Sunday April 22, 2018

Gaiutra Bahadur captures the Plight of Indentured Women Workers of British Era through her book

During the Raj, many Indian women had left Indian villages for British Guiana to work as coolies

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Postcard image of a “coolie belle”. Image source: arcthemagazine.com
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  • Gaiutra Bahadur is the author of the book Coolie Woman: The Odyssey of Indenture which was published in 2013
  • It is the unraveling of the history and lifestyle of the indentured women who had left the Indian villages for British Guiana to work as bonded laborers.
  • Gaiutra writes this book, not only with the help of historical facts but with reference to her own experiences as the great grandchild of an immigrant

Gaiutra Bahadur talks about the indentured women like her own grandmother, who left Indian villages and traveled to British Guiana to work as laborers. The plight of these women, their miserable living conditions and the reasons behind their journey away from home are the topics that the author explores in her books.

Gaiutra Bahadur. Image Source : dartcenter.org
Gaiutra Bahadur. Image Source : dartcenter.org

Bahadur talks about her great grandmother, Sujaria, who had left on a voyage, leaving behind her village when she was four months pregnant. Whether she was running away from an abusive marriage or had been left by her husband are questions to which no definite answers can be found. The reason is that these women had not left behind any first person accounts of why and how they came to desert their indigenous residence and left for an unknown land to work as coolies in British Guiana.

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The absence of written records of the life experiences of these women had made it difficult for the author to investigate the issue. Which is why she sought to understand it with the help of her own experiences as a child who was born in Guiana. She went back to her own roots- to the village of Guyana where she had been born and to her grandmother’s village, where there is a rampant abuse of women taking place in every other household. She came to understand the deplorable conditions these women lived in and some women continue to do so. She tried to understand it by thinking about her own life as the child of a family of immigrants. Thus she compares the experience of an inquisitive child with that of a skeptic reporter.

An indentured woman in traditional wear. Image Source : vqronline.org
An indentured woman in traditional wear. Image Source : vqronline.org

These women, who were uneducated and made voiceless were only described by the more powerful people, who ruled over them. In fact, there are only three documents of indentured people of that era, that too, written by the male counterparts. However, the documents of the rulers and officers had given the author a perspective on how the women were treated in the British society. Mostly, these women were young ones who had been left by their husbands, forced into the sex trade or were victims of domestic abuse. It was as if they had been born into the wrong time, wrong place and wrong bodies.

The cover of the book. Image Source : amazon.com
The cover of the book. Image Source : amazon.com

Bahadur further studied their lifestyle by listening to folk songs, oral histories, photographs and postcards from the colonial era. It certainly helped her getting an impression of the lives of the indentured and unfortunate women. However, she was not yet satisfied with the answers to her questions about these women. She says in the latest issue of The Guardian, “About the time when I sat down to write my first chapter, I heard Salman Rushdie read Donald Barthelme’s Concerning the Bodyguard on a New Yorker podcast. The short story, told through the eyes of a bodyguard assigned to a politician in an unnamed Latin American country, is written almost entirely in question form. The device is meant to mirror the bodyguard’s uncertainty and anxiety when he views the world; he never knows who or what precisely is coming at him, or what threats they might pose. It occurred to me to try a similar experiment to deal with gaps and silences in indenture’s archive.

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Whole sections of Coolie Woman unfold entirely in questions: mine, my great-grandmother’s, the reader’s, one relentlessly following the next, said the author to the Guardian. These questions allow me to imagine interiorities withheld by the written record. They paint landscapes, advance the plot, convey a tone. They communicate my own attitude to the archive and its elisions and biases: I could never be neutral because I am, after all, a product of the history I’ve written”.

Gaiutra Bahadur has taken a novel and extremely out of the box initiative. People need to know the history of these unfortunate people and especially that of the oppressed women of that time.

– prepared by Atreyee Sengupta, an intern at NewsGram, on the basis of the original article in The Guardian and excerpts from the book by the author.

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  • Aparna Gupta

    These days we hardly find women as Coolie. But it is surprising that women were coolie at that time.

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IMF: Empowering Women Is Smart Economics

IMF says, Getting more women into formal workforce is priority for India

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Ken Kang
Ken Kang. IANS

India must focus as a priority on ensuring that more women work in the formal sector as it continues with labour reforms, according to Ken Kang, the deputy director in International Monetary Fund (IMF) Asia Pacific Department.

While “in recent years India has made very impressive progress in reforms,” he said that “looking ahead there are important policy priorities” and listed three among them.

“One, is to continue improvements in product and labour market reforms with a focus on increasing formal female labour participation to improve the business environment, and reduce complex regulations, but also to address supply bottlenecks, particularly in the agricultural sector and distribution networks,” Kang said at a news conference on Friday in Washington.

As one of India’s major reform achievements, he mentioned the “introduction of flexible inflation targeting and of a statutory monetary policy which has helped to strengthen the monetary policy framework.”

Working woman
Working woman. Pixabay

The Reserve Bank of India Act was amended in 2016, to provide for a Monetary Policy Committee that decides on the interest rate required for achieving the inflation target set by the government in consultation with the bank.

The other achievements include the Goods and Services Tax (GST) and the “major recapitalisation plan for the public-sector banks in order to accelerate the work out of nonperforming loans, as well as made some important legal improvements through a new insolvency and bankruptcy law,” Kang said.

“We expect and hope that the reform momentum continues,” he added.

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“We are not saying that India’s structural reform speed will slow down because of elections,” Changyong Rhee, the IMF director of the Asia Pacific Department said.

“What we are saying is that the growth momentum and the structural reform momentum should continue despite the election period. So there is something misquoted,” he added.

On Thursday, IMF Managing Director Christine Lagarde had said at a news conference on Thursday, according to the IMF transcript: “We have seen and we are seeing — I am not sure that we will be seeing in the next few months given the elections that are coming up — major reforms that we had recommended and advocated for a long time.”  IANS