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Interview: Nilima Rao talks about A Disappearance in Fiji

Nilima Rao is a Fijian Indian Australian who has always referred to herself as ‘culturally confused’. She has since learned that we are all confused in some way (and has been published on the topic by Australia’s Special Broadcasting Service as part of the SBS Emerging Writers Competition, so now feels better about the whole thing). When she isn't writing, Nilima can be found wrangling data (the dreaded day job) or wandering around Melbourne laneways in search of the next new wine bar. A Disappearance in Fiji is her first novel, and she is currently working on the second in the series. Nilima talks to NZ Booklovers.

Tell us a little about A Disappearance in Fiji.

A Disappearance in Fiji is set in colonial Fiji in 1914. This is a time when the British are taking Indians to Fiji by the shipload as cheap labour for the cane fields, under exploitative indentured servitude contracts. The story follows Sergeant Akal Singh, who has been exiled to the backwater colony in disgrace after a spectacular mistake has derailed his promising police career in Hong Kong. Akal wants to get some wins under his belt, get his career restarted and get out of Fiji, but his inspector general has sidelined him with a dead-end case.

An Indian indentured servant woman goes missing from a plantation, just as the indentured servitude program is under scrutiny for alleged abuses. Akal is sent out to investigate and told to close the case quickly and quietly. This politically charged case could either redeem him or sink his career permanently. When he arrives at the plantation, faced with the hostility of the white plantation owners and the fear of the Indian indentured servants, Akal quickly sees his hopes for redemption fading.

What inspired you to write this book?

I started thinking about writing this novel when I travelled in India. There was a particular incident that affected me deeply while travelling from Delhi to Agra. I was in a nice, air-conditioned car with decent suspension, grateful for the little bubble away from the rest of chaotic India. I had been in India for about four days and was completely overloaded from the breathtaking scope and depth of poverty I’d witnessed in Mumbai and Delhi. We were driving through somewhere rural, and I saw a woman on the side of the road picking up cow dung with her bare hands, presumably for either fuel or building material. I was in tears. I think for the first time in my life I had a living, breathing, visual representation of what it might have meant if my great-grandparents hadn’t gone to Fiji. The indentured servants did not come from wealth so that could well have been me picking up cow dung in India. When I was coherent again, I found myself deeply grateful to my nameless faceless ancestors. I wrote a short story a few years later about a young girl who was in Fiji as the daughter of indentured servants and an idea for a novel started to form.

What research was involved?

I spent two months in Fiji in 2016 learning about the history of the Fijian Indians. I spent time at the National Archives of Fiji looking at the old Fiji Times on their ancient microfilm machine, at the University of South Pacific in their fabulous Pacific collection and at Births, Deaths and Marriages unsuccessfully trying to trace back my own family history. Not what most people think of when they think of a trip to Fiji. I think I made it to the beach once!

What was your routine or process when writing this book?

This is my debut, so I’m not sure I had a routine or process! I just slowly made my way through it, trying different things and sometimes feeling like I was going backwards. I will say that I was very productive through the pandemic. I was in Melbourne, Australia, one of the most locked-down cities in the world. Writing got me through, and kept me sane.

If your book was made into a movie, who would you like to see playing the lead characters?

Dev Patel for Akal – not because I think he’s Akal particularly, but because he’s dreamy and seems lovely and is a great actor. Sam Neill for the doctor for me!

What did you enjoy the most about writing A Disappearance in Fiji.

Unexpectedly I feel like I connected with my father. I have tended to be closer to my mother, but the research for this book has led to me spending more time and having more meaningful conversations with my father, which I have really valued.

What did you do to celebrate finishing this book?

I have no idea!! I remember what I did when I found out I was getting a book deal. It was after a call with the US, which for me was the crack of dawn. I had a fancy bottle of bubbles that I’d bought in Argentina and had held onto for a special occasion. It was bubbles as the sun came up for my partner and I that morning.

What is the favourite book you have read so far this year and why?

I just finished Sujata Massey’s The Satapur Moonstone and I loved it! I learnt so much about the diversity of language, culture, food and religion in India. She’s brilliant at seamlessly weaving these things into a fascinating crime plot.

What’s next on the agenda for you?

I’m currently working on the sequel, titled A Shipwreck in Fiji. This time, Sergeant Akal Singh goes to the historical capital of Fiji, Levuka, accompanied by Constable Taviti Tukana, and there they find a dead body or two and possibly even a pirate!

Listen to Nilima talk about A Disappearance in Fiji here:

Echo Publishing


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