Tuesday August 21, 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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The Plight of India’s Homeless Women Increases As Cities Expand

More than half the shelters are porta-cabins, which are refashioned steel containers with few facilities.

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Homeless women sit amidst their belongings on a pavement in New Delhi, which has among the most homeless people in India
Homeless women sit amidst their belongings on a pavement in New Delhi, which has among the most homeless people in India. VOA

Manjeet Kaur, one of the many homeless women in India, cannot say exactly how old she is or how long she has lived on the pavement of a busy street in New Delhi, her belongings in plastic bags, her washing hanging on the railing.

Kaur was kicked out years ago by her husband’s family in the northern Indian city of Ludhiana after a quarrel over property.

She boarded a bus to New Delhi with her two young sons, going first to a Sikh gurudwara, a place of worship, for free food.

With no money and no one to turn to, Kaur and her sons settled on the pavement outside the gurudwara, marking their space among other families who lived there.

When it rains, they cover themselves with plastic sheets.

Residents are seen at a shelter for homeless women in New Delhi. VOA
Residents are seen at a shelter for homeless women in New Delhi. VOA

They have little protection from the winter’s cold or the summer’s heat, when temperatures routinely soar above 40°C (104°F).

“I had nowhere to go. The house, the land — nothing was in my name,” said Kaur. “Here, the police harass us, and the locals curse us, and I’m sometimes too afraid to sleep. But we cannot afford to pay rent and the shelters are not good, so what option do we have?”

Kaur is one of at least 10,000 homeless women in India’s capital, where thousands of people arrive every day from villages and small towns, looking for better opportunities.

Many end up in slums and other informal settlements. Others settle under bridges, flyovers, on pavements and road dividers.

Women, who are estimated to make up about 10 percent of India’s homeless population, suffer the brunt of a growing crisis brought on by rapid urbanization, soaring property prices, and a critical lack of shelters and affordable housing.

Compounding the difficulty is a lack of reliable data on homeless people, and homeless women in particular.

Delhi, a city of more than 16 million people, has 46,724 homeless people — among the most of any Indian city — according to the 2011 census.

Rights groups say the estimate is conservative, and that the actual figure is three times higher.

They also question the reported decline in India’s homeless population to 1.77 million nationwide in the 2011 census data, from 1.9 million a decade earlier.

Residents sit at a shelter for homeless women in New Delhi
Residents sit at a shelter for homeless women in New Delhi. VOA

In the same period, the urban homeless rose by a fifth, according to the data.

“Our cities are growing at a remarkable rate, and that puts a strain on the government’s capacity to respond to the needs of the people, including the homeless,” said Ashwin Parulkar at the Delhi-based think tank Centre for Policy and Research.

“Not having an accurate understanding of the extent of homelessness — who they are, where they are, what their needs are — hinders policymaking and compromises the ability to plan and provide for them,” he told Reuters.

Different definitions

Globally, at least 150 million people, or about 2 percent of the population, are estimated to be homeless. More than a fifth of the population lacks adequate housing.

But getting an accurate handle on homelessness is difficult because of different definitions in countries, and governments’ inability to adequately measure the phenomenon, said Joseph Chamie, a former director of the U.N. population agency.

Governments also have a tendency to understate the problem, while the homeless are reluctant to be counted, he said.

Drawings by children are displayed on the wall of a shelter for homeless women in
Drawings by children are displayed on the wall of a shelter for homeless women in. VOA

Yet the causes are the same: poverty, lack of affordable housing, mental illness, alcohol and drug addiction, family breakdown, civil conflict and environmental disasters, he said.

“There is no quick solution: even developed countries are encountering considerable difficulties. So ending urban homelessness in less developed countries is unlikely,” he said.

With at least 55 percent of the world’s population living in urban centers, homelessness is ever more apparent, from Los Angeles to Hong Kong.

The problem is especially severe in India, which is forecast to overtake China by 2024 as the world’s most populous country, with tens of millions cramming into already crowded cities.

Alongside, evictions are rising: At least six homes are pulled down and 30 people forcibly removed each hour in India to make way for metro stations and highways.

Homeless women bear the brunt, as they face more abuse and violence on the street, but have few claims over property and limited access to shelters, said Shivani Chaudhry at the advocacy group Housing and Land Rights Network in Delhi.

Many of these women have left abusive marriages, suffered sexual violence, or have been abandoned by families for mental illness or after the death of a husband, she said.

“Homeless women suffer the worst kinds of violence and insecurity, and are vulnerable to sexual abuse, exploitation, and trafficking,” said Chaudhry. “Shelters are not a permanent solution.”

Housing for all

India has committed to provide housing for all its citizens by 2022, with an aim to build 20 million urban units.

A portable shelter for homeless people is seen in New Delhi
A portable shelter for homeless people is seen in New Delhi. VOA

But analysts say the program bypasses homeless people who cannot afford the mortgage payments.

The Supreme Court has ordered states to provide at least one 24-hour shelter for every 100,000 residents in major urban centers.

Few states have complied, citing the high cost of land.

“Our top priority is to have enough permanent shelters with facilities and services, including health care, job training and counseling,” said Bipin Rai, a senior official at the Delhi Urban Shelter Improvement Board.

“But the main challenge is lack of land. So we have to make do with temporary shelters,” he said.

Delhi has the most shelters of any Indian city — about 200 to hold more than 16,000 people. There are 20 shelters for women.

More than half the shelters are porta-cabins, which are refashioned steel containers with few facilities.

At some permanent women’s shelters, women get three meals a day, skills training, and help getting identification papers and school admissions for their children.

At one such shelter, colorful drawings by the children are on a wall, including several of a simple house flanked by two trees, the sun smiling from above.

Also Read: Launch of Maternity Scheme Brings Happiness to More Than 11 Lakh Women

“I would like to earn enough so I can live in a house with my family,” said Saima, who had previously lived on the street after coming to Delhi some years ago. “But that may not be possible. This may be our only home.” (VOA)