Coolie Woman: The Odyssey of Indenture by Gaiutra Bahadur reviewed by Nicole Thomas
by Gaiutra Bahadur
Reviewed by NICOLE THOMAS
At the heart of Coolie Woman: The Odyssey of Indenture, is Gaiutra Bahadur’s personal quest to discover one woman’s identity amongst the mass of people relocated during the period of indenture. Born in Guyana and immigrating to the United States at the age of six with her family, Bahadur, a former Nieman Fellow at Harvard in 2007-2008, is an American correspondent and book critic. With journalistic scrutiny, Bahadur embarks on a journey in search of her great-grandmother, Sujaria’s story; one of many women buried deep in the history of colonial discourse. Curious about her Indian origins, with desire to understand how her great-grandmother’s decision to cross the Indian Ocean in 1903 helped shape her destiny, she returns to India to engage with a past that has impacted on present perceptions of identity. Her exploration of the past excavates the injustices and degradation suffered by immigrants under the power of colonial authority.
Following the Abolition Act of 1833 that ended slavery in the British Empire in 1834, the system of indenture was introduced and thereafter became a second form of servitude. Over a million Indians were deployed and spread across the globe to work on sugar plantations, half of them transported to the Caribbean. Surviving the horrific journey was just the beginning of a life of inequality, mistreatment, and dislocation. Emigrants were stripped of caste and kin and turned into an indistinguishable mass of plantation labourers, forced into sub-standard social and contractual arrangements. Unruly recruiters misled and schemed in order to induce labourers and preyed on the vulnerabilities of desperate women to serve the over-population of men. A gender imbalance among the indentured contributed to the breakdown of families, igniting jealousy, which often lead to violence and the deaths of many coolie women.
The term “coolie” derived from the Tamil word kuli, meaning wages or hire. Over the eight decades that “coolies” were ferried across the globe the word evolved into an ethnic slur, and spilled fluidly from tongues of plantation managers and overseers as a reminder to indentured labourers of their menial origins and lowliness in the race hierarchy. It was “A subtle challenge to their claim to belong”, Bahadur states in the preface. The author re-inscribes the c-word, explaining that while it may be offensive and painful for some, it is true to her subject. “My great-grandmother was a high-caste Hindu. That is a fact. But she left India as a “coolie”. That is also a fact. She was one individual swept up in a particular mass movement of people, and the perceptions of those who controlled that process determined her identity at least as much as she did. To them, she was a coolie woman, a stock character possessing stereotyped qualities, which shaped who she was by limiting who she could ever be.” (p.xxi)
The struggle with identity emerges on the first page, when Bahadur takes a retrospective look at her point of departure, from her home in Guyana to a new life in America. At the impressionable age of six, still connected to the memories of home in Guyana but disconnected by the act of leaving, Bahadur describes her sense of displacement as being severed in two. This severing of self relates to the nature of diaspora, and a motif of connection and disconnection weaves throughout the narrative, drawing parallels to the experiences of indentured labourers severed from imaginary homelands, religion and culture. Bahadur’s personal severance reflects on the lives of the women who were physically dismembered by acts of violence from their men. Juxtaposition of the outside and inside spaces she inhabits expresses the diasporic struggle of trying to locate the self in the interior and exterior of new world culture. The memory of a distant home is the vein that draws her back to the Caribbean as a young woman where she describes her arrival as “a tingling fusion of inside and out, an electric union of outside and in, a sparks-flying soldering together of the soul” (9). The sensation describes a physical memory, expressing a psychological essence of belonging, whereby a return brings forth an imagined wholeness. As a whole, the narrative is a process of identification that oscillates between boundaries of culture and place, exploring the uncertainty of self and belonging.
From Guyana’s national archives, Bahadur exhumes an artefact that catalogues only a few details of her great-grandmother’s indentured life. In 1903, Sujaria, four-months pregnant and travelling alone, sailed with 560 adults on The Clyde, from Calcutta to the Caribbean. Bahadur’s exploration shifts from the potholed roads of Bihar to archives in England, where she locates a documented plethora of coolie sufferings from the shadowy repository of history. While the narrative exposes the power struggles that existed between indentured men and the repressive legal system that convicted and imprisoned them for minor labour violations, it engages a wider focus on the more nuanced stories of women; those who escaped the oppressions of their country and their men, for the social leverages that immigrating offered, only to meet with adversity. Through invoking place and reconstructing the trauma of indenture, the voices of coolie women speak against the colonial context and act as a collective narrative for subalterns who have been written out of history. We hear of Maharani, who at the age of five married a much older man, and was widowed at the age of twelve. Forced to cook and clean for her in-laws, she endured eight-years of beatings before escaping and crossing oceans to flee India: And later, from Doolarie, a remarried widower whose new partner beat her with a hoe for talking to another man, scarring her for life. Sujaria, however, remains silent, but her absence is a defining presence in the narrative. She appears fleetingly as an apparition. Bahadur attempts to locate her with the summoning of rhetoric questioning, “Did she look back over her shoulder as she boarded the ship? Was there regret in her glance?” (47). Through Bahadur’s speculations and conjectures the reader is able to imagine Sujaria, shifting between the alternate scenarios, inhabiting the shared spaces and experiencing similar injustices of indentured life, though this is only speculation on the moments that make up Sujaria’s life. While her exploration fails to excavate her great-grandmother’s story, her journey and research finds the suspended voices of other coolie women, who like Sujuaria, left their villages and travelled the middle passage, to reinvention in a new world. This new narrative gleaned from research and the stories of other coolie women is restorative literary practise, re-addressing the histories of coolie women suspended and forgotten. The writing functions as a restorative and reformative agent for memory, preventing the history of coolies from vanishing with the past.
The book shifts the balance of power from official colonial archives, to the unauthorised versions of indenture told by the memory keepers whose stories descended generations. Bahadur articulates the relationship between stories and the unreliable nature of memory. “The will to remember the past is undermined by an equally formidable will to forget” (18), and the stories that did descend often reveal as much about how families choose to see their histories as they do about the actual histories” (48). What emerges from the narrative is an exploration of story and its power to shape identity. “Unravelled, they began, ever so slowly, to spin the threads of a novel identity” (62). The style of the narrative relies on metaphor and figurative elements of language to weave what rests on the bare skeleton of story. The Ramayan, an ancient Hindu epic with religious and allegorical meaning, coursed through the veins of displaced Hindus’ and was their “lifeblood”, says Bahadur. “The epic, like the diaspora that identifies with it, is preoccupied with women who break the codes of accepted sexual behaviour” (108). While the adoption and telling of The Ramayan forged a sense of belonging and provided a social life for the indentured, it may have influenced men in their actions of violence against Indian women, serving as a powerful reminder to women of consequent punishment for uncontrolled sexuality. The stories that Bahadur weaves into her narrative show the power of story and language to generate meaning and provide a sense of reality.
Coolie Woman: The Odyssey of Indenture traces the history of Indian migration, down the Hooghly river, around the Cape, and across the Atlantic to the Caribbean, trawling through the complex lives of a generation of Indian women who sought exile from their country and their men, and delving into the depths of Indian diaspora and the struggle for identity. Gaiutra Bahadur does not return with the story that belonged to her great-grandmother but she brings home the acknowledgement that identity is as much about lived experience as it is about self-creation and what one believes to be true. The narrative proffers that the self is forever adapting, that identity is not anchored to the past but is perpetually shifting in order to belong.
NICOLE THOMAS lives on the South Coast of NSW and holds a Bachelor of Creative Arts with Distinction from the University of Wollongong. She was awarded The UoW Centre for Canadian Australian Studies (CCAS) Award.