Gaiutra Bahadur, Coolie Woman: Odyssey of Indenture (USA: University of Chicago Press, 2014), pp. 274.

Reprint from South Asia Mail, An Independent Internet Weekly

Review by Cyril Dabydeen/UOttawa

In a riposte to an academic’s critique on the quality of scholarship in her book Coolie Woman, author Gaiutra Bahadur–a Guyanese-born US-based journalist-writer–stated that it is “very much a subaltern history, a history from below that strives to recover the voices of people who didn’t have the power to write themselves into history”; and, she emphasized: “I analyzed the reports on 77 indenture voyages from Calcutta to the Caribbean, mining them for the stories of the indentured but also grounding this qualitative data in quantitative analysis, generating statistics on the percentage of pregnant women, married couples and returnees aboard ship.” Let me say, immediately, that I admire Bahadur’s work; it is a book that reflects her prodigious research skills and energy to recreate and reconstruct the past, narratively, and indeed, with intellectual acumen. At best, Coolie Woman straddles memoir in the literary non-fiction genre exploring the origin and legacy of the life of her great grandmother, Sujaria, a “coolie” woman, who was brought to British Guiana around 1903 in almost mysterious circumstances to work in the sugar plantation; she was subsequently moved to the Rose Hall sugar plantation (Canje district) where I was born and lived up to my early manhood; and therein lies the immediacy for this reader because it’s also where I taught school for almost a decade, at Rose Hall–the behemoth sugar cane factory located obliquely across the school; I also interacted with sugar plantation workers on a daily basis; and, my own writing draws from this heritage. Ms Bahadur grew up in the Cumberland village, in Canje, but emigrated as a young girl with her family to New York. I’d met Ms Bahadur in Trinidad at the Bocas Literary Festival, where she introduced herself to me.

Her search for ancestral links drives much of what we read in this retrospective volume; and Coolie Woman has garnered much praise (it was short listed for key literary awards). But odyssey: going back into one’s beginnings, or provenance, is not entirely new. US-based Denise Grollmus’s personal journey of Jewish discovery in Poland where three million Jews were murdered by the Nazis and discovering that her grandmother–a Jew–a fact kept hidden for almost 70 years, also came to mind. But perhaps the coolie indentured system is more compelling, for one like myself, a capitalist-cum-colonial nexus, as it was, that brought to the Caribbean three million African slaves and one million Indians as indentured servants–most of the latter to Guyana and Trinidad. Over the years I have interacted with key scholars who have written insightfully on this subject: like Professors Brinsley Samaroo, Clem Seecharran, Frank Birbalsingh, and briefly, with the late UK scholar Hugh Tinker (in 1988 at a York University Conference on indentureship), who famously labelled the coolie indenture system as “another form of slavery.” My own imaginative work focusses on this nefarious system, as has David Dabydeen’s (poems, stories, and novels, essays): about the tribulation our forbears experienced after coming through the dreadful kala pani (“dark water”) of the Indian Ocean, and enduring sugar plantation travail.

Bahadur’s book takes a special place due to her subaltern woman’s point of view; as she relates: “I relied on official archives but also sought to fill in the many gaps and silences in the archives–they can lead us to the texture of indentured women’s lives, but not to the texture of their thoughts–with alternative and personal sources….rather than from the perspectives of British colonial officials” (Letter, Stabroek News). Indeed, she journeyed back to the Caribbean, India, the UK and elsewhere more than to vicariously relive her great grandmother’s journey, and through painstaking research and serious reflection resulted her achievement in Coolie Woman. Yet, I bore in mind Sigmund Freud’s caveat about the biographer’s art’s “false colouring”–and of an author perhaps reading too much into events, like the Ramayana (Ram and Sita) trope and allegory and seeing the British plantocracy as Ravan. But this is a minor carp–for beyond anything else this book is soul-searching: about a great grandmother’s ordeal (Sujaria was four months pregnant on the ship when she crossed the kala pani); a woman with “eyes like cat’s eyes…and skin white like white people,” perhaps pointing to her Brahminic caste, added to her coming from the Indian state of Bihar before reaching Calcutta to begin her horrific near four-month sea journey on The Clyde.

Women chosen for indenture might have derived from a “complex mix of victimization and Vaishnavite devotion” (31), Bahadur tells us, and that those like Sujaria were initially ostracized; the recruiters often went to holy sites and found such women, as “family members took widows to pilgrimage sites and abandoned them there. At other times, widows found their own way there, as they fled mistreatment and sexual advances in their in-laws’ homes,” writes Bahadur (31).

Sujaria’s sugar plantation experiences encapsulate the indentured people’s struggles (particularly women’s), as angst that the author internalizes, calling it her “transformative journey” and her “narrative history” characterizing the egregious labour experience when “one shilling was the value of a human life,” as well as the psychic and social trauma that ensued in the British Guiana sugar plantations where there were 64 women to 100 men (the figure varied over the indenture period). The gender imbalance was fraught with sexual exploitation and oppression which Bahadur describes in poignant detail. This is no Rushdiean “imaginary homeland” retelling as Bahadur interweaves Vedas mythology juxtaposed with stereotypes that underpin the relations between Guyanese of African and Indian backgrounds during a large part of the Gladstone-coolie indenture (lasting from 1838 to 1917); slaver Sir John Gladstone was the father of British prime minster Sir William Gladstone.

Compelling situations associated with time and place are unearthed and reflected throughout this book, including angularities tied to rivalries and jealousies between former African slaves and Indian coolies: the dynamics are often worked out in the prevailing gender relationships and the sexual shenanigans and animosities–Bahadur argues–which are tied to violence between men and women (seen, for instance, in the evocative chapter, “Beautiful Woman without a Nose”); and, not surprisingly, sexual goings-on and power relationships between coolie women and white planters and their overseers in the context of the European stereotype of Indians’ “possessiveness and promiscuity” juxtaposed with the notion of the “chastity of Indian women”–demonstrate that women were kept in more than a symbolic bondage. In this context Bahadur narratively triangulates Sujaria’s story of survival: testament to an extraordinary spirit and will to live, as well as the great- grandmother’s practical intelligence and faith (largely Hinduism). The author herself is a devotee of Saraswati (deity of “knowledge and purity”), seen in her feminist drive.

Overall, Bahadur writes insightfully about the legacy of violence and murders that occurred–still a haunting legacy–in her analysis of the indenture system; as she states: “More murders occurred in Guyana than elsewhere, but Trinidad’s statistics were only slightly less grim” (109); and “Indenture threw men into the arms of their gods. They were displaced, and Hinduism rooted them…Indenture drove some to religion and others to madness”(125).

Other chapters such as “Gone but not Forgotten,” “The Dream of Return,” and “Every Ancestor” make for compelling reading; and, for me, what especially resonates in the book are references to Inverness and the Scottish Highlands in the chapter “Surviving History,” which combines the anecdotal mixed with fact-based revelations about the linkage between Guyana’s Rose Hall sugar plantation and the Highlands’ Rose Hall (in a Scotland I myself once visited). Not surprisingly, in the end Bahadur went back to the district in Bihar to meet up with her forebears: relations of her indentured great grandmother, who is still remembered, which I find touching (I have read of other “return” narrations); I had also travelled to India, but not as a “returnee”. Importantly, Coolie Woman is very much about the colonized and colonizer and the “dark dramas” that ensued; it is not a polemical work, nor necessarily a shift from Eurocentric to Indo-centric scholarship, but is work “plumbing the depths of origins” (Wilson Harris). It also builds upon precursor texts such as Verene Shepherd’s Maharani’s Misery: Narratives of a Passage from India to the Caribbean, which Gaiutra Bahadur acknowledges. In context, I was intrigued by scholar Lisa Outar’s take: that “Coolie women weren’t exactly like Jane Austen heroines, practising love as a form of social mobility, but they seem to have used their scarcity to survive…in an exploitative environment” (Review, Stabroek News) in forming sexual and familial partnerships.

This book’s style eschews jargon and pretentiousness seen in much academic discourse, but has a natural rhythm in sentence structure and the cadence of colloquial speech mixed in with the formal and measured; it also has near exquisite descriptions of imagined experiences: all in view of the criss-crossing of genres, from literary non-fiction to scholarship. The black-and-white photographs are also evocative. Significantly, Coolie Woman strives to recover the voices of people who didn’t have the power to write themselves into history, as has been said; and, to invoke V.S. Naipaul: “as a people you have to know the past.” I believe this book should be read by all in the Caribbean–and elsewhere–and be a central text in post-colonial studies aimed at fostering awareness of Indian women’s historical struggles in Guyana, Trinidad, and the rest of the Caribbean, as well as in places like Fiji–where the invidious indentureship system still has echoic repercussions on people’s lives. END

Cyril Dabydeen (UOttawa) edited Beyond Sangre Grande: Caribbean Writing Today (TSAR, Toronto). God’s Spider/poetry (Peepal Tree Press, UK) is his newest book.


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