(Published in the Business Standard, Tuesday, 12th November, 2013; this is the last of the weekly columns I’ve been writing for the paper for over 15 years. From December, the column will continue, but I’m shifting to once-a-month to make time for other kinds of writing.)
On 29th July 1903, the woman whom Gaiutra Bahadur would know as her great-grandmother sailed from Calcutta to the Caribbean. Bahadur found Immigrant #96153’s emigrant pass, sepia, brittle and crumbling with age, in Guyana’s national archives.
Sheojari, age 27, was 5”4” tall and Brahman: imperial bureaucracy needed to record little about yet another indentured labourer, and that too, a “coolie woman”, from India. But, Bahadur records, there were a few other details. Her great-grandmother had a scar on her left foot, a burn mark, and was “pregnant 4 mos”. “On the line for husband’s name, there was only a dash.”
Coolie Woman begins with Bahadur’s great-grandmother’s story, but opens out into a much broader examination of the fuel that kept plantations and the engines of Empire turning after the slave trade was abolished—the steady import of Third World coolies, or indentured labourers.
This was not precisely the same as being enslaved. Bahadur sketches a quick, brutal image of the lives of women who faced violence in the homes where they were used, often ruthlessly, as unpaid household labour, but Sheojari, age 27, would be able to claim more freedom than a slave. One of the most telling measures of the quality of life for any individual, at the turn of that century or this one, is how much space they can take up. (An ugly sign that India hasn’t changed nearly enough is in the shamefully small area of the living quarters routinely considered acceptable for domestic staff.)
“In indenture’s early years, the emigrants abroad occupied about 5.5 square feet per person, twice what each slave had; later, the space grew to 10 square feet, or a human-sized chunk about 6 feet long and slightly over 1.5 feet wide.” The death rate for indentured labourers on board ship was much lower than the rate of acceptable loss for slavers.
Bahadur’s great-grandmother would have had to dodge other hazards—the risk of abuse and molestation from ship’s surgeons and officers, the heavy risks of giving birth during the crossing. Bahadur’s grandfather was one of the twelve babies born on The Clyde; four died. The transitions in Sheojari’s life were marked by the shifts in her name, as she became Sujaria.
Bahadur steers her history away from easy rhetoric or lazy explanations. Despite these dangers, indenture offered the ‘coolie women’—she uses the term deliberately, with no pejorative stress—a hard work and potential oppression, but also many freedoms. “Men enormously outnumbered women,” she writes, and this gave them sexual leverage. “They could take new partners, and frequently they did. Theirs was often a tale of leaving their country, then leaving their men.”
The lack of written or preserved oral narratives could have been a setback—the “voices of women” are seldom directly present in Coolie Women, since few wrote memoirs or letters, and since their memories, as was true for many of the men, were not considered worth collecting. But Bahadur finds other ways of filling out these lives. On the cover, a photograph invites you to meet the direct, dignified gaze of a woman with gold jewellery adorning her headband, gold jhumkas in her ears; postcards of “coolie belles” from the 1890s survive in Trinidad, and so often, the women hold the viewer’s gaze, confident, strong, even curious.
Other sources—newspapers, local histories—allow Bahadur to compile a picture of the lives of women in the logies, the way in which they told and retold the tales of the Ramayana. Bahadur begins one chapter—‘Beautiful Woman Without A Nose’—by chronicling the fatal attack on a woman called Laungee, who had 35 wounds on her body. She wonders what these women thought about the story of Surpanakha: “She serves as a warning to them: a noseless, earless mannequin for the consequences of uncontrolled sexuality..” Heard and retold in a distant land, the Ramayana is both consolation and comfort, and cautionary tale. Bahadur sifts through the many cases of fatal violence, and concludes: “Rather than greed or libido, what the victims had in common was choice. They had all exercised a choice to say yes—or, in more cases than acknowledged, to say no.”
When the system of indenture finally dies, it goes down under the weight of nascent Indian nationalism. But though Gandhi’s efforts and the nationalists’ efforts are a success, their strategy depends on the evocation of “women’s honour”: “The right kind of woman was thus deployed in the name of the wrong kind of woman,” Bahadur notes.
In her last few chapters, Bahadur has to work against other kinds of silence—not the absence of records and histories, but the deliberate erasure of inconvenient truths, the embarrassment that covers up the fact that Sujaria was “a common labourer”. Telling the truth about one woman is a difficult business, but along the way, she discovered the collective truth of these stories of the Sujarias who made that long, demanding journey is “solace against the silence wrought by history and its asymmetries—between men and women, colonizer and colonized”.
Coolie Woman is an important, unmissable account. From colonialism to labour in India, immigrant narratives to the hidden lives of women, Bahadur excavates a rich and unforgettable set of stories that will permanently change our view of the past.
(Gaiutra’s website for Coolie Woman: http://cooliewoman.com/)