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Coolie Woman

By Bridget Brereton

Next week is Indian Arrival Day, when the nation remembers the immigrants from India whose arrival, between 1845 and 1917, helped to create modern T&T. So it’s a good time to notice a new book, Coolie Woman The Odyssey of Indenture by Guyana-born American writer Gaiutra Bahadur. (It was short-listed for the non-fiction Bocas Lit Fest prize).

In a preface, Bahadur explains her use of “coolie” in her title, and all through the book, to refer to the indentured immigrants. It’s part of a literary and artistic movement to reclaim the “C word”, to use it with pride, to subvert the old stigmas linked to it. It’s a word which carries the baggage of colonialism and the burdens of history, she says.

This excellently written and well researched book combines academic historical writing, based on documents in the British and Guyanese archives, with a deeply personal story of the author’s search for her family history. It’s not easy to pull off this kind of hybrid, but Bahadur succeeds brilliantly—the book is very readable yet deeply researched (and heavily annotated too).

Bahadur left Guyana as a child for the United States; it seems that her entire extended family emigrated to North America in the 1970s and 1980s, part of the massive out-migration which has drained Guyana of her best and brightest. Throughout the book, she meditates about her identity.

But the core of the book is the story of Sujaria, Bahadur’s great-grandmother. Sujaria left her home village in Bihar and came to the colony of British Guiana as an indentured immigrant in 1903, on The Clyde. Like the majority of women who made this voyage, she came alone, without a husband or parents.

And yet she was not alone: her emigration pass issued at the Calcutta depot (she was Immigrant #96153) has “pregnant 4 mos” (months) written in at the top. She gave birth to a son towards the end of the three-month voyage. Both Sujaria and the infant survived a difficult labour (it was a breech birth) and she named him Lalbahadur, which was not her name, or her father’s. 

The identity of the baby’s father remains a mystery. Nor do we know why Sujaria left India: she was in her mid-twenties and was a Brahmin, fair-skinned, tall and good-looking, according to her grandchildren. Did she leave children behind? 

Sujaria was indentured to two sugar plantations. When her three-year term ended, she was at Rose Hall in Berbice. She married another ex-indentured immigrant and settled in Cumberland village near the plantation. They kept cows and she sold milk to the villagers. Her children, Lalbahadur (the author’s grandfather) and the ones born in Guyana, formed families and put down deep roots in this rural corner of Berbice. And it was from here that Bahadur and her family left as part of the great exodus out of postcolonial Guyana.

Using Sujaria’s story as her central thread, Bahadur explores the “odyssey” (journey) of the immigrant Indian woman: recruitment in northern India; waiting at the depot in Calcutta where people were transformed into “coolies”, or indentured immigrants; the voyage; the indenture experience on the plantations; the violence against women; the patterns of sexual relations and family forms during indenture; and the settlement in villages after your indenture was over.

For Bahadur, the key question she wants to answer, for Sujaria and the thousands of women like her, is one which several historians have already raised, including our own Rhoda Reddock and Patricia Mohammed: “Was she a victim—or had she taken charge of her own destiny?” Did the indentured immigration system “liberate women, or con them into a new kind of bondage?”

This is a moving, richly detailed and rewarding account of two intertwined journeys, Sujaria’s (and thousands like her), and the author’s. 

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