Nilima Rao’s debut novel, A Disappearance in Fiji, is a historical mystery that sheds light on the devastating consequences of a British colonial policy that is little discussed today. In so doing, she presents a very different image of Fiji from the tropical paradise and exotic holiday destination the country is now perceived as.
Fiji’s Ordinance No. VI of 1878 – colloquially known as the Indian indenture law – paved the way for over 60,000 Indian citizens to travel to the island nation as indentured labourers between 1879 and 1916. Intended as a means of overcoming the labour shortage in the British colonies, the indentured servitude program was viewed by many as a means of reintroducing slavery via the backdoor.
In the case of Fiji, Indian workers signed contracts committing to working on the sugarcane plantations for a period of five years. They were required to engage in back-breaking work for long hours in exchange for little pay and lived in slum-like accommodation. While the program might have seemed like a good option for a destitute Indian worker, racism and abuse were rife, especially for female workers.
Against this backdrop, Sergeant Akal Singh is doing his best to settle into Fijian life after effectively being exiled from the Hong Kong Police Force following a humiliating professional mishap. It’s October of 1914 and he has been a policeman in Suva, the capital of Fiji, for six months. During that time he has been assigned only one case: the Night Prowler, an unknown individual with a propensity for peeping through children’s bedroom windows.
However, when well-meaning missionary Father David Hughes goes to the local press about the disappearance of an indentured female worker from a plantation owned by powerful Australian couple Henry and Susan Parkins, Singh is forced out of his professional rut. While the official story is that the woman has absconded with the former overseer of the plantation, Hughes insists that she would never willingly leave her daughter behind.
Fearing that the disappearance might draw the attention of the visiting Indian delegation and so threaten the indentured servitude program, Singh’s superior officer reluctantly dispatches him to the plantation to investigate. It’s made clear to Singh that he should merely rubber stamp the official explanation that the woman has run away, but once he arrives in Nakavu and witnesses the conditions on the plantation, he comes to suspect that there might be a far more sinister reason behind her disappearance.
A Disappearance in Fiji is an intriguing mystery with an equally intriguing setting. It’s rare to find a crime novel set in Fiji, particularly a historical one, and Nilima Rao does a great job of establishing the period and introducing the distasteful practice of indentured servitude in a way that adds to the story rather than detracts from it. She has clearly done a great deal of research into the practice, its beneficiaries, and its victims, but that research is woven organically into the story so that readers learn through Singh’s eyes as his investigation progresses.
In terms of the plantation in Nakavu, Rao excels at bringing its customs and environment to life. In stark contrast to the Parkins’ palatial dwelling, the ‘coolie lines’ where the Indian workers live are particularly powerfully evoked as being practically unfit for human habitation. Both the work the Indians are required to do and the conditions they are forced to exist in are harsh and dehumanising. Here, Rao writes just as much about place as she does about crime.
A sense of place is less clearly evoked in relation to Suva. While the city is Singh’s base of operations, one that he mentally contrasts poorly with Hong Kong, it doesn’t come to life as a whole. Certain locations are introduced and fairly clearly described due to Singh’s presence in them, but it would have been good to have a fuller picture of the city. Likewise, more could have been made of the change of geography and conditions on the journey from Suva to Nakavu.
Sergeant Akal Singh is a complex and well-rounded central character. In some ways, A Disappearance in Fiji is a coming-of-age tale as Singh finds his feet in Fiji and begins to move beyond the professional disgrace that brought him there. Although there are other Indian police officers stationed in Suva, Singh remains an outsider due to his rank, his religion, and rumours about why he had to leave Hong Kong.
Less surprisingly, Singh is also an outsider among the white population of Fiji. Despite being the country’s senior Indian policeman, he is looked down upon by many and regularly encounters racism. This is particularly striking when he visits the plantation with (white) Dr Robert Holmes and it is suggested that Singh should stay in the coolie lines while Holmes stays in the big house. There are many other disturbing instances of racial inequality and prejudice.
Singh himself isn’t fully blameless in this regard though. He considers himself to be socially superior to the indentured workers and doesn’t feel any kinship with them despite their shared Indian nationality. In fact, he seems equally insulted by the fact that the Parkins’ don’t want him to stay in their house and by the suggestion that he should stay with the workers. The problems of the caste system are highlighted here and Rao elucidates the some unexpected aspects of prejudice.
Rao also reveals the inherent sexism of the time and place. Life as an indentured worker was particularly dangerous for women, while they were also customarily marginalised and overlooked. This is made clear through the missing women largely remaining a cypher. Her disappearance is central to the plot but she somehow remains a peripheral character in her own story.
A Disappearance in Fiji is intended as the first book in a series featuring Sergeant Akal Singh and there seems plenty of scope for him to solve further cases, including identifying the Night Prowler. It would be good if future investigations focused more on the Fijian population and brought their culture to the fore.
CFL Rating: 4 Stars