I did not take the usual route for reaching Fiji. I used to travel to Singapore and take a connecting flight to Brisbane, and then onwards to Nadi. On the last occasion I reached there through South Korea. It takes you there faster but long travel takes its toll anyway.
When you land in Nadi, the first thing you learn that Nadi is pronounced locally as Nandi. A friendly immigration officer greets you. In some countries they make you feel the most unwanted visitor, you almost feel like returning, but not in Nadi.
The route to the Lautoka town is beautiful. The car radio played Bollywood songs. Occasional sugarcane field, a railway track running along the field, the hills not far from the road and the rain trees everywhere. I asked a person standing below the raintree, ‘What is this tree called here?’ ‘Shirish’ he replied. That is what the tree is called in India, though it has reached in India from South America someone told me. There are huge Shirish trees in Lautoka almost at every nook and corner. Then you hear a loud noise of birds. ‘Mynah’ I said. My friend, a local Fijian could not understand my surprise, nor could he understand my joy at spotting the bird, so common in India. My friend felt that those birds were creating a nuisance. I realised that the birds would not allow my friend to sleep peacefully on a Saturday or Sunday morning. I spotted white ‘Champha’. He told me that it is often planted near the crematorium! That did not reduce its grace and beauty.
In Jamaica I saw two varieties of Mango. These have reached there from India for certain. One of them is what we in Mumbai call ‘Totapuri’ mango. I saw it in Fiji too. I arrived in Fiji in August. The mango season is Mumbai was over long back and there in Nadi I saw Mango trees bearing inflorescences all over. ‘Down Under’ I said to myself, it was the arrival of ‘Basant’ season.
I saw a train moving on those rail tracks. A small diesel engine was puling seven or eight ‘trolleys’ full of sugarcane, cut freshly from the fields, and over packed, perhaps overloaded. A trolley [I do not know what they are called] is essentially a platform with four wheels. There are four rods attached to the platform vertically, like a pillar, to keep sugarcane crop in its place. A chain is then moved over the sugarcane harvest from one rod to another on the other side. Neatly packed.
I arrived at the Hotel Waterfront, an old hotel, now done up and refurbished. It looked better and ready to receive visitors. Not many on the street. No noise, all quiet. For a Bombayite like me, not being a part of a large crowd gives mixed feelings. I felt nice but somewhat insecure. Noise in Mumbai is annoying, silence in Lautoka is also disturbing, I thought.
‘Bula’, the girl [no doubt of Indian origin] at the reception said. It means welcome, it is a general greeting. It is something like ‘Kaise Ho?’ ‘Bula’ I said, that was the correct response I was told. A hibiscus flower placed on her ear, I noticed. Just like a tailor keeps pencil on his ear. My friend told me that it declares her marital status, later somebody disagreed with that interpretation. If true, it is a nice way to announce your marital status I thought, you do not have to wear a ‘mangal-sutra’ or a bindi. This was more imaginative and enhanced beauty of the girl.
I reached my room and opened the curtains. The window provided a view of the quiet sea and a small white ship. You do not see ships like that in Mumbai. I had not yet missed India, I suddenly realised. Shirish tree, Mynah, people speaking Hindi language, Bollywood songs on FM radio, it was India everywhere.
The ship reminded me that I was in a different country and the ship reminded me the history of Fiji. You see India everywhere but a gulf divides Fiji and India. It also gives Fiji a separate identity.