Gaiutra Bahadur talks about her great grandmother and thousands of other women, addressing indenture through her book
Book critic and American journalist Gaiutra Bahadur debuts as an author with a historically significant account of coolie women in plantation fields. Coolie Woman: The Odyssey of Indenture (Hachette Books) begins as her attempt to unravel the story of her great grandmother who embarked on a voyage, all alone, during her pregnancy along with several other coolie women.
Gaiutra dwells on gender issues in colonial Guiana and finds that several of these women, though classified as single, were widows abandoned at pilgrimage sites or running from mistreatment by their in-laws. They were runaways, outcasts and in some cases been sex workers. Excerpts of an interview with Gaiutra Bahadur.
When did you first learn about the story of your great grandmother? How much of it was talked about within the family?
I first learned the bare outlines of my great grandmother’s story when I was in my early 20s. She was four months pregnant and travelling alone, husbandless, when she left India. This wasn’t talked about in the family. But my aunts (her granddaughters) knew quite a bit, much more than I ever expected them to know. In a way, they were just waiting for someone to ask. Once I did, they answered — mostly openly, but there was also a sense of shame that I had to work against. My aunt would share incredibly rich details and then say, ‘But don’t put that in the book.’
I’ll give you one example of what she resisted sharing: Sujaria met a married couple during her voyage from India and ended up having a child with the husband. The wife was apparently barren. Later, Sujaria legally married another man in Guyana.
I had to convince my aunt that there was nothing to be ashamed of in her actions; that Sujaria was caught up in a plantation system where women were in short supply and that this system both gave her choices and forced her to make choices she might not otherwise have made.
It was not going to be easy to know the story of your great grandmother and women of her times. What triggered you to get to the bottom of the story?
What happened to her was a mystery. Solving that mystery kept me in the archives. I realised I might not be able to unlock her back story. But I was determined to flesh out the context, the characters, the landscapes around her — the emigrant depots along the Hooghly River, the biographies of her fellow passengers on that voyage of The Clyde in 1903, the ‘tween decks or cargo holds where emigrants ate and slept during their journeys over eight decades to new worlds, the plantations where the women experienced both violence and opportunity, the details of their relationships with both Indian men and British (often Scottish) men. Recovering those details was a painstaking process, but each detail was a clue.
Beyond that, I was also driven by questions of identity and gender that have always preoccupied me: not only who am I, as an American born in Guyana with roots in India, but how has gender shaped who I am.
How long did it take you to research and write the book?
The writing took a year and the research roughly three. I started digging for indentured women’s stories in 2008. This took me to Trinidad, Scotland, England and Guyana. It took me to sugarcane fields, archives, my great-grandmother’s village in Chapra (Bihar), Scottish Highlands, on the trail of an overseer who had had sexual relationships with several Indian women on the plantation where my great-grandmother worked. I started writing in late 2011.
Why do you think coolie women have almost become a forgotten chapter of history?
They had very little power to write themselves into history. The indentured as a group didn’t leave behind written traces of themselves: diaries, letters. This was especially true of the women. There are only two memoirs by the indentured and both were written by men. But the amnesia about indentured women is part of a broader historio-graphical problem. Even women who were letter-writers — Benjamin Franklin’s sister, for instance — have only recently become the subject of books.
The work of the past few decades has been to recover and tell women’s history. Power determines whose stories are worth telling, and for a long time women’s stories (especially the stories of ‘ordinary’ women) weren’t seen as fit subjects of history.
In your book, you explain your decision to use the word ‘coolie’ in the title, which might seem offensive. Weren’t you worried about people judging the book by its title?
It was and is the right title for the subject. The book is about indenture, and the word coolie is used in the context of indentured labour. It’s historically appropriate and also figuratively the best way to capture the burdens that indentured women shouldered. In the novel Their Eyes Were Watching God, the African-American writer Zora Neale Hurston has one of her characters say that black women are ‘the mules of the world.’ (The character uses not ‘black women’ but the n-word, actually.) I use coolie in the same spirit, figuratively, metaphorically, as a way to capture this sense of burden. Indentured Indian women were expected to preserve culture and family, represent the honour of the culture, meet the economic and sexual needs of both British and Indian men on the plantations. I don’t use the word lightly. The title isn’t an invitation to be loose with the word coolie, to use it today to describe a person of Indian origin in the Caribbean — not in the least.
I explain at great length why and how I use it, and that’s really all I can do.