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Gaiutra Bahadur’s Coolie Woman

Published: 
Sunday, October 13, 2013

Coolie Woman: The Odyssey of Indenture Gaiutra Bahadur 

University of Chicago Press, 2013

 

In his advance praise of Gaiutra Bahadur’s Coolie Woman, 2012, MacArthur Fellow Junot Díaz heralds the work as “outstanding,” saying the author’s “meticulous research and tireless perseverance have restored an important chapter in our histories.”  The academic and emotional energies of this book are just that: vivid in their depictions, energetic and occasionally ruthless in their factual expeditions, unflagging in their documentarian zeal. Coolie Woman is no non-fictive lightweight—brand new though it may be in the genre of Indo-Caribbean diasporic writing, it’s poised for tremendous impact.  Bahadur is an American journalist whose critical writing and essays have been featured in the New York Times Book Review and the Washington Post Book World, among other publications. Her 2012 children’s book, Family Ties, provides joint perspectives from the personal stories of Amy Tan and Barack Obama. Coolie Woman is her first full-length title. Bahadur knows better than many of the pejorative associations tied in to the word “coolie”: how, if proffered in the everyday parlance of, say, the Chaguanas market, the word might be met with an aggrieved sneer, a calculating sucking of the teeth. “Coolie”—though not a derogative name everywhere it’s used—demarcates more than we know when we bandy it about, good-intentioned or not.

 

The writer says it best: “Coolie may bare a jagged edge, like a broken bottle raised in threat. But it also ricochets still down dirt lanes in the Guyanese village where I was born, in far more complicated ways, in greetings that are sometimes menacing but also often affectionate and intimate, signifying a sense of shared beginnings.” It is with beginnings that Coolie Woman concerns itself, tracing the progress of Bahadur’s great-grandmother, Sujaria, on her indentured voyage from India in 1903. This journey would see her to Guiana, her story just one from the masses of Indians scouted, consigned and delivered to this British-ruled land as possibly profitable replacements for enslaved African labour in the wake of the dismantling of the slave trade. Travelling on her own, and pregnant with the author’s grandfather, Sujaria’s story is assiduously unearthed by the author. Bahadur pores over yellowing archives, making transatlantic pilgrimages of research and inquiry. 

 

What the writer reveals isn’t just her great-grandmother’s story. She mines generations of discourse on the social and cultural mores that governed the lives of Sujaria’s kinswomen—the quarter of a million women who braved those uncertain passages over the kala pani (literally, “dark water”) to work and struggle and eke out an existence on sugar plantations. In these testimonies are the quietly (or else, brazenly) conducted lives of remarkable women—women fending off, or else succumbing to, a landslide of male-ordered hegemony, issued from their husbands’ fists and the British colonial government’s strict policing of women’s sexuality through imported and adapted legislature. Indian women could flee their abusive domestic structures, Bahadur’s research shows repeatedly, but often they did so in pointless exercise, running from a fraught daily existence into a reality that provided no other tangible support for single females. “The archives leave gaps,” Bahadur states without preamble. “Missing, with few exceptions, are the voices of the women themselves. […] They did not tell their own stories, except indirectly, through the often-biased prism of government officials and court officials who occasionally took their testimonies. The relative silence of coolie women in the sum total of history reflects their lack of power.” 

 

Despite, or perhaps because of this wordlessness, the author gleans much of the marrow of her insight through a speculation that is rich, complex and not without emotional layering. Segments of the book are strewn with rows of interlocking queries—questions that Bahadur asks in Sujaria’s wake, and questions Bahadur turns to herself. Coolie Woman is about indenture, yes. It’s also a product of unflinching inquiry into community, diaspora, displacement, New World immigration, the body politic, and the persistent legacy of colonialism. Reading it is immersive, dense and challenging in the best way: it marks a series of redefinitions, broadening the basin of one’s assumptions governing indenture. It illuminates the tableaux of Indian women’s stories, blowing heaped decades of dust from their surfaces. Bahadur handles this history without compromise, imbuing it with prismatic context, deepening the true stories that can be told about the journeys that so many women undertook.