The Canberra-based historian and academic Brij Vilash Lal was awarded the AM honour at this year’s Queen’s Birthday honours.
Prof. Lal was recognised for “significant service to education, through the preservation and teaching of Pacific history, as a scholar, author and commentator.”
A highly regarded Australian expert on Fiji, as well as a much-loved member of Australia’s Fijian-Indian and Indian communities, Prof. Lal told Indian Link, “I am deeply honoured that my lifetime’s work has been recognised, not only by my peers but also by society at large.”
He added, “Of course, the irony does not escape me that while my land of birth, Fiji, has banned me from entering it again, my adopted homeland not only welcomes me but honours me.”
An outspoken critic of the military regime, in 2009, Prof. Lal was “hounded out” from Fiji for speaking out against the nation’s expulsions of Australian and New Zealand diplomats. To this day, Prof. Lal, as well as his wife, environmental consultant Dr Padma Lal, are both denied entry into the country.
Prof. Lal is Professor of Pacific and Asian History at the Australian National University, and Deputy Director of its School of Culture, History and Language. He is also Founding Director of the Centre for the Contemporary Pacific, and Chair, Pacific Manuscript Bureau.
Looking back at his career, Prof. Lal described his humble beginnings and the path that has taken him to the pinnacle in his particular area of research.
“I come from a rural background, with both parents illiterate,” Prof. Lal recalled. “In my life in a remote, pre-modern part of Fiji, I learnt early on that there was no future on the farm, and that I would have to work hard to create my own prospects.”
He did exactly that. He took himself to university, at first in Fiji and then in Canada and Australia, studying history.
“In the 1960s, history was for no-hopers,” he reminisced. “But I’ve always loved stories.”
The story of his own family was particularly fascinating as a young man.
“My grandfather arrived in Fiji in 1908, as an indentured labourer from Uttar Pradesh in India. I have vivid memories of him in the ‘60s. I wanted to learn more about his life and of others like him. Everybody around me was too busy making a living to care, but to me, finding about who these people were and how they came to be in Fiji, was akin to finding my own true self. The motivating factor then was to bear witness to my time and place. I figured, if we don’t write about our past, no one else will.”
This went on to become the driving force in his life’s work – to give illiterate people a voice, an agency, a humanity.
Lately, Prof. Lal’s work has extended to people of the Indian diaspora, some 20-plus million in number.
“I’ve travelled to all countries where indentured labour was taken, in a search of who we are. The history I write is what I have heard and learnt from the journeys of our people.”
Prof. Lal first arrived in Australia in 1977 to pursue his PhD. Upon finishing in 1980 he worked in Hawaii for ten years, and then returned to Australia permanently.
Among the highlights of his career are being appointed to the committee that produced the draft for the constitution of Fiji in 1997. The document sought to resolve the long-standing discord between native Fijians, Indo-Fijians and other ethnic communities. Military leader Commodore Bainimarama abolished the Constitution after his coup.
“At a time when the Indian community in Fiji was harassed and their future seemed uncertain, I was put in a position to be just and fair to everybody.”
“After the general elections last year, the reasons for which I was expelled don’t exist anymore, so why are we still denied entry to Fiji indefinitely? I have written to the government in Fiji, but am yet to get a response.”
As of last year, full diplomatic relations have been re-established between Fiji and Australia. “It is good to note that the process of reengagement has begun. For Fiji, it is the first step towards representative parliamentary democracy, even though there is a long way to go yet to fully instil the values of freedom of speech.”
A second highlight, Prof. Lal said, is his body of work on the history of the Indian community in Fiji. “Written from a sympathetic point of view, I have put this history out in the public arena in a form it can’t be ignored anymore.”
His work on Pacific history beyond Fiji is also substantial. “Some peers have questioned this part of my work as they claim I am not a Pacific Islander. To them I say, I am a Pacific Islander, I was born there and it means a lot to me!”
In the final analysis, Prof. Lal says, rising to the top of his profession in the humanities in this country, is hugely satisfying. “There are many doctors and scientists of Indian origin, but very few in the humanities.”
Prof. Lal has just finished a historical dictionary of Fiji and is currently working on the Australian engagement with the South Pacific from the 1940s to the 1980s.
As well, he is knee deep into another book The Tamarind Tree, which will be published not only in English but also in Hindi, Fijian Hindi and Fijian. “I believe we need to nurture our languages or they will die,” he said. “Equally, I believe it is important to produce works which are accessible to ordinary people”.
Prof. Lal describes it as a work of “creative non-fiction”. Set at the end of indenture in the 1920s, it is based on people such as his beloved grandfather, whose stories are true even though there are no documents to prove their truth.
“How do you write about societies where even memories are not archived adequately? You use your imagination!”
And, as always with Prof. Lal, you tell the truth as honestly as you can.