By Shivanee Ramlochan, 2014 Bocas Lit fest blogger
Published by the University of Chicago Press, 2013.
“From 1838 to 1917, half a million Indians travelled to the Caribbean to grow and cut sugarcane. That migration had put thousands of kilometres and an even greater psychological distance between me and the village women whose tears at the time seemed to implicate me—to twist me into the hem of their saris and their suffering, to knit me into their family tree and their fate. It was not an offering I could comfortably accept, much like the brass cup of water that they extended and that I had no choice but to take. Who were they to me? Strangers. Or kin. Possibly both.”
Coolie Woman is that rare inaugural publication from a writer – a book whose scholarship lenses in on an area of study that’s gone chiefly unreported. To report on the effects, historical repercussions and economic hierarchies engendered by the history of East Indian indentureship: this on its own would be necessary work. Gaiutra Bahadur’s reportage, therefore stands in its own, elevated arena of necessary work that’s also poetic. Her study is at once richly comprehensive, bolstered by an ecosystem of secondary research in the field, as well as stunningly readable. It’s written in lucid prose that’s not afraid of ornamental turns of phrase in service of underscoring the gravitas of an offense, or the merriment of a memory.
Bahadur’s exploratory account of her great-grandmother Sujaria’s life and journey across the Kala pani has been critically fêted since its release, with paeans of scholarly esteem pouring in from several countries. The book has been deeply considered as memoir-infused travelogue; as feminist revisionary fare; as a prismatic articulation on labour, exile, and the power of archival inquisition to illuminate present complexities in our own living history.
Richard Drayton, historian and 2013 Bocas writer, says of Coolie Woman that it “braids a dazzling rope from the history of Indian migration to the Caribbean, the experience of Indians in Guyana and of Indo-Guyanese immigrants in the United States, and the joy and pain of ‘return’ to India.” Another Bocas 2013 writer, Pankaj Mishra, declares Bahadur’s debut work a revelatory agent into “the bitterly paradoxical nature of colonial modernity: the unbearable dialectic between enslavement and liberation that many unsung millions underwent in their private lives.” Numerous other accolades can be accessed on Bahadur’s frequently-updated website, including my own review of Coolie Woman for the Trinidad Guardian’s Sunday Arts Section.
Gaiutra Bahadur will be at this year’s NGC Bocas Lit Fest, reading from and discussing her remarkable, paradigm-shattering book – all those who declare themselves historians, feminists or any radical, multiply-tiered combination of the two, ought to be there to listen and engage with her.