by Nilima Rao
Publisher: Allen & Unwin 2023
1914, Fiji: Akal Singh, 25, would rather be anywhere but this tropical paradise – or, as he calls it, ‘this godforsaken island’. After a promising start to his police career in Hong Kong, Akal has been sent to the far-flung colony of Fiji as punishment for a humiliating professional mistake. Lonely and grumpy, Akal plods through his work and dreams of a return to Hong Kong, or even his native India.
An indentured Indian woman goes missing from a sugarcane plantation and Fiji’s newspapers scream ‘kidnapping’, just as the Indian indentured servitude program is being scrutinised for alleged abuses. Fiji’s inspector-general reluctantly assigns Akal the case, as the senior Indian police officer available. Akal, eager to achieve redemption, agrees – but soon finds himself far more invested than he could ever have expected.
When he arrives at the plantation to investigate, Akal must confront the brutal realities of the indentured workers’ existence and the racism of the British colonisers in Fiji – along with his own thorny notions of identity and class. His interrogations of the white plantation owners, Indian indentured labourers and local Fijians yield only one conclusion: there is far more to this case than meets the eye.
Reviewer: Cheryl Fairclough
In this mystery set in 1914 colonial Fiji, debut author Nilima Rao demonstrates she has the same deft historical touch we see in Sulari Gentill’s Roland Sinclair novels and a wry cultural sensitivity similar to Alexander McCall Smith’s Botswana series (indeed he recommends the book).
Nilima is a Fijian Indian Australian, who migrated to Australia as a child but has travelled to both Fiji and India as an adult. Her book is set in a time when the Fijian economy was dominated by Australia’s Colonial Sugar Refining Company (CSR) and a plantation system based on indentured labour recruited from India. In this context, the case of a missing female plantation worker opens a political can of worms just as an overseas delegation is coming to investigate the conditions for Indians.
The book’s main character is Sargent Akal Singh, a Sikh Indian who arrives from Hong Kong as an unwilling addition to the colonial police force in Fiji. The posting was the only one his former superiors had offered as an alternative to dismissal in disgrace. So Singh is desperate to prove himself.
In Hong Kong, Singh had a recognised place in the British colonial police hierarchy and was cultivated as an Indian high flyer. His self-image is based on the recognition of Sikhs as respected warriors. He is appalled to discover that in Fiji he is seen merely as another ‘coolie Indian’ – a class of people that he does not identify with and has no feeling for initially. Indeed, when a plantation owner suggests he sleep overnight in the coolies’ pitiful barracks, “he wanted to howl that he was not one of those wretches.”
Nilima’s portrayal of Singh is complex and sympathetic. He is a combination of pride and vulnerability. At the start of the book he is an isolated figure – resented for his rank by the other Indian police, looked down on by Europeans, and relating to only one Fijian (a police corporal, nephew to a local chief). By the end, he has made some small but significant personal gains.
The secondary characters are also deftly drawn – particularly the compassionate British Dr Holmes, the unusual Fijian corporal Taviti, and arrogant plantation owners Mr and Mrs Parkins; as are those in minor roles or cameos.
The mystery plot and the dynamics between characters held my attention throughout and I found myself so engrossed that I read this book in one long sitting. Once the mystery began to unravel, the revelations came thick and fast. I found the plot satisfying, felt the author played fair, and the result was an unexpected but logical outcome. Along the way, I gained some insights into the racial history undergirding modern-day Fiji.
This book does not sugar-coat the injustices of the plantation system and in that context Australians are not painted in a rosy light. We learn that at a time when ‘slavery’ has been outlawed, ‘indentured’ labour is merely a convenient device for the same oppression. But this theme is woven throughout the story in a matter-of-fact manner where the reader sees for themselves without the author being heavy handed.
Despite the dark themes underlying the plot, the author’s light touch made this book an easy holiday read. As a debut novel, with the second in the series apparently underway, A Disappearance in Fiji is a delightful first taste from a new voice in Australian crime writing.