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A Coolie Woman’s Work is Never Done

Gaiutra Bahadur unearths buried stories of indenture—those of women who battled rigid patriarchy on either side of the black water.

By Annie Paul

Some months ago, I found myself stewing over a Facebook argument that flared up after I posted on my timeline the link to Gaiutra Bahadur’s magnificent new book Coolie Woman: The Odyssey of Indenture. “‘Indian woman’—not ‘Coolie woman’” a well-meaning African-Jamaican friend responded, a bald declaration that irked me for various reasons. Do you think the two are synonymous, I asked?

The C-word, as Gaiutra Bahadur calls it, has a long history, dating back to the late 16th century when Portuguese captains and merchants relayed the Tamil word ‘kuli’, meaning wages, to the British and other Europeans. By the 20th century it had become attached to the indentured workers from India, China, and the Philippines sent out to work on colonial plantations around the world. The novelist Anita Desai records how “[i]t was a shock to Gandhi to find that in South Africa he was considered a ‘coolie’—within India the word is reserved for a manual laborer, specifically one who carries loads on his head or back. In South Africa the majority of Indians … had come to Natal on an agreement to serve for five years on the railways, plantations, and coal mines. They were known collectively as ‘coolies,’ and Gandhi was known as a ‘coolie barrister.’”

When I finally got around to cracking the covers of Coolie Woman I realized that I could have settled the argument simply by quoting its author, who makes an eloquent case for her use of the troublesome term in an interview with Fountain Ink:

Coolie Woman, by Gaiutra Bahadur, which has been long-listed for the Orwell Prize.
Coolie Woman, by Gaiutra Bahadur, which has been long-listed for the Orwell Prize.


“If we scrub our words clean, we can’t scrub our history clean. We can’t sanitise it that way. These workers, the indentured laborers, were coolies. This is the way they were seen, and this is how they were put to use in the empire, on plantations. I’m not rebranding them with that stigma by using the word in my title; I’m acknowledging the stigma.

“The main reason for using it was metaphorical, figurative, because a coolie carries baggage. A coolie bears a burden. To me, that perfectly sums up the position of indentured women. They carried burdens. They had to meet the needs of both Indian men and British men on the plantations. They had to carry the weight of expectations: the expectation that they represent the honor of a culture, that they preserve a culture, so that’s why I used it.”


A perilous journey

Between 1838 and 1917 around half a million Indians were brought to the Caribbean to serve as indentured laborers on three to five year contracts, replacing the loss of free labor after plantation slavery was abolished in the 19th century. Around 238,000 of these laborers were brought to British Guiana to perform the back-breaking work of cultivating sugarcane. Bahadur’s great-grandmother Sujaria was one of them, embarking from India in 1903.

In Coolie Woman, recently long-listed for the prestigious Orwell Prize, Bahadur manages to unpack some of the burdensome baggage she found encumbering the figure of Sujaria, and many others like her, by producing the best kind of history book there is: an innovative narrative combining archival research, personal memoir, oral testimonies, folk songs and compelling storytelling.

Is it possible to unhitch the albatross of painful history from the indentured subject? Bahadur takes a gallant shot at it, and succeeds in re-presenting the submerged histories of indentureship in a form that is fluent and vivid, engaging her readers in her personal hunt for answers to the mystery of her great-grandmother and her unexplained departure from India at the turn of the twentieth century, pregnant and unmarried.

Sujaria was not only “indentured to the figure of laborer,” as Trinidadian artist Steve Ouditt elegantly puts it, but also to the trope of the disreputable, dishonored woman historiography has recorded as the kind of gendered body available for export—a woman exploited not only for her ability to toil in the sugarcane fields but also for her sexual labor and all that it represented.

An indentured woman in Trinidad, c 1890, Harvard, Houghton Library
An indentured woman in Trinidad, c 1890, Harvard, Houghton Library

Like many of the indentured  in Guiana, Sujaria came from the province of Bihar, even today the poorest state in India. Four months pregnant when she set out on her voyage, she gave birth to the author’s paternal grandfather Lal Bahadur, aboard the ship. On her emigration pass, which listed her as a ‘Brahman’ (read Brahmin, or upper caste), “on the line for husband’s name, there was only a dash.” Sujaria’s high status meant that she was, both by nature and nurture, unsuited for work in the fields, one reason recruiters generally tried to avoid registering Brahmins for indenture. On arriving in Guiana she was therefore assigned the duties of child minder or ‘khelauni’.

One might suppose that only those at the very bottom of India’s rigid caste system, the so-called untouchables or Dalits, the lowest castes, menial laborers for example, would have sought the kind of work promised by the recruiters of indentured labor. The fear of venturing into unknown territory would surely have kept those privileged by higher caste status from crossing the dreaded kala pani, or black water, blandishments and stories of glorious opportunity notwithstanding.

In fact this was not so. Brahmins also migrated to the Caribbean in search of livelihoods, fleeing unknown oppression back home. In particular, some Brahmin women, widowed in their youth, forbidden to remarry and condemned, therefore, to a lifetime of exploitation by in-laws or to the alternative of prostitution, were willing conscripts, helping the recruiters in their difficult quest to fill the quota of roughly 40 women for every 100 men consigned to indenture.

As Bahadur notes in Coolie Woman, stories of trickery and kidnapping abounded. Indian men complained that their wives were being taken away from them when in reality many of the missing wives were fleeing oppressive marriages, so unhappy they were willing to take their chances with the unknown. In response, the British issued instructions that required registering officers to obtain the signature of a male family member before a woman could be indentured.

This provision made the task of finding enough single or married women to attain the proper gender ratio before a ship could sail that much more difficult. Most Indian men did not want to bring their wives with them on such a perilous journey, so recruiters had to find women who were outcastes or low-caste, generally prostitutes or widows, the very name for whom—‘randi’—was synonymous with the word for sex workers.

“The wrong kind of woman”

In her article on the creolization of Indian women in Trinidad, feminist theorist Patricia Mohammed draws attention to an interesting development, stating, as suggested by sociologist Rhoda Reddock, that the type of woman who was indentured—single, widowed, abandoned, or of ‘easy virtue’—could, in her new position as a “valuable resource” and “wage earner,” challenge the role she used to have in India.

“…Into which category of recruit did my great-grandmother fall?” wonders Bahadur. “Who was she? Displaced peasant, runaway wife, kidnap victim, Vaishnavite pilgrim or widow?”

Answers are not forthcoming, but Veena Talwar Oldenburg’s “Afternoons in the Kothas of Lucknow,” an essay on that city’s renowned courtesan culture, sheds more light on groups of independent Indian women who managed to squeeze some amount of autonomy for themselves from the rigid patriarchal structures of pre-independence India. What could the history of such sexually liberated Indian women tell us about those who ended up being indentured? Lucknow was in Awadh, one of the regions from which men and women were recruited for indentureship. And as the city most associated with the high culture of the Mughal courts, it had a tradition of female-owned establishments—kothas—where tawa’ifs or ‘nautch girls’ (dancers) lived. “They were the recognized preservers and performers of the high culture of the court,” Oldenburg writes, “and actively shaped the developments in Hindustani music and Kathak dance styles.”

Oldenburg’s research into the institution revealed astonishing levels of agency and financial independence on the part of the tawa’ifs. According to tax records from 1858-1877, the “dancing and singing girls” of the kothas in Lucknow were classified in the highest tax bracket, having earned more as individuals than anyone else in the city. “Their names,” Oldenburg discovered, “were also on lists of property… confiscated by British officials for their proven involvement in the siege of Lucknow and the rising against colonial rule in 1857. These women, though patently non-combatants, were penalized for their clandestine instigation of and pecuniary assistance to the rebels.”

A company style painting of a group of courtesans in northern India from the early 19th century. Edwin Binney 3rd Collection.
A company style painting of a group of courtesans in northern India from the early 19th century. Edwin Binney 3rd Collection.

It’s quite possible that women like this, fleeing British repression after their involvement in the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857, were among those who chose to leave Indian shores. Again, as with indenture, tales of evil kidnappers spiriting away young girls and women were rife, but Oldenburg’s interaction with the inhabitants of contemporary kothas in Lucknow told a different story, one remarkably similar to the narratives of the women who had embarked on the odyssey of indenture.

According to Oldenburg the myth about kidnapping was stoutly punctured by the women she interviewed. A veritable litany of woes had driven them to the kothas:

Four of these women were child widows, two of whom hailed from the same district and had lost their husbands in a cholera epidemic; three were sold by their parents when famine conditions made feeding these girls impossible. Seven were victims of physical abuse, two of whom were sisters regularly beaten by their alcoholic father for not obliging him by making themselves sexually available to the toddy-seller. Three were known victims of rape and deemed unmarriageable; two of them had left their ill-paid jobs as municipal sweeper-women, because they were tired of ‘collecting other people’s dirt’, two were battered wives, one had left her husband because he had a mistress, and one had run away for her love for music and dancing that was not countenanced in her orthodox Brahmin home. Three said they had left their husbands without much ado, seeing the advantage of earning their own living and being at liberty to use their resources as they wished, and did not want to have children. The remaining four were daughters of other tawa’ifs. Not one claimed that kidnapping had been her experience, although they had heard of such cases.

In fact one good-humored woman on the run from a violent and alcoholic husband joked that kidnappers would have been welcome in her neighborhood: “Had there been such farishte [angels] in Hasanganj, I would not have had to plot and plan my own escape at great peril to my life.”

Who is to say that similar ordeals didn’t propel women like Sujaria and so many others to strike out on their own for parts unknown in the 19th century?  In the so-called New World, they adjusted to their newfound freedom and economic betterment with aplomb, leading to situations where women who were ill-treated by their husbands felt free to leave them and move on to a new suitor. Bride price became the norm instead of dowry, and women didn’t hesitate to make the most of their independence. In fact, as Bahadur and many others have pointed out, the campaign in India against indenture, which ultimately resulted in its abolition, was waged on the basis of the threat to Indian norms of sexual respectability. The Viceroy of India, Bahadur writes, “explained that indenture offended the pride of Indians by ‘brand[ing] their whole race in the eyes of the British colonial empire with the stigma of helotry.’ But this shame over reputations as slaves paled in comparison to their anger over the sullied reputations of their women.”

Ironically it wasn’t just the helots of empire that were of concern to Indian nationalists but also the harlots of empire, as scholar Tejaswini Niranjana points out in Mobilizing India. It was ‘immorality’, rather than low wages and atrocious working conditions, that roused the ire of Indian nationalists. There may have been good reasons for this. Niranjana posits that the figure of the indentured Indian woman, with her loose morals and illegitimate Creole modernity, was essential to the construction of the ideal modern middle-class Indian woman, a steadfastly monogamous, respectable creature of unimpeachable morals.

Cultivating such refinement in the female national-modern required a contrasting foil, someone whose character traits were to be avoided at all costs: the hypersexualized, coarse, and unbiddable indentured woman. During the final stages of the anti-indenture campaign, groups of upper-caste, educated Indian ladies themselves made representation to the Viceroy’s wife to halt indenture. As Bahadur wryly observes, “The right kind of woman was thus deployed in the name of the wrong kind of woman.”

Violence and creolizing forces

Coolie Woman also dwells on the ‘exceptional violence’ produced by the grotesque dislocations and ruptures of indenture: “Year after year officials worldwide dutifully recorded the cases, which appeared all across the map of indenture, like pushpins marking casualties in a bloody struggle by Indian men for scant beachheads of power.” Perhaps battered masculinities were acting out the violence of separation from the Motherland and the accompanying decline of their power on the bodies of their women, literally dismembering and disfiguring them in spectacular episodes of violence. The plantation, Bahadur thinks provided the ultimate model for this.

An indentured family in Plantation Leonara, Guiana. Courtesy Rajkumari Cultural Center.
An indentured family in Plantation Leonara, Guiana. Courtesy Rajkumari Cultural Center.

This may of course be so. I remember historian Prabhu Mohapatra telling me that he first became interested in the Caribbean on encountering a file in the Colonial Archives in London titled ‘Wife Beating in the West Indies’, the wives in question being indentured women. We were in Trinidad at the 1995 conference “Challenge and change: the Indian diaspora in its historical and contemporary contexts”. I remember a young Indian academic based in Toronto giving a paper about domestic violence in the Indo-Caribbean diaspora. With that she opened herself up to a torrent of abuse from Indo-Caribbean men in the audience who, predictably, accused her of washing dirty linen in public as well as wildly exaggerating the problem. Despite these claims, evidence from other sites of Indian indentureship suggests that violence against women has certainly been an integral part of the diasporas spawned by indenture.

But are things really that different in the motherland today? A quick look back at the Indian landscape might raise disturbing questions. In 2010 I met a young woman in the south Indian city of Bangalore who, along with her husband, worked in the city’s famed IT sector. They were originally from Bhagalpur, Bihar (the same region Sujaria and many of the indentured who went to the Caribbean came from), and had had an arranged marriage eight years earlier. By the end of our conversation Mala disclosed that she would dearly love to divorce her husband who beat her violently from time to time for no discernible reason. He had broken her hipbone on one occasion, consigning her to bed for a month. She showed me scars behind her ear of other injuries he had inflicted on her. The bombshell was yet to come. In eight years of marriage the two had had ‘no relations’ as she put it. I’m still a virgin she announced. Her husband had shown no desire to consummate the marriage.

Despite being financially independent (IT workers are among the best paid in the country) Mala could not bring herself to leave her husband, even though her family was willing to support her and kept urging her to do so. She was worried about the loneliness she would feel and the social disapproval of her peers. She believed that contempt for wives was hardwired into the feudal culture she came from, where men who wouldn’t dream of lifting a finger against their mothers thought nothing of beating their wives to a pulp, even killing them with impunity on occasion.

The horrific gang rape of the young student, Jyoti Singh, in Delhi in December 2012, and the string of rapes following it have exposed the misogyny and rogue rape culture so prevalent in Northern India today. Is it perhaps not merely the entry of indentured Indian women into a Creole modernity that was the problem, as Niranjana suggests, but globalization itself, with its relentless creolizing forces, a significant aspect of which has been the liberation of women from their traditional roles in a staunchly patriarchal society?

Indentured women—Coolie women—could be seen as an avant-garde in the battle for gender equality and freedom, having been at the forefront of the assault on patriarchy, which didn’t hesitate to re-domesticate the ‘fallen’ as soon as the opportunity arose. Within a generation or two, Caribbean culture, also patriarchal in nature, had reasserted its hold on Indian women so that all that remains today of their all-too-brief decampment is the startling but persistent rumor heard all over the Caribbean that Indian women have ‘white liver’ or insatiable sexual appetites.

A coda: permanent coolies

Let’s return for a moment to the ambivalence generated by the use of the C-word today. Its treacherous nature was very much in evidence when a senior Indian politician at a recent discussion in Bangalore dismissed a fellow panelist, a popular blogger-cum-IT sector-stalwart, as a “glorified California coolie.” Thus with one well-coined phrase the politician signaled his rejection of highly regarded much sought-after foreign-returned IT professionals as being no better than wage laborers like the coolies who went abroad a century earlier. As writer Sidin Vadukut who blogged about the panel observed, a ‘newer metrics of prejudice’ is emerging in the Indian public sphere.

Finally as Bahadur notes, one of the driving forces behind the anti-indenture campaign was the worry that if the system continued, in the eyes of the world all Indians would become identified as ‘permanent coolies’.  In which case my Facebook friend’s genuflection to political correctness in replacing the word ‘coolie’ with the word  ‘Indian’ might begin to make sense. In the meantime ‘coolie’ remains just another word, freighted and fraught by its past, yet not without a certain currency.

Sunday Morning Demerara, c1920
Sunday Morning Demerara, c1920