The barefoot child

Pushp Chandra Naidu. Picture: JOHN KAMEA

SOMETIME in the 196Os, a taxi driver’s son walked barefoot to his school for the first time.

The school was a good two-kilometre walk from home, along with the Colonial Sugar Refinery (CSR) tramlines.

In those days, the sugar cane train often left blobs of black tar behind so the soles of his cold feet were often painted with black grease that gave a burning sensation.

Luckily, there was a rain tree near his school and it produced a lot of parched leaves.

The boy would wipe his feet dry before entering the school compound.

His dad was born in India but arrived in Fiji in 1916 in the steamship SS Sutlej, the last ship to transport Indian indentured labourers to Fiji before she was later sold in 1929 and renamed Cape St. Francis.

They lived in a small house, under squalid conditions and survived on a diet that was largely vegetarian.

The cheapest meat they ate was sardines but they could only afford to have this once a week.

Life was a daily struggle for the little Pushp Chandra Naidu.

Over 60 decades before he joined Wairuku Indian School, someone had walked the corridors of the same school, then a small thatched bure in the middle of what is now a playing field.

That someone, who later became one of the nation’s top civil servants and Statesman, was Ratu Sir Lala Sukuna, who was born into a chiefly family on Bau.

His father, Ratu Joni Madraiwiwi, was the son of the Bauan noble Ratu Mara Kapaiwai.

Although Ratu Sukuna was an indigenous Fijian, his father enrolled him at Wairuku Indian School in Ra, founded in 1898 by Pandit Badri Maharaj, who later served from 1917 to 1929 as the first Indo-Fijian member of Fiji’s Legislative Council, the forerunner to the present Parliament.

During Ratu Sukuna’s years at Wairuku, his father worked at the Ra Provincial Council office based in Nanukuloa Village. School records of the late Statesman’s years at Wairuku are scarce.

However, whatever is available confirms he was one of the pioneering pupils of the school when it opened for the first time in 1898.

The young boy Pushp Chandra Naidu spent seven years walking to his school.

He dropped out in his final year because his parents couldn’t afford to send him anymore. Luckily, he had no dreams so there was nothing to shatter.

“Back in those days, I didn’t have any dreams. I just went to school because I was told to,’ Mr Naidu said, “even if I had them they’d die out because we were so poor.”

“I remember going to school for the first time, with no shoes and bags. I had only had two pairs of uniforms and they were sewn by my dad who was a driver, tailor and farmer.”

Almost six decades later, Pushp Chandra Naidu still walks the corridors of Wairuku Primary School (name changed), on the periphery of the western town of Rakiraki. Gone are his youthful strides. He now treads lightly when he walks.

Also, gone are his oil-drenched straight hair and tight skin.

He now has grey hair and wrinkles.

But at 69, Mr Naidu dedicates his time to the school that taught him how to read and write.

He is a school trustee, a volunteer job he took up now that he’s well into his twilight years.

“The school is close to my heart because it taught me many things,” he said.

“One of those is to work hard no matter what life throws at you and to persevere beyond your dreams.”

Mr Naidu’s account of his upbringing is one that talks about poverty and survival. He talks about it openly and with a lot of pride.

“My parents struggled to give my siblings and I the best education they could give us.

It was because of their sweat and labour that I am still around supporting this school. It is their labour that my own children have schooled and moved on in life.”

“They were so poor that I had to live school at class seven to help my father, who at the time was driving a taxi that was on payment.”

To supplement the family’s income, Mr Naidu’s father had a farm, where his family planted vegetables.

Beans were sold for five cents, which the struggling family had a lot of, except on rare weekends when Mr Naidu’s dad would buy lamb chops from
CSR.

“Sometimes we’d have two tins of sardines to share between two parents and six siblings. You couldn’t ask for extras.”

“Sometimes we’d have plain rice to eat. Mum would boil rice and we’d have it with salt, ghee and mango chutney. Sometimes we’d have rice with
water, salt and onions.

At school, there were two pit toilets for girls and two for boys.

There was one single wooden building made up of three rooms and there were about 15 students in Mr Naidu’s class.

“Back in those days, it rained a lot in Rakiraki. Our parents couldn’t afford to buy us shoes so we’d walk barefoot everywhere. “

“We’d walk on mud all the time and this would make our feet itch. We’d scratch them and mum would dress our wounds before we could go to
sleep at night by applying kerosene on them.”

“In the morning I’d walk to school again with my two brothers and four sisters. Stepping on grass would hurt our small feet.”

After he got married Mr Naidu made sure his children did not have to experience hardships growing up. He didn’t want them to suffer as he suffered.

“Many years later, I had a minivan. I would like to transport all the children to school and back to their homes in the afternoon. It was my way of
sharing with others what my siblings and I never enjoyed.”

“I sacrificed a lot for my children. Sometimes I never ate just to ensure that I could meet their needs.”

Many decades later, in 2019, Mr Naidu continues to be a strong force at Wairuku.

Today, he is still part of the school and an education champion in his own right.

If you travel from Vaileka, Rakiraki’s Central Business District, towards Tavua, you’d come across a huge “Wairuku Primary School” billboard on
the roadside with the words “established since 1898”.

Founded by the late Pandit Badri Dutt Maharaj in 1898, the school is considered the longest-running Indian school in Fiji.

In the late 1800s, classes were conducted in a bure where the current playing field is Through the founder, the school acquired the services of a Reverend C.F Andrew whom he met in the offi ce of a Mr R. Crompton, then a renown lawyer in Suva.

It was in this office that Mr Andrew agreed to take up the appointment as the first headteacher of Wairuku Indian School.

School records show that Reverend Andrew’s first pupils in 1898 included “Ratu J.L.V Sukuna (later to be Ratu Sir Lala Sukuna), B. Raghwan Nand, Shiu Lakhan, Miss Snow, Bechu and Santa Bai”.

Rev Andrew carried on his work until his death in 1950.

Mr Hay, another European took over as a teacher and taught from 1905-1907. He also taught in a bure.

In 1907, Mr Bihari Lal, a Punjab graduate took up the appointment of head teacher until 1911.

In 1920, a new school building of corrugated iron and wood was erected at a cost of $300, including a grant of $100 which was given by the education department.

However, the building was destroyed in a hurricane in 1930 and teaching continued under trees and in the “kuti” area (temple).

The grand festival of Ram Leela at that time was staged at two places in Fiji. Wairuku Kuti was one of them.

The father of Wairuku Indian School, Badri Maharaj died in 1931. Another building was erected at the Ram Leela site and children were taught at this new building till 1961 when during Ram Leela festivities, the school got burnt down.

School continued under the trees and in the “kuti” for two and a half years.

In 1963, with the support of the people of Ra and other organisations, a new school was built.

It continues to serve the community to this day.

Today, the barefoot son continues to walk the corridors of Wairuku, hoping the school he supports would continue to churn out responsible young people of Rakiraki who would grow to become lawyers, politicians, doctors and prime ministers, among others.

“The story of Wairuku is a story of success. From humble beginnings, it has continued to nurture children to become successful citizens of Fiji.

From Ratu Sukuna’s days here to my days in the 60s right up until today, it has stood the test of time. With commitment and hard work, the institution has survived.”

More Stories