Through the Historian’s Lens

Gaiutra Bahadur, Coolie Woman: The Odyssey of Indenture (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013); 312 pages; ISBN 978-0226211381 (paperback)

• June 2015

Gaiutra Bahadur authors a book that operates on several levels. It begins, in the first two chapters, as Bahadur’s search for her roots, guided by just a single picture and an emigration certificate of her female ancestor, Sujaria. The work then steadily unfolds as more than just a personal search; it beckons to be interpreted as social history. The narrative is powerful, consistently fed by the author’s multiple literary orientations as journalist, book critic, and storyteller, Bahadur seamlessly and skillfully weaves through facets of the various genres that the book attempts to straddle. Unsurprisingly, her masterful writing keeps the reader fully engaged: sometimes in awe, sometimes in disgust, often with a heavy heart.

Bahadur presents a much nuanced narrative that often delves very deeply to expose the system of Indian indenture as an extremely dehumanizing one, rife with violence and violation, creating, as it evolved, regulations, applications, and classifications to sustain itself. She chronicles, tenaciously but poignantly, the system of Indian indenture as one of displacement, rupture, departure, travel, arrival, resettlement, adjustment, and reconstruction. Through each of these stages of the system, she quite effectively reimagines and reconstructs both her ancestor Sujaria’s life and the experiences of indentured women in British Guiana. It is a reconstruction spun around the horrific experiences of murder, bloodshed, violence, promiscuity, rape, and abuse of female indentured laborers, one in which even children were not spared. In addition to the inherently capitalist, colonialist, and grasping nature of the system, there was an acute imbalance in the male-female ratio (heavily tipped toward males), especially in first few decades after its implementation.

The scarcity of females, together with the general absence of any established social or religious institutions or of any genuine concern with the social welfare of the Indians, saw a subverting of the traditional Indian gender dynamics. Women now had a leverage that they invoked to their social and economic benefit, and the traditional dowry system was replaced with bride price. Monogamy was not the order of the day for most women, who often either rejected lovers or “husbands” in favor of a better prospect or were engaged in multiple sexual relationships because of the skewed gender ratio. The foregoing situations eventually resulted in a spate of what were termed “crimes of passion”—beatings, rape, chopping, mutilation, murder, suicide—which occurred alongside the sexual abuse and atrocities meted out to indentured women by colonial figures. It is within this context that Bahadur charts the experiences of indentured women, while attempting to reconstruct her ancestor’s life through periodic barrages of questions.

Bahadur must be commended for her efforts at going beyond colonial categorizations that have continued to plague writings on the Indian indenture system. She takes care to highlight a crucial but often overlooked fact about prostitutes in India at that time: social circumstances beyond the control of these women, such as refusing the sati ritual (the ritual burning of a wife on her husband’s funeral pyre), escaping abusive husbands, or the austerity and stigma of widowhood were largely responsible for the creation of a large subsection of women being indiscriminately lumped together as “prostitutes.” Bahadur does the same for the term coolie, which she defines as a category “made” by the British that turned the indentured laborers “into an indistinguishable, degraded mass of plantation labourers without caste or family” (43). One understands and yet still wonders why Bahadur would choose to continue associating both her ancestor and the larger indentured immigrant population with what she herself acknowledges as a misnomer, either scoffed at or self-deprecatingly invoked by the immigrants and their descendants, especially since the book is presented as an attempt to give voice to Indian indentured women. Coolie was not a term invoked by the immigrants with any sense of pride; rather, it was a constant reminder of their debased assignation.

While Bahadur’s work certainly succeeds in giving visibility and audibility to a selection of Indian indentured women, and indeed, brings to the table meticulously illuminating details of their tumultuous, violent, often macabre experiences, she hardly addresses a most fundamental aspect of the very complex world of indentured females, that of agency. Her focus largely on instances and aspects of situations that highlight the very real occurrence of physical, sexual, mental, verbal, and psychological abuse and torture gives a rather skewed picture of the experiences of these women, one in which the element of agency and various types of empowerment are essentially left hanging and unexplored. The reader has to resort to reading between the lines or, sometimes, against the grain of the story to engage these issues. This agency is evident in many of the cases that Bahadur explores. For example, the author hardly ever delves into the element of choice and navigation that resided at the crux of most of these cases of brutality and murder: the changing of spouses or partners. Her engagement of this dimension of the experiences of indentured women would have certainly presented a more holistic picture. Indeed, while Bahadur makes no overt claims about the historicity of her work, this recurrent selectivity, from a historical perspective, detracts from the effectiveness of her attempt at telling the story of these women. The “odyssey” becomes somewhat fettered, ironically, in a genuine, otherwise laudable attempt to chart it.

The integrity of this selectivity is brought into question in the author’s interpretation of the role of the Ramcharitmanas/Ramayana in the experiences of indentured women. (This Hindu religious text that revolves around the story of the god Rama is the very popularly, if not the most, subscribed-to text in Caribbean Hinduism.) Bahadur’s interpretation of the text as “preoccupied with women who break the codes of accepted sexual behaviour” (106) is erroneously informed by her selectivity of sources; her opinion is informed, according to her citations, by a paper on the Ramayana that focuses on one specific incident in the text—hardly a “preoccupation” of the entire text. The author then proceeds to argue that “the religious texts do describe—some have said, prescribe—the disfigurement of women who transgress sexually” (107). The author’s literary prerogative notwithstanding, one would have expected that pronouncements on an issue as cardinal as what the texts “prescribe” would have mandated more in-depth and informed research instead of, yet again, relying on a singular secondary source. Her later referral to Ramayana singing as “jam sessions” (108), again adopted from a singular nonauthoritative secondary source obviously imposing a rather “Americanized” interpretation, misrepresents these sessions, denuding them of their deeply religious connotations and function. Notwithstanding the work’s location as a mix of biography, memoir, and history, a more holistic approach to both the narrative and sources would have greatly enhanced its historical veracity.

Ultimately, the strength of this book resides in its rivetingly intricate documentation of the experiences of Indian indentured females that Bahadur provides. The author succeeds in presenting otherwise underexamined or overlooked details of the lives of these women in a very compelling narrative, woven from skeins of meticulous details but never pedantic in its presentation. Drawing from a notable range of pertinent primary and secondary sources, the work can definitely be used as a source of valuable corroborative details in both academic and nonacademic engagements with the Indian indenture system. Coolie Woman has definitely earned itself an undeniable place in the narratives of gender, migration, labor, Indian, Caribbean, and diaspora studies.


Sherry-Ann Singh specializes in the social, religious, and cultural transformation among Indians in Trinidad and in the Indian diaspora; on Hinduism and the Ramayana tradition in the Indian diaspora; and on the Indian indenture system. She teaches courses on South Asian history and Indian diaspora studies at the University of the West Indies, St. Augustine. Her monograph The Ramayana Tradition and Socio-religious Change in Trinidad, 1917–1990 was published in 2012.


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