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THE VOYAGERS
- Crossing the black waters

Coolie Woman: The Odyssey of Indenture By Gaiutra Bahadur, Hachette, Rs 599

In the last few years, a lot of books of fiction and ficto-facts have taken up the story of the indentured labourers — mostly displaced peasants from eastern India — who voyaged across the turbulent ‘black waters’ to find a different life awaiting them at the far side of the globe, in the sugar plantations of the Caribbeans. The crossing left them changed — as all such passages are suspected of doing — so much so that a new India was created on another continent, the fraught connections of which with the mother nation will be analysed most famously by the irascible expatriate, Sir Vidia. In the more recent past, the fictional counterparts of the Bhojpuri-speaking indentured labourers — or ‘coolies’, as they were called in a politically incorrect colonial world — had been heard amidst the rich farrago of voices tossed about on the schooner, Ibis, in The Sea of Poppies (2008), while the ‘real’ coolies and their descendants have told their tales of sailing in Rahul Bhattacharya’s The Sly Company of People Who Care (2011) and in Peggy Mohan’s Jahajin (2007). If these authors have personalized history, by resurrecting long-dead people and a dying dialect, Gaiutra Bahadur returns history to its tomb in the library.

Born in Guyana, Bahadur traces her lineage back to Sujaria, a Brahmin woman from Bihar who had sailed aboard The Clyde, the ship carrying coolies for work in Guyana, in July 1903. She was four months pregnant, yet had no husband with her. This lady, Bahadur’s great-grandmother, becomes the starting point of the author’s search for several other women like Sujaria who had voyaged out to the sugar plantations, many of them travelling without male companions. Even if they started out accompanied by a husband, the long journey, which entailed a literal and metaphysical unmooring, often set them free — to find companions of their choice, to get multiple partners or to go it alone. This chance to choose would have been unthinkable back home, which, being 19th-century India (the labour exodus from India started in about 1838 and went on till 1917), would have been rigidly bound by caste laws and patriarchal diktats.

The freedom the women found aboard the ships and thereafter in the plantations was obviously fettered too, since these women without families were left more vulnerable than ever to exploitation, not just by their countrymen but also by their white masters to whom they were now indentured. Bahadur unearths one record after the other of these women’s sufferings during the passage and later in the sugar estates. These case studies leave her with a plethora of questions: “Did the system [of indenture] liberate women, or con them into a new kind of bondage? Did it save them from a life of shame, or ship them directly to it? Were coolie women caught in the clutches of unscrupulous recruiters who tricked them? Were they, quite to the contrary, choosing to flee? Were these possibilities mutually exclusive, or could both things be true?” Such inquiries will recur with case-specific variations throughout the book to set a pattern consisting of facts followed by questions, to fill up the silence left behind by the bare facts. All this could have made for an interesting imaginative exercise but Bahadur manages to make it dreary, chiefly because of the self-righteousness and sentimentality she brings into the process.

Acting on the premise that the Ramayan was a living text for the coolies, since they sang, recited and enacted it to entertain themselves with the words and tunes of home in an alien land, Bahadur keeps tracing the story of the epic in the lives of the indentured men and women. She deduces that the men must have seen themselves as Ram, serving their term of exile like the epic hero, and had looked upon the women as Surpanakha: the docile Indian woman had suddenly turned threatening in the plantations because, taking advantage of the relative scarcity of women in the colonies, she had started expressing her desire, sometimes aggressively. This is Bahadur’s set of questions in the Ramayan context: “When their [the men’s] partners sexually betrayed them... perhaps they wrestled with the right way to respond. What was their duty? What would Ram do? With the Ramayan as present and tall in their lives as cane, it’s likely that they asked those questions.” While it is true that life sometimes imitates art, imagining the cutlass-brandishing coolie men placing themselves in Ram’s wooden slippers, stumbling over questions of ethics, before they stepped out to chop off the straying women’s noses creates a slightly ludicrous effect, which could not have been Bahadur’s intention. The simile in the quoted text, drawing the preposterous parallel between the Ramayan and sugarcane, provides further indication of the sentimental excess that frequently makes Bahadur go astray.

The righteousness also expresses itself in places such as these, when Bahadur’s prose trills with the high-mindedness of the cause she is espousing. In talking about a daughter of indentured immigrants who had escaped her fate by having an affair with an overseer, Bahadur says that the girl was identified as “Parivadee, most likely a British mangling of the common Indian name Parvati. The girl had been named after the Indian goddess of power.” If one baulks at the corny connection Bahadur is making between the girl’s name and her supposed assertion of power through an affair, there is more to come. She asks in the first sentence of the following paragraph, in a continuation of what she has just declared: “Did my great-grandmother have any power when she arrived at the logies?”

This is not to undermine Bahadur’s extensive study or to downplay the seriousness of her project. Some of the characters she dredges up from official records — like the emancipated coolie woman, Baby, who boasted five lovers, two houses and a forthright tongue — lend colour to the book, as do the photographs of the heavily-dressed, cheeky-looking coolie women themselves. Although photographs are notorious for smudging the truth, especially when they are posed, the sprightly girls in the photos seem to tell a story very different from the one of unrelenting misery which Bahadur narrates. Instead of just placing the photographs in the middle of the book, Bahadur could have engaged with them as a way of getting at the reality.

The biggest trouble with Coolie Woman is that it is an in-between book. It is too purple at places to pass as objective research (complete with ill-informed claims — when Bahadur says, “Widows historically led a precarious existence in northeast India”, she means widows from northern and eastern India, not the Northeast, as this sentence might suggest) and too drab to enable the reader to view the subjects as living people (which is disappointing, especially when the lives she talks about do not go that far back in time; second-generation descendants of the immigrants must still be alive). In one of the rare engaging paragraphs, Bahadur mentions Creolese — “an English idiom that evolved from plantation pidgin... our cracked, our stained-glass English... a thing of beauty constructed from fragments, including fragments from India” — that is her heritage. “Take away my language, and you also take away access to the stories that my forebears created, in the cadences that they created them.” Where are these cadences in her book? By replacing all Guyanese-speak, all Bhojpuri-speak, all Hindi-speak with the flat voice of documents culled from archives, Bahadur does precisely what she is rebelling against — silence her forebears.