Coolie Woman: Behind the ‘C’ Word

CIMA Magazine / January 2, 2014

“Was she a victim – or had she taken charge of her own destiny?” Gaiutra Bahadur asks of her great-grandmother in Coolie Woman: The Odyssey of Indenture. Her new book paints a picture of life as an indentured woman in the West Indies, the oppression, harsh physical labor, violence, misogyny; the muddled contradiction of a reality that offered more choice than previously imaginable while harboring a vortex of endless sexual exploitation.

Bahadur gives the backdrop of this life:

“Ultimately, over the course of eight decades, [the British] ferried more than a million ‘coolies’ to more than a dozen colonies across the globe, including British Guiana, Trinidad, Jamaica, Suriname, Mauritius and Fiji… Coming from the lips of plantation managers, the c-word stung, a reminder of lowliness in the hierarchy of the sugar estate, a hierarchy based on race. Indians were at the bottom, below the English, Scottish and the Irish as well as the African descendants of slaves sometimes assigned as ‘drivers’ or foremen in charge of work gangs.”

This is in the preface, before a story of the women who knowingly or unwittingly became the nexus of a brutal system of indentured servitude, imperialism, and stringent patriarchy. Bahadur provides further context of what migration for such purposes did for Indians – stripping them of caste, community, companionship, and all other structures that formed the base of their lives on the subcontinent. With this, they were given the name “coolie,” defining them primarily by their collective status as menial workers, a marker of identity that evolved to an ethnic slur and stuck with their descendants.

Bahadur, an Indo-Caribbean who moved with her family from Guyana to New Jersey at the age of 6, focuses on a part of this history that has been obscured in the larger memory of diaspora and displacement from India, and even more specifically of indenture. The women who were a part of this world had a different reality from the men, which largely goes without saying, but also a vastly different reality from women in other phases or patterns of emigration.

“There are a lot of different desi narratives in the US, very diverse and complex,” she said. “This history does make me feel distinct from many Indian Americans because they have come here through the post-65 Hart-Celler Act, the migration of professionals and students into the United States. Some people have talked to me about this book as a roots narrative, and it is and it isn’t – in the end, if I did find myself anywhere, it wasn’t in my great-grandmothers village in Bihar or in India at large, it was more in the structure of forced and semi-forced migration.”

Through trying to uncover the story of her own great-grandmother, Sujaria, who left India pregnant and alone for a voyage across the Atlantic in 1903, Bahadur illuminates the broader picture of the quarter of a million women who were in a similar position throughout indenture.

The dynamics that shaped their lives continue to hold relevance today as Indian society spread across the world very much maintains its values of purity and sexual respectability that women are expected to uphold. Along with the stigma of the word “coolie,” women of indenture carried the burden of having disrupted these norms and broken the rules of how Indian women were supposed to be.

“I think it’s a shift that has to happen, and it applies to gender as well as our history as laborers, to not feel shame,” Bahadur said. “And that’s a big step. For a lot of Indo-Caribbeans who are successful, they’re trying really hard to emerge from this past, from an exploited past, a degraded past. And sometimes that leads them to forget it, just move ahead and not pay attention. But I think that’s a mistake. There’s no shame in being descended from indentured workers, just like there’s no shame in being descended from women who were put in dire circumstances and had to make decisions about how to use their sexuality perhaps. There’s no moral judgment that should be attached to it. It’s what happened because of material and economic conditions.”

In particular, Bahadur is referring to the ways in which coolie women moved between men, left husbands for others who were kinder or provided more, took lovers and went back, borrowed or shared partners, had affairs with white colonizers, and often suffered disastrous consequences for all of this. Jealousy seemed to be a motivation for abuse and murder, and it was frequently blamed for uprisings that were allegedly in response to plantation mangers or overseers stealing a worker’s wife.

The story even illustrates the link between a very specific and vicious form of violence – men chopping of women’s noses, and sometimes other body parts, with a cutlass – and the Hindu mythological story of The Ramayan. Bahadur wonders if coolie men, emasculated by their place on the sugar estate social ladder, had only the patriarchal traditions of religion to hold on to, and so they did, tenaciously. They felt compelled to act in the name of honor, chastity, and the power structures they thought to be ordained by God by mimicking in real life the punishment imposed upon the evil Surpanakha in the epic parable.

Bahadur explained that the two hardest chapters of the book to write were the ones about violence against women, one about how it played out historically on the plantations and another about the astronomical rates of intimate partner violence in Guyanese homes today. The book points out that the US State Department consistently cites domestic and sexual violence among Guyana’s gravest human rights violations, with official statistics unavailable because of how grossly underreported the crimes are.

As India struggles in the public eye with its treatment of women and high incidence of rape, looking at the way these issues exist now in the diaspora, even if impacted heavily by social, cultural, and political systems in places removed from the motherland, is still important.

“There are people today in the Caribbean who still say that women there are way more free than they would be in India. And again, I think you can’t make a categorical statement like that – you have to have the context, you have to have the particulars – because women in Guyana continue to be very vulnerable in their own homes to violence; they continue to have limited educational and economic opportunities. Yes, they can wear short skirts if they want, but that’s not our complete definition of liberation, is it? People are still struggling daily with this legacy of colonialism and indenture, and that’s what the book is about in many ways: how we have overcome but how we haven’t overcome as well.”

That was one of the biggest questions in the book. Did the women departing from the subcontinent arrive to a world of greater freedom or enter them into a new kind of bondage? Badahur said she never came to an answer on this, and it’s an ongoing debate for her. And it was a debate at the time between British colonialists and educated Indians. Did becoming a part of this supposedly higher civilization equate to more gender equality?

“A group of feminist historians in 1980s framed the story as one of empowerment for women,” Bahadur said. “I think they overstate the case, though. I think it was limited power. There were these fragile openings for women to exercise choice, but ultimately you could not get away from the fact that they were workers, on a plantation, in a coercive setting, earning money, yes, but earning less than men, and ultimately not really able to say, ‘no, just no.’ They might have had their pick of partners, but they couldn’t really just say no, especially if the person who was interested was an overseer or a manager because there’s a power relationship there. Even if particular women were able to use those relationships to their advantage – to some small advantage, like having their own house away from the plantation barracks – the question is: could they really say no? Could they have the willpower to say no? Not really.”

These stories, while only being unearthed now through Bahadur’s in-depth account, confirm some negative stereotypes of Indo-Caribbean women, and this is a complaint she has received from readers. But the Indian community as a whole needs to open itself to the realities of its different women in history, as Bahadur said, and let go of the disgrace it bestows upon those who have not adhered to certain standards of virtue, for whatever reason and in particular ones related to indenture and other forms of coercion.

For Sujaria, the matter of whether her leaving India was an independent decision or one made out of desperation, or why she took one lover or another at distinct moments of her indenture, remains a mystery along with many others about women just like her. But Bahadur’s book gives voice to their repressed history, which in itself pieces together answers to questions that most have never even dared to ask.

“Exploring these stories shook my idea of my ancestors to the core,” she said. “This is not at all what I knew about our history, or what most people know about our history. But many have been able to just acknowledge it as the truth and respect it as the truth.”