Coolie Woman: The Odyssey of Indenture

Coolie Woman: The Odyssey of Indenture

by Gaiutra Bahadur

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In 1903, a young woman sailed from India to Guiana as a “coolie”—the British name for indentured laborers who replaced the newly emancipated slaves on sugar plantations all around the world. Pregnant and traveling alone, this woman, like so many coolies, disappeared into history.InCoolie Woman—shortlisted for the 2014 Orwell Prize—her great-granddaughter Gaiutra Bahadur embarks on a journey into the past to find her.Traversing three continents and trawling through countless colonial archives, Bahadur excavates not only her great-grandmother’s story but also the repressed history of some quarter of a million other coolie women, shining a light on their complex lives.

Shunned by society, and sometimes in mortal danger, many coolie women were either runaways, widows, or outcasts. Many of them left husbands and families behind to migrate alone in epic sea voyages—traumatic “middle passages”—only to face a life of hard labor, dismal living conditions, and, especially, sexual exploitation. As Bahadur explains, however, it is precisely their sexuality that makes coolie women stand out as figures in history. Greatly outnumbered by men, they were able to use sex with their overseers to gain various advantages, an act that often incited fatal retaliations from coolie men and sometimes larger uprisings of laborers against their overlords. Complex and unpredictable, sex was nevertheless a powerful tool.

Examining this and many other facets of these remarkable women’s lives,Coolie Womanis a meditation on survival, a gripping story of a double diaspora—from India to the West Indies in one century, Guyana to the United States in the next—that is at once a search for one’s roots and an exploration of gender and power, peril and opportunity.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226211381
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 08/04/2014
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 312
Sales rank: 469,088
Product dimensions: 6.40(w) x 9.10(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Gaiutra Bahadur is a journalist and book critic whose work has appeared in the New York Times Book Review, the Washington Post, Ms., and the Nation, among other publications.

Read an Excerpt

Coolie Woman

The Odyssey of Indenture



Copyright © 2014 Gaiutra Bahadur
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-03442-3



I don't need no axe to split/ up yu syntax

John Agard, "Listen Mr Oxford Don"

On 7 November 1981, my family left our village, which sits along a creek surrounded by sugar cane, which grows in grids cut by canals, which criss-cross the coastline, which sinks below sea level in a wet and muddy corner of South America. In the picture we took to mark the moment, we stand in the front yard of the house my grandfather built, the house I grew up in, a house raised on artificial wooden legs like all the rest. In the photo, everyone looks annoyed. My mother, in bellbottoms, holding my baby sister, appears to pout. My father, in sideburns, his arm hanging over my mother's shoulder, looks cross. His eyebrows are knit. Mine are, too; they counter the optimism of my kiskadee-colored dress and matching ponytail holders, blinding balls of yellow. I wonder what was wrong. Why do we look so displeased? Was the sun in our eyes? Were there packages from neighbors, intended for sons somewhere in America, waiting to be stuffed, somehow, into our suitcases? My grandmothers, flanking us, neither headed for America just yet, seemed content enough. Maybe we weren't looking forward to the long journey ahead, over the Canje Creek Bridge by car, across the fat, pulsing Berbice River by ferry, through even more geometric fields of cane to our country's capital and then, finally, across ear-ringing skies on our first plane ride ever, a Guyana Airways flight to New York City. Into the house in the picture, electricity had just come, but there was no phone or indoor toilet.

I was almost seven, old enough to have memories of Guyana and young enough to be severed in two by the act of leaving it. Emigrating was like stepping into a magician's box. The sawing in half was just a trick. In time, limbs and coherence would be restored, and a whole, intact self sent back into the audience. But at my age, unformed and impressionable, I didn't know that. All I knew was that everything seemed to split apart. Time became twofold, divided into the era BA, or before America, and the one after it, after 7 November 1981. Space was also sundered, torn slowly and excruciatingly into two conflicting realms, inside and out.

My memories of Guyana are almost all set outdoors. The houses there stand on stilts, to avoid the flood underfoot. That kicks open, underneath, a concrete terrain known as the Bottom House. There, curries are cooked and eaten, laundry washed and set to dry. There, life unfurls, exposed to the eyes of the lane, open to the comment of neighbors. And there, visits are paid. Hammocks rock back-and-forth, marking the absence of time, as hours pass in gyaffing, a West Indian brand of aimless talk, encompassing everything and nothing at once.

I remember the outside of our house in Cumberland Village much better than the inside. The Bottom House opened into the front yard, where we posed for our photo that last day. To the left stood our guinep tree, the scant, sweet pulp of its fruit encased in a green shell. To the right stood our concrete temple, the size of a tool-shed. It lay outside the frame of that final picture, but I remember it vividly. The mandir was honeycombed for ventilation and painted as blue as the clay gods within. It sat next to my grandmother's garden, where so many times, zinnias tucked into our braids, sheets wrapped like saris around our waists, my cousin and I played at being brides. We staged our weddings in and around a curvaceous blue car parked inside the gate. It belonged to Brudda, a taxi-driving cousin renowned for his ability to squeeze in a dozen passengers in any one go. The car had died and, for some reason, Brudda had laid it to rest under the guinep tree. Three decades later, Brudda is in Canada, and we are in America; but the remains of the car still lie there, an indestructible shard of blue in the weeds choking our abandoned plot of Guyanese earth. The temple, the garden and the car comprise the hazy landscape of my first childhood, like stickers pasted onto a board-game map of the past. Flat, but brightly colored, they represent what was, in the wide-open place we left behind.

In the America we arrived in, it was too cold for all that. Our aunts gave me and my cousin matching grey winter coats. We wore them through our first season of snow. We learned how to speak and shoved indoors the Creole words that vibrated with Bottom House and playmates. There wasn't much extra room for those words in the close spaces of our new life, on the first floor of my uncle's house in New Jersey. We rented three tight rooms and slept five in a row, on two beds pushed together, for half a decade. My grandmother, who had crossed a border crawling on her belly to join us by then, made the fifth. From the fire escape, we could see the Twin Towers. Despite the panoramic view of Manhattan, our apartment promoted claustrophobia. The door swung into the windowless bathroom to reveal my mother balanced on the edge of the bathtub, attacking clothes in sudsy water, pummeling hand-me-down jeans until they screeched, beating the ugly green corduroys that made me look as awkward as I felt. She nearly fainted once, with the fumes of Clorox bleach concentrated in that tiny room.

The gods were also crowded; they, too, had been forced inside. From the airy temple perfumed by zinnias, they were driven into the closet—the linen closet in the bedroom, to be precise. There was a box of Barbie dolls on the bottom shelf, and nightly, the rats made incisions into the pale plastic of their perfectly formed legs. On the top shelf rested framed prints of the gods: elephant-trunked Ganesh, the remover of obstacles; Hanuman, the monkey with a mountain in his palm; and Sarasvati, the goddess of knowledge.

Every Sunday, the white shutters of the linen closet would open. Fresh flowers were placed on a bronze plate, and incense sticks lit. My mother would sing bhajans, Hindu devotional songs. She knows very little Hindi. Yet there was always in her cadence—in that lovely, high voice—a crack of sadness seducing me into false belief. It led me to believe that she had occupied the insides of every last syllable of song. Those early years in America often sent my twenty-something-year-old mother to her shuttered gods. They gave the hymns she did not understand, from an India she had never seen, a tangible quality. You could touch the words. They bent down to your feet, imploring your blessings. Main ik nanha sa, main ik chota sa, baccha hoon. I am a tiny child, I am a small child. She stood in front of the makeshift shrine with a white lace scarf over her head, and she prayed with her eyes tightly shut.

Hindi echoed through our apartment, hinting at India, every Sunday—and not only through the soft rustle of my mother's prayers. It blasted with shoulder—shimmying force from our television set, tuned to a station that broadcast Bollywood on the weekends. I remember sitting on the edge of our bed one morning, playing with the Velcro straps on my sneakers. We were about to see off our cousins on a visit to Guyana. The hour was obscenely early, and I was in a sour mood. But that changed when I saw Kumar Gaurav's face fill the screen. It was a scene from Love Story, a Bombay musical I had last seen in Guyana, at a cinema hall near our village. The hero, a Romeo repackaged for the subcontinent, was haunting the grounds of his Juliet's home on the day of her wedding to someone else. His chiseled face was long and soulful, and his star-crossed song seduced me all over again through the static of the Zenith.

It's not that I was in love with Kumar Gaurav (although, aged nine, I might incidentally have been). I used to dream then of waking up in our Bottom House from forever-long stays in a Nighttown made up of three small rooms. At that time, Kumar Gaurav had the warm glow of a flashback to Guyana, triggering memory like Cod Liver Oil or Marmite or an overheard snippet of Creolese on the otherwise ordinary street. All belonged to an inner enclave, severed from the external world. Outside, Americans were speaking "Proper English." Inside were all our secrets, good and bad: the cracked English, the hidden gods, the dal and roti on Sunday mornings and the lachrymose lyrics of Lata Mangeshkar, the GOLden VOICE of BOLLYwood, as the men who gave us our cassette culture kept insisting in singsong promos.

Indian movies were part of the landscape of inside, existing in a rarefied private place that had little to do with a specific location on a map. For me, Bollywood did not refer back to India. In fact, I did not know to call it Bombay's Hollywood until college. Nor did I know what most of the Hindi words I had picked up from film songs meant. I had heard them all intoned onscreen so many times, melodramatically cueing violins, that they were part of the airtight space of my complicated ethnicity, having sensibility without sense. Intuitively I knew, without knowing, these words: Pyar, zindagi, shahdi, mushkil, akela. Love, life, wedding, troubles, alone. These were words well suited to the play of little Guyanese girls rehearsing futures in Bottom Houses on the edges of rectangles of cane. They were arguably less relevant to futures imagined from claustrophobic apartments on the margins of Manhattan.

Hindi films imparted nothing of the social rifts or other realities in India. After all, Pinky and Bunty weren't star-crossed because one was Muslim and the other Hindu, or one Brahmin and the other from a "backward caste." If India looked anything like the country of Bollywood, then it was a place where lovers ran into each other's arms across flowering fields, while breaking into song—a land where arch-criminals cavorted in underground lairs with scantily-clad dancing girls. For some reason, the arch-criminals always wore beards and dark glasses, and the lovers changed outfits every two minutes, mid-song. Even so, Indian movies did impart an odd, foetal sense of identity to me. I received it effortlessly, through the navel string of culture, becoming as familiar with Rekha, Shashi Kapoor and Amitabh Bachchan as with the Technicolor deities inside the linen closet. The Bollywood megastars were gods, too. Both religion and the cinema gave me the conviction that I was Indian, although I had never stepped foot in India, nor had my parents, nor had my grandparents. Bollywood and the bhajans also gave me language.

Frantz Fanon, the Caribbean intellectual who was a freedom fighter in Algeria, once wrote: "A man who has a language consequently possesses the world expressed and implied by that language." It's an apt statement from the frontlines of a struggle against a colonial power. Take away my language, and you also take away access to the stories that my forebears created, in the cadences that they created them. Educate me in a language lacking the rhythms of home, and I am likely to speak as a segmented self, to sound surgically snipped and etherized in the official world, shorn of the words that resonate with Bottom House and gyaffing, altercation and intimacy, mother and father.

Over the generations, various Indian tongues have been lost as spoken languages in Guyana. The missionary-run schools during British rule taught English—not Hindi or Tamil. Many Guyanese living in the gravitational pull of sugar plantations got little or no formal schooling, well into the twentieth century. Whether educated or not, they still had to assimilate into a multiethnic society where various versions of Creolese, an English dialect that evolved from plantation pidgin, was the idiom. This is what we spoke inside our immigrant home; this was our cracked, our stained-glass English, made from smashed bits of multicolored glass, a thing of beauty constructed from fragments, including fragments from India.

Shards of Hindi have remained, indestructible, like the scrap of Brudda's fender in our Bottom House. Words for family, for religion, for food, for love have survived, as has something more difficult to define. Colonialism and migration are inextricably joined in my family history. Colonialism caused us to migrate, first to British Guiana, then from an independent Guyana still struggling to emerge from its colonial past. Migration involves resistance, too—resistance against the loss of culture, of memory, of dialect. Those of us engaged in this daily struggle against loss know that it's possible to "have" a language on many levels. We know that it's possible for a language to resonate emotionally even when it has been literally lost. We know that, even when slurring the surmised remains of our once-upon-a-time language or parroting it without understanding it, it's possible to wrap our tongues possessively around the world it expresses and implies. My mother, worshipping her shuttered gods with shuttered eyes, knew that.

There were reasons for her to pray with her eyes tightly shut. In 1987, the same year we moved to our very own house, bigots began terrorizing the neighborhood. We picked up the local newspaper to find their crudely scrawled manifesto. They signed their note "The Dot Busters." It was a few years after the release of Ghostbusters, and their nom de guerre was a terrifying play on the movie title and on dothead, an anti-Indian slur mocking the bindis that some married Hindu women wear on their foreheads. "We will go to any extreme to get Indians to move out," the note read. "We use the phone books and look up the name Patel. Have you seen how many of them there are?" Soon after this declaration of violence was published, three white men assaulted an Indian doctor with baseball bats. They were prosecuted, but their victim could not remember the details necessary to convict them; such was the severity of his brain damage. Days after the attack, another Indian man was beaten to death less than a mile away, in an adjacent town.

The assaults both occurred a few blocks from my family's house in the Heights, a hub of working-class respectability in Jersey City. This city of a quarter-million people, located directly across the Hudson River from Lower Manhattan, styles itself as a sixth borough of New York. Its brittle row houses lean close together, ogling the backside of the Statue of Liberty like a cluster of lewd old men. Its landscape is squat, huddled, massed with immigrants. At the time, a third of its residents were born outside the United States. Many were recently arrived Indians, mainly from the state of Gujarat. They comprised the largest and the most visibly different group. It wasn't just the color of their skin, which was also the color of our skin. It was their saris, their accents, the bindis enunciating their foreheads. It was their Mahatma Gandhi Square, its air thick with curry, its lamp posts hung with Indian flags. Most of all, it was their striving, their ambition in a city that had seen better days. The Dot Busters made Indians in Jersey City fear for their lives, and they made us, Indians nearly a century out of India, feel just as menaced.

My parents wouldn't let us play outside that autumn. Once, a man in a car idling next to ours at a red light spat directly into my father's face. Another time, hoodlums brandishing a broken bottle chased him for blocks. Someone scrawled "Hindus Go Home" in black paint across the side of our house, and my mother spent the next day scouring the aluminum siding with paint thinner. The vandals didn't know that their decree was not a straightforward one. They couldn't have cared less that home was not what it seemed—was not, in fact, easy to define. To them, Indian-looking meant Indian. Certainly, there was no command of the cracks that colonialism had created. They didn't imagine that, among their Indian-looking neighbors, there might be strangers eyeing each other from a distance, fascinated and even moved by what linked them and by the limits of what linked them. What makes an Indian? Did our religion, our movies, our shards of Hindi make us Indian? Did the attacks of a racist gang targeting people who looked like us? Did hate crime make us Indian?

We did feel solidarity with Indians in our neighborhood because of the attacks, and many of my school friends were Indian-American. But the embrace offered to Indo-Caribbeans by immigrants directly from the subcontinent often has a subtle edge. Their tenderness can be patronizing. Probably, they are only trying to bond when they point out that the unraveling of our arms, when we dance, is like North Indian folk dance but, somehow, off. Indeed, they are eager to tell us our own story—what part of India we probably came from, what dialect of Hindi our ancestors probably spoke, how our singers inevitably garble those dialects when they perform chutney, the hybrid dance music indigenous to the Caribbean but rooted in India. I doubt they mean to offend, or to hold us to the light like an artifact, a fascinating shard of pottery. Often, there is no embrace at all but just a nod, like one given to a poor cousin, barely acknowledging kinship. Sometimes, there isn't even that. Sometimes, they would rather deny us like an "outside child"—which is what West Indians call a child born outside a legal marriage. To some, we are India's outside child. When class isn't their issue, authenticity—some apparent concern over our parentage—seems to be.

Excerpted from Coolie Woman by GAIUTRA BAHADUR. Copyright © 2014 Gaiutra Bahadur. Excerpted by permission of THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents



List of Illustrations

Preface: The C-Word


1. The Magician’s Box

2 Ancestral Memory


3. The Women’s Quarters

4. Into Dark Waters

5. Her Middle Passage

6. A New World

7. Beautiful Woman Without a Nose

8. Gone But Not Forgotten


9. The Dream of Return

10. Every Ancestor

11. Surviving History




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