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Postcard image of a “coolie belle”. Image source: arcthemagazine.com
  • 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


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

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

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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