The Contemporary Pacific 15.2 (2003) 479-482
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Mr. Tulsi's Store: A Fijian Journey, by Brij V Lal. Canberra: Pandanus Books, Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies, The Australian National University, 2001.ISBN1-74076-007-7; xi + 209 pages, bibliography.A$26.00.
When a political historian writes a collection of autobiographical essays that he describes in the preface as a work of "faction"—a work, that is, in which the author has "privileged truth over accuracy, attempting to catch the thoughts and emotions rather than dry facts"(x)—a number of intriguing questions are raised about how the book is to be read. How is this book related to the body of academic writing, works of history, and political commentary, for which Brij Lal is already known? And more generally, how are academic, literary, and journalistic genres related to one another and to the social reality that spawns them, generating not only specific content, as refracted by disciplines, but also the understandings and motivations of the readers and writers themselves?
The anthropologist or historian interested in Fiji may approach Mr. Tulsi's Store as a highly unusual form of ethnography or as an experiment in history, and such expectations are well rewarded by the book. But abstract theoretical considerations of experimental ethnography or radical historiography recede as the reader enters, via the first essay, the village world of rural Fiji in the 1950s and is introduced to interesting, colorful people like Aja (Grandfather). Aja is an elderly man described in terms of physical appearance, habits of daily [End Page 479] routine, and relationships with others in the community, including especially his favorite grandson, a bookish lad who reads constantly, even while tending the cattle. Head boy at the village school, this grandson is already highly motivated to uphold academically the honor of his community. In the next essay Aja is a pivot around whom time, place, and author's perspective revolve, as Lal tells the story of his grandfather's immigration, locating it in the historical contexts of both India and Fiji. The sharply drawn story of one man's experience of indenture and resettlement brings to life the larger story of the 60,000 indentured laborers (girmitiyas) who came to Fiji from India between 1879 and 1916. These stories are intertwined with a highly personal account of the author's dissertation research in India. Retracing his grandfather's path back to the remote village he started from, Lal discovers not only long-lost relatives but also the depth and contours of his own identity as an Indo-Fijian. The technique of reflectively layering narratives—the grandfather's story, that of the girmitiyas in general, and the author's own story—engages the reader and allows Lal to make observations about the ways history is embodied in social practice. The essay also makes a powerful statement about the influence of cultural and geographical setting on individual achievement.
That basic observation, drawn from a broad comparison of the lives of the rural poor who remained in India and those who emigrated, is a central theme of the book and is intimately explored in the essays that follow. Several chapters describe Lal's own experiences—intellectual, cultural, and emotional—as he moved from the family farm to secondary school in Labasa, to the University of the South Pacific in Suva, and on to graduate studies in Canada and Australia, followed by academic career positions in Fiji, Hawai'i, and Australia. Written with hindsight, each of these essays touches on what are now seen as crucial issues, such as racial and cultural isolation in Fijian society, but they also convey with freshness and immediacy the trivia of the experience —that is to say, the most important parts of life as lived in the moment. Those readers whose own lives have intersected with some of the times, places, people, institutions, and practices that Lal describes will particularly enjoy (or not!) the specific references, but this is not only an insider's book. Human interest and engaging writing draw the reader easily into...