Not Known Persons

Coolie Woman: The Odyssey of Indenture
By Gaiutra Bahadur
Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2014, 274 pp., $35.00, hardcover

Reviewed by Indira Karamcheti

The abolition of slavery in the British Caribbean in the nineteenth century had momentous consequences not only for the newly freed slaves and their erstwhile owners, but also for people in a place distant in geography and indifferent to the event: India. Sugar plantations, manufacturing enormous profits but requiring enormous labor, demanded hands to replace those lost to abolition—brown hands to replace black ones.

In the British Caribbean, that meant indentured servitude, a system which replaced the African slave labor lost to abolition with other nonwhite bodies, usually from Asia, primarily from India. Recruited by a network of agents and held in central depots in the north and south of the subcontinent, Indians, even if illiterate, “signed” contracts, usually for five years, renewable for another five. Recruitment itself is documented to have been rife with chicanery, including lies that “America” was only a few days away and that the labor itself was only nominal. The indenture contract promised that, after the end of the time-bound contract, the indentured could have a free return passage to India, or land, usually unarable, to farm.

However, during the time that indenture lasted, from 1838 to 1917, only a few returned to India. Like the slave system it replaced, indenture meant displacement from home to unknown lands. Travel was punishing, labor brutal, and treatment harsh. Once the indentured person landed in the sugar cane plantations, he or she became a “coolie,” despised by white and black alike. The dislocation was more than personally alienating; the indenture system itself dehumanized, and individuals lost the power to make life decisions—and the power to record their experiences. Consequently, while there are records from recruiters, plantation owners, and governmental administrators, the point of view of the indentured people themselves is missing.

And if there is little information in general, there is even less about the particularities of indenture for women. What kinds of women entered into indenture and why? Were they running toward a future or away from a past? What did a voyage that lasted up to three months on “coolie” ships mean for women who had to manage the physical demands of menstruation, pregnancy, and breastfeeding, and the social demands of sexuality and female duty to parents, husbands, men in general, and children? Once they were assigned to a plantation as laborers, what work did they do in the fields—and off them? Lastly, what happened to them after indenture, and how did indenture influence the condition of Guyanese women in the present?

This is the burden of Gaiutra Bahadur’s Coolie Woman. It is a moving, foundational book, investigating the experience of indentured Indian women in the Caribbean. It is solidly researched—and as such it reveals the difficulty of understanding the human lives concealed within documents. Bahadur delicately reconstructs these women’s lives, seen only through a glass darkly, piecing them together with respect and even admiration. This is a book that will both be of great use to scholars and a compelling text for nonspecialists.

The author is the descendant of indentured laborers in Guyana; in 1981, when she was almost seven, her family moved to Jersey City, New Jersey, USA. No longer Guyanese, Bahadur was also neither American nor Indian. Guyana became what Bahadur calls an “inside” area of personal memory: the Bottom House, the guinep tree, the toolshed-sized concrete temple, an abandoned blue car parked by the gate, Creole words. In the “outside,” to Jersey City’s racist Dot Busters (a 1980s gang that attacked Indian women, who wear a bindi dot on their foreheads when they marry), she was indistinguishable from other Indians. However, “real” Indians (that is, recent immigrants from India) accepted Guyanese Indians only with subtle condescension, as if they were “outside children,” a phrase that in Guyana indicates related but illegitimate children. Consequently, for Bahadur, India too is an “inside” space, a trace memory of the puja (altar) room where Bahadur’s mother sings bhajans (hymns) in a Hindi she does not understand, or of Bollywood movies. Nonetheless she feels she is, in some real way, Indian. Her “complicated ethnicity,” she writes, has “sensibility without sense.” How to tease out the mystery of identity from this thicket of global roots and uprootings? To which culture does she belong, and which explains her existence? What can she claim as her own—and what will claim her?

The paucity of records means that to answer these questions, Bahadur must look “in the personal rather than the political.” Accordingly, she attempts to reconstruct the life of her great-grandmother, Sujaria—no last name—who travelled to Guyana as an indentured servant on the coolie ship The Clyde, in 1903. She was 27 years old, five feet, four-and-a-half inches tall, and a Brahmin. She was also four months pregnant, and alone. She gave birth to a son on board ship and named him Lalbahadur. This shipboard child became Gaiutra Bahadur’s paternal grandfather. As a young woman, Bahadur returns to the Indian village her great-grandmother left: Bhurahupur, in the police district of Majhi, province Chhapra, state of Bihar. Her guide cannot ask the villagers specifically about Sujaria because, as he explains, “Women . . . were not known persons at that time.” Instead, he asks them about Sujaria’s father, Mukhlal. The trail, because it is the trail of a woman, wavers and is lost.

At this point, it is clear that Bahadur is pursuing, through the history of her family, larger questions: can the lives of these women, who “were not known persons,” ever be discovered? What did their lives mean to them, and what do they mean to their descendants? Is theirs a story of entrapment, or of escape? Bahadur summarizes, “In short, was she a victim—or had she taken charge of her own destiny?”

As she searches for answers in Guyana and in India, she is torn between her ethnicity and her gender. She finds comfort in “passing,” in belonging racially and ethnically, but the same groups with which she identifies and which claim her—Guyanese and Indian—also put her, because she is a woman, into a subordinate position, which chafes against her sense of herself as an American woman, entitled to certain freedoms of movement and expression. “Had leaving Guyana liberated me, because I am a woman?” she asks. “And was it possible that leaving India had done the same for my great-grandmother a century earlier?”

This is the overarching vision of the book: the possibility of freedom. Could these women, despite the horrors of indenture, have found in Guyana a greater power to control their lives and direct their destinies than they had at home?

It is of course impossible to answer such a question definitively. However, the lasting strength of Coolie Woman lies in the ingenious and far-reaching combination of resources Bahadur musters as she makes the attempt. She contextualizes Sujaria’s experience by interweaving stories both personal and communal—family sagas, histories of the Indian indenture diaspora, recovered women’s history, narratives of return. Thus, she draws upon Hugh Tinker’s magisterial A New System of Slavery: The Export of Indian Labour Overseas, 1830-1920 (1974), as well as upon the Mauritian poet Khal Torabully’s concept of “coolitude,” his attempt to theorize and reclaim the despised identity created by indenture—and upon extensive archival work in colonial-office documents, the India Office Records of the British Library, parliamentary papers, various national archives, newspaper and periodical articles, literature, and oral histories conducted by her and others. Hers is a daunting and impressive labor of love that creates a solid ground of fact underlying the elusiveness of the personal narrative.

Her research tells a harsh and dispiriting story. Women entered indenture for many reasons, of course. But a large number of them seem to have sailed alone, many fleeing untenable conditions. The town of Muzzafarpur, for instance, had a notorious red-light district that sent many tawaifs, or courtesans, to the sugar plantations. The British officials appointed to protect the indentured carefully monitored the women who signed up and set quotas that would supposedly ensure that there were enough women to cook, clean, and launder for the men. The numbers were hugely disproportionate: between fourteen and fifty women to every 100 men.

On board, the women often coupled with men for safety and for protection—but they remained prey for passengers and crew alike. Searching the records of the ships’ doctors, Bahadur discovers rapes, even of the very young. Once on the plantations, women labored in the fields, but were also vulnerable to abuse and overwork off the field. Indian men competed for scarce Indian women not only with other Indian men but also with white and black men. The jealousy and competition often resulted in physical abuse of women. In a chapter titled “Beautiful Woman Without a Nose,” Bahadur reports killings and mutilations of women suspected of infidelity or other trespasses. The violence against women in Indo-Guyanese communities continues today, she shows: a combination of honor-killings, the Indian ideal of the self-sacrificing goddess Sita, and the emasculation of men through unemployment and racial/ethnic disrespect.

The end of indenture did not necessarily mean greater freedom and better lives for women. Sujaria worked on the plantation as a paid khelauni, or child minder. When she married a milk seller in 1906, she was no longer paid, and she found herself at the mercy of a husband who regularly beat her with a danda, a walking stick. Bahadur tells story after story of women “chopped” by their husbands, including that of Latchmin Mohabir, whose husband slashed her eight times with his cutlass when she raised her arm to protect herself, severing the fingers of her left hand. Yet, Latchmin and other women felt a responsibility to support their men, a responsibility that not only curtailed their own freedom but placed their lives actively in danger. Bahadur writes,

Did she ever doubt whether it was worth it to suffer dutifully like that remote goddess [Sita], to preserve family in a form of self-sacrifice? . . . [T]he public sphere of the plantation [and] the more private sphere of the home and the village . . . [each] delivered its own set of licks. . . . As much as religion or culture, imperial policy had nudged her. ... For this, too, had been a disfigurement of indenture: the complicity of women in their own fates, the tortured attachment—the tenderness—they felt and continue to feel in the cave of their hearts for their own men, who had also been disfigured by planters and the colonial state.

The record indicates only pain, vulnerability, and helplessness. Despite this, however, Bahadur insists upon her central question: was indenture actually an opportunity for increased power, freedom, and agency for women? She manages to build a persuasive case. These women, including Sujaria, seem determined to twist the shifting, unknown conditions of indenture, narrow as they might seem, to their own purposes. Sujaria was pregnant and alone, indentured and laboring for herself and her son—but she ended her life with a home, a husband, another child, a family—that is, a life of her own that she built. There is a kind of grandeur about these women, a nobility and courage that shows them not as victims but as Odysseus in female form, wending their way home after battle, wily and cunning, using their wits to triumph over Cyclops and Circes.

Bahadur convinces the reader that although the story of indentured women is a story of suffering, it can also be understood as a journey of triumph, of individuals’ use of terrible circumstances to create themselves. The indentured woman is neither the patient Penelope at her loom, nor Sita on the funeral pyre, nor even the widowed Ruth, devotedly and meekly following her destiny into strange lands. Rather, she is Sujaria, taking her fate ruthlessly into her own hands, harvesting “alien corn,” and becoming the matriarch of her clan. The name she gives her son, Lalbahadur, seems to presage this ultimate victory over history: “Lal” means “beloved little one,” and “Bahadur” means courageous. It is after all her loving courage that creates the family of the Bahadurs, who continue the journey, bearing the name she chose.

Indira Karamcheti is associate professor of American Studies at Wesleyan University in Connecticut. She teaches courses on New England and its imperial/colonial past, postcolonial literature and theory, and the literatures of the South Asian diaspora. Her most recent publication, “Names and Global Habitations,” concerns the peculiar life of the word and identity “Indian.” It appears in Diasporas, Cultures of Mobilities, ‘Race’: 1. Diasporas and Cultures of Migrations, 2014.

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