossed in business and before you know it, you have a stroke." Fiji Lal heeds the advice.

He travels without a fixed itinerary or a particular destination in mind. "Go with the flow," we might say. Fiji Lal goes all the way from Labasa to the southern tip of Vanua Levu, to "Sapsap" (Savu Savu) and "Taponi" (Taveuni), to every anuanu(nook...