India's Outside Children
In the nineteenth and early decades of the twentieth century, more than a million Indians were shipped to isles of indenture. Yeta (Brahmin) woman, pregnant and alone, crossing the kalapani, is hard to imagine. This was the journey of Gaiutra Bahadur’s great-grandmother, Sujaria, indentured to British Guyana in 1903.
The incongruity between those facts and the author’s initial perception of Indian womanhood spiraled into a journey of discovery, detailed in Coolie Woman. Why is this journey so difficult to imagine, either then or now? For those twice-born, crossing the oceans implied a defilement of caste, but for women, it was the ultimate act of transgression. Coolie women began heroically pushed against limitations 175 years ago, claiming fearless freedoms, though never without risk.
Bahadur uses a mix of archival research, oral histories, Hindu symbolism, secondary sources, and personal narrative to describe the complexities and contradictions of indentured migration for women. Indentureship was a contractual migrant labour system that made Indians into coolies. This was not slavery, but it was rooted in the servitude and subjugation of plantation colonies. To tell the fullness of this history, Bahadur combines attention to facts, with historical speculation. Fidelity to facts can only take us so far when much of subaltern women’s experiences are missing from the record; thus her mode of questioning helps us to envision the “coolie woman” (personified in her per-Ajie) as real, full of determination. (“To a woman alone, with a newborn to support, what must this world have looked like?”)
Bahadur pieces together the lived experiences of women along various points of the journey outward from the heartlands of India, shedding light on how women ended up in the “coolie depots” of Calcutta, as well as on their vulnerabilities, negotiations, and strategies for survival on the ships and plantations. Though not the only story, a disturbing rate of sexual violence and “wife murders” haunt this history. This was blamed on indentureship’s gender disparity (40 women to every 100 men). By colonial logic, coolie women were ‘naturally’ susceptible to temptation (either from ex-coolies, or plantation overseers), and coolie men, prone to revenge. Bahadur’s keen eye for detail recovers hitherto untold stories of women’s experiences in these spaces of sexploitation, not only from the perspective of victimhood, but also resistance and agency. It’s worth noting that not all the surprising stories are exclusively about Indian women. Traces of same-sex, and mixed-race relations manage to filter down through the archives— a reminder that experiences condemned as ‘unnatural ‘ have long histories .
While her main interest is Guyana (her place of birth), her sources and stories encompass the wider scope of indentureship, beginning in India (“To some, we are India’s outside child”). This is one of the strengths of her text: she goes beyond a solely Indian or Indo-Caribbean perspective, to consider our intertwined relationships to different parts of the world, as well as to each other (i.e., Indo-diasporic and Indian, Indo and Afro, or Indo and European). On the latter, her penultimate chapter is particularly illuminating.
In the final chapter, Bahadur returns to Guyana to examine the shadow indentureship casts in the present. Cautious not to infer direct historical continuities, she makes some acute observations which cut into notions of progress. At least during the indentureship period, men who killed their romantic partners were prosecuted. Today, indifference or corruption allows murders to go unsolved. Furthermore, back then women who worked in the cane fields had access to a livelihood and thus a degree of autonomy. Today, “fewer than half of Guyanese women earned wages in the formal economy.”
The warm reception her book has received in India hints at a political urgency. Unspoken, unrecorded stories, yet remembered and recalled across vast distances, allows us to sew together what has been kept separate, not in any yearning to recapture a lost purity, but rather towards a meaningful engagement with the experiences that shaped our past, and inform our futures—in other words, a feminist politics of change.