Unearthing the stories of “coolie women”—early-twentieth-century indentured laborers shipped from India to work on sugar plantations across the colonial world.
On July 29, 1903, Sujaria, a young Brahmin (upper-caste) woman from Bhurahupur village in India sailed from the city of Calcutta aboard The Clyde, a British vessel bound for colonial Guiana. The Clyde was one of many ships that transported indentured labor from India to the colonies; the crossings were perilous, and the conditions of indenture harsh and unrelenting. So what made Sujaria, alone and four months pregnant, leave her life behind and set off for this new world? This is the mystery that more than a century later, her great-granddaughter, Gaiutra Bahadur, sets out to solve. Bahadur, too, undertook a crossing of her own, leaving her home country of Guyana for the United States at six, studying at Yale and Columbia, pursuing a career in journalism, and leading a life distinct from, yet suffused with, the one she left behind. Determined to unearth the details of her great-grandmother’s life before her voyage on The Clyde, Bahadur travels backward through time, across three continents and deep into colonial archives. The result is her book, Coolie Woman—an extraordinary blend of hard journalistic research and literary nonfiction.
Beyond a personal genealogical quest for Bahadur, Coolie Woman, published in the US by the University of Chicago Press, is a multidimensional portrait of a group of women often obscured from colonial history. The book chronicles the stories of several women who left India for colonies such as Mauritius, Fiji, Trinidad, and Bahadur’s native Guyana. In addition, Bahadur sheds light on the lives of present-day descendants of indenture who comprise much of the contemporary Indian diaspora, tackling issues ranging from domestic violence in Guyana to post-colonial immigration.
It is perhaps this purview—ambitious both geographically and temporally—that accounts for the book’s acclaim not only in India and the Caribbean, but in the United Kingdom and the US as well. Coolie Woman was longlisted for the Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature, selected as a finalist for the UK’s 2014 Orwell Book Prize, and awarded the 2014 Gordon K. and Sybil Lewis Prize for Caribbean literature.
I first encountered Bahadur’s work at the Bocas Literary Festival in Port-of-Spain, Trinidad, in the spring of 2014. As with her home country, mine, Trinidad and Tobago, is a former colony, and the story of indenture is one of the cornerstones of our cultural memory. As a child, I learned about the arrival of the first indentured workers from India on the Fatel Razack ship in 1845, and celebrated Indian Arrival Day (May 30th) since its official inception in the mid-1990s. But despite my early awareness of this history, Coolie Woman was a revelation. During our conversation over Skype this fall, Bahadur shared her journey through the complex, dramatic, and largely forgotten narratives of these remarkable women.
—Lauren K. Alleyne for Guernica
Guernica: Tell me a little bit about your background and your journey to this book.
Gaiutra Bahadur: People often ask what inspired me to write about my great-grandmother, what inspired me to go on this journey which so many people see as a journey of identity, and it’s very much connected to my experience as an immigrant in the United States. I was born in Guyana, and immigrated to the US when I was six years old. A big part of my journey has to do with the particular place we moved to, Jersey City, which is just across the river from Manhattan. We lived there in the 1980s, which was a very hard time for Jersey City—there was an anti-Indian gang, a racist gang that called themselves the “Dotbusters,” active in our neighborhood. Their name was supposed to be a play on the Ghostbusters and the bindi that some observant Hindu women wear if they’re married. They beat an Indian man to the point that he was severely brain-damaged—that happened a few blocks from our house. And in Hoboken, an Indian man was killed. They were just a loose group of young men who were feeling disaffected and alienated, the blue-collar grandchildren of Irish and Italian immigrants who saw newer immigrants coming to their city and doing well. They were acting out their own sense of disenfranchisement, really. So that was happening in my neighborhood when I was around twelve years old, and it really had a profound impact.
The irony is that we were targeted because we looked Indian, and we did look Indian, but we weren’t actually Indian. I had never been to India, my parents had never been to India, my grandparents had never been to India. As far as we were concerned, we were Guyanese, but the people who were spray-painting “Hindus go home” on our house, the people who spat at my father, and chased him down the block with a broken bottle, those nuances were all lost on them. So for me, it reinforced my sense of not knowing exactly who I was or where I belonged. It determined me professionally—I became a reporter, a reporter who writes on immigrants and the struggles that immigrants face, and I think ultimately I set off on this journey to find out about my great-grandmother because I thought it might provide some answers to questions I had about identity.
Guernica: Your great-grandmother was the impetus for your research, but you didn’t quite find the answers to questions about her that you were looking for. You did, however, find all these other narratives of women with similar stories. How did you reconcile that?
Gaiutra Bahadur: If the most concrete and compelling questions were about what happened to her husband and who my grandfather’s father was, I definitely didn’t come away knowing the answers. But obviously there were other compelling questions, all interconnected. Yes, I wanted to know who my great-grandmother’s husband was, and why she left, and what happened to him, and how she found herself in the situation of being pregnant and by herself heading to the other side of the world. But once I started doing research in the archives, I saw that her story was part of this larger tale—that it wasn’t just about her. As I kept coming across very detailed and interesting stories about other women, it became clear to me pretty early on that it would have to be a collective narrative, that there would be moments when her story would have to stand in for other women, and moments when the stories of other women would have stand in for my speculation about what may have happened to her, what her experience may have been like.
I tried to include as much as I possibly could to give a life some dignity. To rescue particular women from the dustbins of history.
Guernica: Your training is in journalism, and you did exhaustive archival research for this book. Tell me about that process.
Gaiutra Bahadur: Almost everyone who reads or reviews the book is stunned by the level of detail in it. Sometimes I feel like it’s a criticism, and sometimes I feel that it’s a compliment. And it’s okay if it’s both. I felt a moral purpose, and the moral purpose was to excavate the lives of these women whose stories haven’t been told. So, if I came across a diary from a surgeon on a ship that contained all of this wonderful detail about a woman who, for example, was exhibiting signs of madness on the ship, I of course tried to share as many of those details as possible to get them on the record. That’s the journalistic impulse. Obviously I couldn’t include everything I found, but I tried to include as much as I possibly could to give a life some dignity. To rescue particular women from the dustbins of history. I know it sounds really grand when I say it like that, but I did feel a moral and ethical obligation to write the story with as much detail as I could.
Most of the primary research for the book happened in London, and the best of it came from the ship records. I looked at the reports of nearly one hundred voyages from Calcutta to the West Indies, mainly to British Guiana. I was surprised by the level of detail in those reports, especially having read the secondary literature about indentured women as these elusive figures in our history. The irony is that they remain mysteries on one very basic level, but their stories are fairly well documented in the Colonial Office records. Obviously, the stories there are not told from their own perspectives, but through the eyes of immigration officials and ship officials—all white men, but they’re there nonetheless.
Something that was really, actually stunning was when I came across a file marked “secret and confidential” in the Public Record Office at Kew [The National Archives in London]. It was a file involving an overseer, George Sutherland, who had relationships with five or six different women on Rose Hall plantation. That was a plantation I grew up about a mile or two from, and it’s the plantation my great-grandmother ended up working on and establishing a family near. Sutherland built a house for one of his women in the village where I grew up, Cumberland Village, and I was so excited to find all these references to places I knew—my own village, the plantation that we’d built our lives around. I was telling my parents about this overseer I’d found whose name was George Sutherland, and they stopped me and said, “George Sutherland?” It turns out they knew his son, also George Sutherland! He’d had a child with the woman he’d bought the house for in our village. It was a moment where the story in the archives meshed with our personal history, and the village lore. The public story meshed with our own background, our own environment, our own lived experience from the bottom up. That was really exciting.
Guernica: How did you navigate those collisions, the intersection of the personal and the political, in your writing?
Gaiutra Bahadur: To be honest, it was a far less personal book in the beginning. Given all that journalistic training, I was resistant to speaking about my own experience, and so even though it was my own story, I was treating it like a tale outside myself that I was disconnected from. I don’t see myself as a political person, and I know that that might be surprising to some people. When the book was shortlisted for the Orwell Prize, an award for political writing, I was taken aback! I see myself as an empirical person, an inductive person, and not burdened by ideology, but you spend enough time with material like this, and it’s hard not to confront the ways in which the political and the personal are enmeshed.
Guernica: You said earlier that you were driven by a moral responsibility to tell the story, but you’re also saying you’re not a political person. Do you see morality as being apart from the political?
Gaiutra Bahadur: There are a couple different levels of politics in the story. There are the politics of seeing this as an oppressed history, the story of people whose voices were lost to us because they lacked power. In that sense it was always a political project. But to see it as a feminist book is another level of political. To see the sex lives, and the love lives—the intimate lives—of these women as political is yet another level. For some reason it took me a while to arrive at that. I’m not sure why that is. I think it’s connected to not knowing the answers.
Of course, it’s also very hard to talk about these things when you’re also talking about your own. I think I made a few people uncomfortable by asking those questions. For example, in Guyana, a public official apparently went into his office, and two friends of mine, attorneys, who work for him told me he asked, “Who is that woman who’s been writing that all of our grandmothers and great-grandmothers were prostitutes?” That is what it boiled down to for him, and that, for some people was the takeaway—the book was somehow calling into question the character, the moral caliber, of the women who were indentured, which is utter nonsense.
There was so much weight invested in the “honor” of an Indian woman in those plantation societies, and it lingers still.
Guernica: You wrote about the colonial government underestimating the value of “Indian womanhood” to the culture and to the society itself. Do you think that idea of “value” is lingering in that criticism?
Gaiutra Bahadur: Absolutely. I mean, there was so much weight invested in the “honor” of an Indian woman in those plantation societies, and it lingers still; it’s something that we still contend with. I’ve had a very warm reception to this book overall, but now, a year after its publication, as I take it into more local and community settings, I’ve had more of that kind of response, and it does seem to come from Indo-Caribbean men of a certain generation. At a gathering in Brooklyn recently, an older Guyanese man started his question by saying, “One must be careful.” I can’t remember the way he ended it, but it was as though I was being reprimanded. For many, I’m also representing the community to a far broader audience, and it is incumbent upon me to protect the honor of our grandmothers and our great-grandmothers. The ironic thing is that’s exactly what I think I’m doing—restoring them to dignity by telling their stories in the fullest way possible.
Another point I wanted to make was that colonial officials made the same judgments about Indian women. They contended that the problems in the system, which included these illicit relationships between white men and Indian women on the plantations, and the problem of so-called “wife murders,” weren’t institutional problems, and they had nothing to do with the system of indenture or the way plantations were run. This was because “the quality of the women” brought from India was so poor. These were bad women. These were depraved women, and that was why they had those problems. It became “the woman” question, and the East Indian woman was reduced to an issue or a problem.
There again is the reason that I try to render their individual stories in as much detail as possible—in detail that almost sometimes seems to burden the story or the storytelling. It’s to rescue their individuality and to show some women who are brazen, some sassy, some women who are less so, some women who really struggled with issues of depression, and some women whom you might call calculating, because they used their position more shrewdly. A great example is the story of the woman in Fiji, who in an auction outbid a white man, and he asked where her money bank was, and she said, “Between my legs, where you can’t get at it.” She was extraordinary. But then again, that’s also a story that comes to us through a white Australian overseer, so take it for what you will.
Guernica: How did you deal with presenting the facts and being skeptical of them at the same time?
Gaiutra Bahadur: I was constantly aware that I couldn’t hear the stories from the women themselves, it was always through the filter of documents, official documents written by bureaucrats, written by men who were in positions of power. I had to figure out how to deal with it rhetorically, and I came upon what I think is the solution, or what I hope works as a solution, accidentally. I was listening to a New Yorker fiction podcast of a Donald Barthelme short story, “Concerning the Bodyguard.” It’s a short, short story, and it is written from the perspective of a bodyguard who is assigned to a high-ranking political leader. The entire story is written in question form—there might be a couple of statements in the entire thing—and it’s meant to reflect the bodyguard’s uncertainty as he views the world. He never knows who’s coming at him, what’s coming at him, and he doesn’t know what to make of the people coming down the street. And I thought, If he can do it, I can give it a shot, why not? So I wound up posing a lot of questions, and there are whole sections of the book that are written entirely in questions. Hopefully they’re not just vague questions, but questions that also provide landscape detail or advance the plot such as it is, as well as provide tone. That’s where I was able to insert my questioning of the official story, and be a little cheeky about it at times, too!
Guernica: Was there anything you really wanted to include that you didn’t or couldn’t?
Gaiutra Bahadur: Fortunately, the material I had to cut from the book had an afterlife. Following footnotes, I found three decades of letters written home to Essex, England, from a nineteenth-century overseer who worked on plantations very close to where I was born in Guyana. They were so rich in details that evoke a life and that also suggest lives on the edges of his own, the black and Indian and Chinese workers in the cane fields. Yet, they didn’t really advance my story or my argument. As I said, I had this kind of ethical loyalty to the details in the archives. I didn’t want to betray them by letting them go unwritten. So, what I did in this case was write an essay for History Today based on the letters. It ran in January.
My blog for the book has been another way to riff post-publication. And to share really arresting but problematic photos of Indian women in the West Indies. I’m working on an essay for Dissent about the studio portraits used in postcards to sell an image of the Caribbean, and the way they differ from the photos of Indian women that come to us through family albums. I wish I had had the time and space when I was writing the book to dissect the images critically and to tell more of the stories behind them, including the stories of the photographers who took them. I’m glad I have a second chance at it. If I had the time and money, I’d also love to make the blog for the book a site for oral histories, a way to feature some of the really fascinating stories that readers across continents have shared about the lives, journeys, and loves of their own indentured or enslaved ancestors.
Guernica: Who’s the audience that you envisioned in the conception and making of this book? Whom did you see receiving these stories and these voices you were bringing to light?
Gaiutra Bahadur: Really, I was writing it for myself, and for so many women just like me who feel like this part of their history is missing. I was encouraged along the way by new friends I’d met—New York, as you know, is an incredible center for Indo-Caribbean activity. I was writing for them, these new girlfriends of mine who were trying to make sense of their lives and their histories, and felt like no one had written a book for them quite yet. It was that, and it was also a book that I hoped would be universal. Obviously, since my publisher in the US is an academic publisher, it was a book I hoped people who write about South Asian history or Caribbean history or gender history, subaltern histories, would find meaningful, too. I hoped that it would advance knowledge in those particular disciplines. It’s a book that tries to hit many different levels, and in the course of talking about it, people have come up to me and said things like, “I’m buying five copies of this book, and I’m giving it to my sister, my sister-in-law, my girlfriend, my mother-in-law,” people who weren’t necessarily readers, but whom they thought would read this book because it matters to them, because it’s their story.
We come with the experience of having contended historically with religious, linguistic, and racial difference—and in the collision chamber of the Caribbean, no less.
Guernica: The stories you tell at the end of Coolie Woman show the resonance of indentureship in the cultures of former colonies, particularly in the Caribbean. I’m curious about the reverse: What do you think are some of the legacies of indentureship that have marked the former empire, and even the contemporary superpowers?
Gaiutra Bahadur: Salman Rushdie’s phrase for that reverse effect of colonialism, through the immigration of South Asians to Britain, is that they “chutnified” England. In other words, England had colonized India, but Indian immigrants had also made their mark on England. And he’s right, there are so many immigrants from Guyana and Trinidad in first-world capitals—in New York itself, Guyanese are among the top five immigrant groups, and are influencing the city on all levels; there are Guyanese who affect the fabric of New York life and the lives of New Yorkers. So because of the uprooting of indenture, Britain and the US and Canada have the benefit of immigrants who have more than a century of savvy in the West, who in a multi-generational sense are veterans of assimilation.
We have already remade ourselves once. We come with the experience of having contended historically with religious, linguistic, and racial difference—and in the collision chamber of the Caribbean, no less. On the flip side, some also come with some very real lingering social and economic problems that can be traced to the institution of indenture. We come speaking English, but in some cases it’s an English so inflected with dialect and idiosyncrasy that students speaking Guyanese English are fundamentally misread and their needs misunderstood by schools. A linguist recently told me the story of a teenager who wrote, in an essay: “I was talking to a girl, and then she got pregnant.” In the Caribbean, talking to a girl means more than it literally does. It means you’ve been dating. An American teacher without that context thought it was quite the causal leap from talking to a girl to impregnating her, and the boy ended up in an ESL class.
There’s a contemporary debate about reparations that acknowledges the wealth that slavery created for individual Britons and their heirs. There isn’t the same kind of discussion over indenture. That’s partly because there was no system of compensation for plantation owners when indenture was abolished, as there was for slavery. Still, there is no denying that indenture as practiced involved abuse and exploitation that enriched particular families and institutions in Britain. The Man Booker Prize, to give one important example, was endowed by a multinational conglomerate that began in 1834, with three brothers, the Bookers, striking out to the sugar cane fields of British Guiana to make their fortune. And so they did. By the time indenture ended, they owned the vast majority of plantations in the colony. All sorts of hard and concrete things still existing in Britain today were partly paid for with the profits from sugar grown by the indentured: bridges, hospitals, libraries, and, mad as it may seem, literary prizes.
Guernica: You reference often in Coolie Woman how unimaginable it was for so many to leave India, but given your previous comment, would you say immigration has become a part of a diasporic legacy?
Gaiutra Bahadur: Yes. My story, and the questions I had, are layered on top of my great-grandmother’s story, and her experience, like a palimpsest. In the same way, this generation of immigrants to the United States and elsewhere—though the circumstances are very different—is an echo of an earlier leaving. I’d venture to say colonization was an early form of globalization.
This was our creation story as Indo-Caribbeans—“In the beginning there was a boat.”
Guernica: This notion of the crossing, that journey, especially around the Caribbean and in the American consciousness, has more to do with the slave trade than indentureship. How do you think these two similar, yet very different journeys, inform each other?
Gaiutra Bahadur: Well, I definitely think it’s a controversial comparison. My chapter about the indenture voyage is called “Her Middle Passage,” and given the racial tensions between the descendants of slaves and the descendants of the indentured in Guyana in particular, I knew that it would be a controversial comparison to make. But, for the same reason, it’s a necessary comparison to make, as long as you’re scrupulous about the details, which I am. The ways in which they are similar have to do with, especially, the experience of women, who were subject to rape and sexual exploitation on both journeys. I also think the voyage in the Indo-Caribbean imagination is a very central thing—which makes sense given that in the course of those three to three and a half months their sense of self was completely broken down, ripped apart and reinvented. This had a lot to do with caste. According to Hindu orthodoxy, if you crossed the sea it was a violation of caste, and you’d no longer be Brahmin or belong to the warrior caste or merchant caste.
The way I frame it in the book is that this was our creation story as Indo-Caribbeans—“In the beginning there was a boat.” That was our Big Bang moment. That was where we began. India, for so many of us, has this mythic quality, like the primordial ocean from which things emerge, and it’s not real; it’s an abstraction, an idea for so many Indians in the Caribbean. The most essential way those two journeys are connected is that they both signal very abrupt breaks with the past.
Guernica: Can you speak a bit more about the relationship between the descendants of slaves and descendants of indenture in Guyana?
Gaiutra Bahadur: The tensions between slaves and the indentured were built into labor tensions, and the fact that one replaced the other—one captive controllable work force replacing another. Without indentured labor, the formerly enslaved and their children would have been able to negotiate the conditions they would work under, the wages they would work for, etc. But instead, what the planters and the British government did was work together to bring in another labor force entirely, so the indentured were seen as “scab labor.” That’s certainly one of the roots of the tension between the two groups. At least, that’s the first part of the story. And it really is why I am writing a second book about Guyana, because part two of the answer has very much to do with the Cold War, and American intervention in Guyanese politics, which took it to the next level of trauma.
Guernica: Tell me more about this second book you’re working on.
Gaiutra Bahadur: I’m in the initial stages of research of a Cold War story that also involves Guyana. In a way, it’s a sequel to Coolie Woman. It will be the story of Janet Jagan, this fascinating Jewish-American woman who met a future independence leader of Guyana when he was in Chicago studying to become a dentist and she was studying to become a nurse. They were both involved in left-wing student politics and met that way. They fell in love; she followed him to Guyana, and became his equal in the anti-colonial struggle. But this is her story, which is the story of this really interesting woman who goes to an obscure part of the world and changes its destiny. She’s a politician; she ultimately becomes first lady, and after that president of Guyana. I would also use her life to tell the story of decolonization and superpower intervention in the affairs of small countries during the Cold War.
Guernica: So you’ll be moving from the stories of indentured women to this story of a woman who comes from Chicago and shares power with her Guyanese husband. This seems to represent a big shift in terms of gender. Did she have a cultural effect in Guyana? Did things change for women because of her?
Gaiutra Bahadur: Well, Janet Jagan had a very interesting story about meeting her in-laws for the first time. Here she is, Jagan’s wife, and by all rights, she should be hanging out with the women sitting on the floor in the kitchen when she goes to his village and their home. But instead, because she is white, the family doesn’t know what to do with her. In the end, they put her with the men who are sitting in the living room, on chairs, talking to each other. And that is where she falls, because she’s an American, and she’s ethnically different from them. Gender is a very big part of her story, and I think I’m going to call the book—this is very tentative—The Woman From America, because that seems to encapsulate the way she was seen.
She was a very polarizing figure, and part of the way her critics framed their feelings about her was through a gendered lens—they talked about her having affairs, and if she had an influence on her husband, it was a manipulative influence. Governing Guyana from the pillow, that sort of thing. In the beginning, she was involved in movements that promoted the empowerment and equality of women, but then there are some people who saw her as ultimately anti-feminist. She is a bold, bright, capable woman leader, but we shouldn’t mistake that for feminism in and of itself. But I’m still working through the details on Janet, and still very much learning and researching, so I’ll let the details lead me.
Guernica: Your focus in Coolie Woman was on the women, but you also spend a lot of time talking about the psyche of indentured men. Was that something that you planned, or struggled with?
Gaiutra Bahadur: The final chapter of Coolie Woman looks at ongoing violence against Guyanese women today, and how that is linked to their lack of economic independence. A large percentage of Guyanese women are not in the formal workforce. They work, but they work informally—they have market gardens, they sell produce, that kind of thing—so when they become the victims of violence, they don’t have the power to leave. The governing institutions in Guyana, the police especially, are still very patriarchal. They’re run by men, men who are very conservative in their attitudes.
That said, it was important to me not to replicate the biases of the colonial newspapers I read on early-twentieth-century “wife murders”—the stories of Indian men murdering their wives—because they were so full of images of Indian men as savages, and so full of colonial biases, really. So perhaps that’s why I spend so much time trying to understand how the men might have felt, what complex set of motivations and wounds might have led them to these actions. I am the daughter of an Indo-Caribbean man, and the cousin of many Indo-Caribbean men, and this is their story as much as it is the story of the women. It was a very critical part of the story for me, actually.
Again, I’ve not gotten a lot of criticism, but what I have felt directed at me has come from Indo-Caribbean men of a certain generation. I don’t feel good about that by any means, but that’s an important fact for me to take note of, especially since I tried so hard to be as sensitive as I could and empathetic to the best of my ability, because this is one of our central problems as a community or a set of communities. It’s deep and it continues in the Caribbean and in immigrant communities in the US and elsewhere. Sure, Coolie Woman is a story of identity, and it’s a story about rescuing a certain group of women from historical oblivion, but the question of violence against women that we continue to grapple with was a part of the motivation. That question kept me passionate about the project through the many years of work and all of the challenges. So it’s important—the issue is important, and we have to try to understand where it comes from. It comes to us at least partly through this history of indenture.
Guernica: What impact are you hoping to have by unveiling these narratives now?
Gaiutra Bahadur: I hope that it’s the beginning of a conversation in our communities. I got a note from someone who told me she’s reading it with her father, and that touched me to know. All I can hope for is that people read this difficult history, this really uncomfortable history, and look inside themselves and talk to each other. That’s all I think it can do.
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