There are some books which infiltrate one’s skin, which burrow deep underneath layers of tissue and stay there. Then there are others which rip the skin from your body and recreate that being which is you. Gaiutra Bahadur’s Coolie Woman: The Odyssey of Indenture is one of those books. I started it on a train ride from Syracuse back home to New York City. I couldn’t put it down, couldn’t get the simultaneous familiarity and unfamiliarity of its words out of my mind.
Gaiutra Bahadur’s narrative begins before the words. It is easy to miss, to skip to the title page and not run your fingers over the perforated pages of the inside cover, golden and resembling the wooden exterior of a ship. The golden pages evoke images of the wood of The Clyde, the ship which ferried her great grandmother, Sujaria, from Calcutta to British Guiana in 1903 as an indentured servant. The book itself functions as a ship of sorts, bridging diasporas and national narratives of identity in the US, India and Guyana, all linked by a mass migration triggered by British imperialism.
Ask the average American to indicate Guyana’s location on a map and most will give you a look of befuddlement. Do you mean Ghana, some ask. Nestled in northeast corner of South America’s coast, Guyana is the only country in which English is the official language. An outsider in more ways than one—it is also one of only three Caribbean nations which is not an island—Guyana’s relative invisibility in the mainstream media is one of the reasons Bahadur’s book is so crucial to understanding the gendered aspect of colonial uprooting and labor migration in the 19th century. Bahadur herself migrated from Guyana to New Jersey when she was 8 years old.
A work which blends poetic prose with meticulous research and journalistic attention to both the visible and invisible lines and contours of history, Coolie Woman also attempts to create a bridge for the reader to access the hidden stories of the Indian women who embarked on this Middle Passage of sorts. In an interview with the New York Times Bahadur, an American critic and journalist with degrees from Yale and Columbia, explains her choice to focus on indentured women:
“I chose to focus on the women because their story is a lost history within a lost history: the story of Indian women within the story of Indian indenture. While many slave narratives exist, only two memoirs about indenture do, and men wrote both.”
It is estimated that a quarter of a million women left India on ships headed to the West Indies to work sugar plantations. Their stories, few of which are recorded in their own words, are provocatively described by Bahadur as fleeting glimpses into the lives of indentured women “from behind a curtain separating the woman’s quarters from the rest of the house of official history”. Coolie Woman resists the myth which imagines history as a solid entity, an object one can hold up to the light and examine. Instead, history is a process of reconstruction and re-imagination. History and memory are intimately intertwined—the miraculous, the flawed and the faulty aspects of each revealed.
Bahadur’s work of creative academia is, paradoxically, a meditation on a particular question, as well as the unanswerable nature of the question itself: what were the exact stories of the women who embarked on a journey they had little knowledge of, what were the social conditions and motivations pushing them away from their native soil to a new continent? Perhaps the greatest strength of Bahadur’s narrative is the way it functions as a means for Spivak’s subaltern to speak. The subaltern being, of course, the indentured women themselves who left India for a tumultuous three month voyage across the Atlantic. The complication regards their visibility, since many of the women were illiterate and kept no written record of their lives. Glimpses of these women, however, are visible in bureaucratic colonial records, photographs and post-colonial folk songs and poetry.
Bahadur’s first encounter with her great-grandmother Sujaria is made through a remnant of British colonial bureaucracy. Described as a “brittle artifact, sepia and crumbling with age”, the emigration pass for Sujaria—known by the Empire as Immigrant #96153—reads: “Name: Sheojari. Age: 27. Height: five-feet, four-and-a-half inches. Caste: Brahman”. Bahadur goes on to describe other broad brushstrokes which construct a vague outline of Sujaria: that she was four months pregnant at the time of boarding, that there was a burn scar on her left foot and that next to the spot allocated for her husband’s name there was only a dash. In these moments it is most clear that not only were a people uprooted, but memories of their existence as well. Markers of difference are visible on their bodies, notable, but the broader canvas of history renders them invisible, to be excavated by a searching eye like Bahadur’s.
I never knew my grandfather travelled by ship to England to complete his Bachelor’s Degree until I interviewed him for an oral history project during my sophomore year in college. Similarly, Bahadur did not learn of Sujaria’s journey to Guyana until she was in her 20s. I never knew that he travelled on a ship much like one my great-great grandparents travelled on probably in the 1800s from x in India to x in British Guiana, that he re-created a history coursing through his veins. What wrapped vines around my mind and body as I read Bahadur’s words was that too familiar feeling of an empty memory. The empty memory of a place which exists only as a myth in the book’s imagination and in my own. What of these memories of nothing? Do they not also matter in history’s public quarters? The subaltern, in Bahadur’s book, can speak—even if it is through the veils drawn by history’s more public quarters.
More information on Coolie Woman can be found here.