Guest Blog by Shazia Usman
Have you ever in real life, in books, or movies, seen these older cousins, aunts, grand-aunts, grandmothers, who are just these cool, progressive beings? The ones that tell the younger you about life – stuff that blows your mind away, stuff that you find important, treat you like an equal and accept you as you are? They might be rebels, oddballs, wild, and stubborn to others in the family, but to you they are everything because they see you.
Perhaps you’re one of those lucky ones who have that older person (or several) in the family. I, sadly, never was.
So, when I first met Anand Loshni Pillay one afternoon in Lautoka, a retired teacher and community leader, I knew that if I could choose my ideal older kin – she would be it.
To call her a retired teacher and community leader somehow does not seem to do justice to the multitudes she contained, and truth be told, I have been struggling for weeks to write this piece to honour her memory, because as you might have guessed from the title dear reader, she is no more. So, as I sit here on a Friday afternoon, with the pitter patter of raindrops on the roof, and to the beat of this one in particular by Old Madras Session on loop, I am going to (metaphorically) close my eyes and share with you about an afternoon I spent with Anand Loshni Pillay, and a couple of things that followed.
It was a day much like today on 2 March 2017 when my colleagues and fellow feminist sisters Michelle Reddy, Tara Chetty and I set out from Suva on to the open Kings Road (aka ‘The Backroad’) to Rakiraki, Nadi and Lautoka on a work mission. We were going to chat with some women’s organisations, one of which included Ra Naari Parishad, formed in 1987, after Fiji’s first coup as a response to assisting rural Fijian women of Indian descent who were affected in Rakiraki communities. Anand was a founding member, as well as the President of the Board, at the time.
As she had recently moved to Lautoka, we drove to see her, after meeting with the staff at their office in Rakiraki. It took us a while to get to her as we got lost in the myriad of similar looking streets where she lived, so she very kindly ‘volunteered’ her husband to come guide us. Navigation-related stories are frustrating and embarrassing in the moment but rather fun in hindsight, don’t you think?
Dear reader, I cannot describe to you exactly what I was expecting when I first saw Anand. Nor can I remember exactly the colours that surrounded her but surrounded by colours she was, like no one I had ever met before. A dainty woman of 73 at the time, she was draped in a sari of earthy yet vibrant tones of red, mustard, magenta, and red, with flowers in her hair, a big red tikka, and silver hair.
I was fascinated, but also a bit terrified. You see, I am not comfortable talking to older people from my community for many reasons, which I shall not get into but always being judged is one of them (clearly there is a theme here, as you may have guessed, you perceptive reader, you). But I didn’t have to worry much because Michelle and Tara are the queens of ‘taking the lead’ (thanks, you two!). And the other reason I didn’t have anything to worry about was because Anand, and her husband, were two of the most progressive people I’ve ever met and conversed with.
Over bowls of sambar, idli, bara, imlee chutney, and cups of masala cha, we spoke about social justice, gender equality, politics, and Anand’s vision for Rakiraki. I’ve never met anyone so devoted to the development of a town, so many of us just pass through, to and fro Suva.
I was feeling all kinds of ‘feelings’ I couldn’t quite place as she was talking and remember looking at Michelle and Tara and seeing this look on their face, not dissimilar to mine I’m sure, of fascination. You see, all three of us share South-Indian ancestry from our fathers’ side. I don’t know about Michelle and Tara, but that’s a side of my identity, I’ve never really explored for many reasons, and to see Anand representing so many things – was just – so overwhelmingly beautiful.
The ride back to Suva was all about Anand, as you can imagine. We were fangirling so hard, dissecting her every word!
I then went on to interview her through email for a story for work. She challenged me on the story’s framing – something that rarely happens to me – and I was utterly charmed. In her interview, she said to me: “It’s very important that we support those who are less privileged in our communities to grow. We have many dreams for the people of Rakiraki and we are working towards achieving them together.”
That same year, when asked to recommend a speaker for Fiji’s first series of live talk show events, I could think of no one better that Fijians needed to hear from, than Anand. I described her excitedly to the event organiser, and after they met, she told me that Anand was exactly what the live talk show needed.
I couldn’t make it to the live event but watched it online after much trepidation. Why the trepidation, you ask? Sometimes when you like someone so much, you don’t want to know everything about them. What if they say something or reveal something that shatters your idea of them? A silly but very legitimate worry.
Well, I didn’t have anything to worry about as you can guess, because what she shared just made me LOVE HER EVEN MORE!
She spoke about growing up on a farm in Ba; losing her dad so early in life that she didn’t even remember him; her love for her mother and older brother who prioritised her education over marriage, which was a big deal at that time as girls were married young; the first time she got paid; challenges in college but her determination to succeed; her thoughts on leadership of the past and that of today; and so much more.
She came prepared to the talk not just to share about her life but to provide guidance, as I believe was her nature – always giving and guiding.
There is so much more she shared in those 25 minutes, which you dear reader might want to see on your own after this, but for now, I will leave you these words, from a woman who I wish, was my kin, who made me feel so seen, who may be no more, but whose words and legacy lives on:
“There has been great satisfaction where I have, in a small way, contributed to the development of women in Ra, which took time and effort. This, I was able to do with the support of my family, friends, and many others. It has been an honour to talk to you. I wish you all the very best life can bring to you. Enjoy the day you have. Do not remember the events that have already passed, which is hurting you. Remember – we are part of the population.”
*In 2015, Mrs Pillay, the founder of Ra Naari Parishad participated in the design of the Fiji Women’s Fund (the Fund). Two years later the Fund was established and Ra Naari Parishad became one of the Fund’s first grantees. Ra Naari Parishad was one of the few groups that worked specifically with Fijian women of Indian descent in a part of Fiji that is prone to natural disasters. Mrs Pillay’s vision for Ra Naari Parishad was to support the empowerment of women, especially Fijian women of Indian descent, to shift patriarchal attitudes and behaviours. The team at the Fund had the great privilege to work with Mrs Pillay, a visionary feminist and community worker.
About the Author
Shazia Usman is a writer, storyteller, feminist activist living in Suva, Fiji. She has over 10 years of experience working in gender development and communications in Fiji and the Pacific. She currently works as Communications and Media Specialist for UN Women’s Fiji Multi-Country Office Ending Violence Against Women and Girls programme. Her previous work experience includes the Pacific Women Support Unit and the Fiji Women’s Rights Movement. In 2019 she self-published her first children’s book Kaluti, a story of a 10-year-old girl facing colourism. For this she was nominated as one of International Women’s Development Agency’s ‘6 must-read women writers from Asia and the Pacific’. Views expressed here are her own.