Thursday October 18, 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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#MeToo Movement Shows The Decaying Soul of India: Mahesh Bhatt

These are larger issues. The soul of the country is decaying. We are far away from what we claim to be. And cases like this only put spotlight on that," added the director

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Nana Patekat, Metoo, Women
#MeToo movement shows India's soul is decaying: Filmmaker Mahesh Bhatt

On the one hand, Indians bow down to a goddess to pray and on another some people violate women. This dichotomy in India is creating a mess of things, says filmmaker Mahesh Bhatt, who feels Indians are far from what we claim to be.

“The #MeToo movement cannot be resolved through the court of public opinion. There are people standing up for something. I would say more power to women who scream from the rooftop about something wrong done to them — whether it is after 10 years or 20 or 50… It doesn’t make a difference,” Bhatt told IANS in an interview when he was in the city to promote “Jalebi”.

“You cannot deny the right to individuals to say what they say. But the question is whether the quotes are in sync with the legal system, which is based on a certain understanding. Are they in sync with this so-called enlightened new view that we have? If punitive action is not taken, the cynicism that nothing happens would be reinforced,” he added.

women
The dichotomy is what has made a mess of things.

 

The #MeToo movement in India started in September after Tanushree Dutta recounted an unpleasant episode with veteran actor Nana Patekar on the sets of “Horn ‘OK’ Pleassss” in 2008.

After that, a slew of controversies surrounding Vikas Bahl, Chetan Bhagat, Gursimran Khamba, Kailash Kher, Rajat Kapoor, Alok Nath and Sajid Khan have emerged.

“There is only one thing you can’t use this #MeToo movement for (and that is) settling old relationship issues. You cannot categorise that.

“There is domestic violence which is there between married people or lovers. There can be sexual misconduct which can be tackled legally. But we are talking about sexual harassment which is another case. Women need to handle that very responsibly,” Bhatt said.

The director feels it is time to ask a “deeper question”.

#MeToo, women
Bollywood actress Tanushree Datta presents a creation by designer Sanjeet Anand at the Bangalore Fashion Week in Bangalore, India. VOA

“During Durga Puja, you bow down to the deity which was created by this great story of male gods putting their best to create her so that she can kill the demon to save the world and heaven from the wrath of that demon. It is time to understand that you support the woman and let her retain her dignity or she will perish.

“The question is, ‘Do you really view women in the form of the goddess you worship in the temple’. Because in private life you violate them.”

He said “there is a kind of dichotomy”.

“The dichotomy is what has made a mess of things. We have an idea about ourselves and the reality is quite different from the idea. Look at what you are doing to women. There are issues which cannot be resolved themselves within a time frame of a week, a month or a year.

Nana Patekat, Metoo, Women
#MeToo movement is a movement against sexual harassment and sexual assault. #MeToo spread virally in October 2017. Flickr

“These are larger issues. The soul of the country is decaying. We are far away from what we claim to be. And cases like this only put spotlight on that,” added the director, who has helmed projects like “Arth”, “Saaransh”, “Naam”, “Sadak”, “Junoon” and “Papa Kahte Hain”.

As a film producer, how does he ensure a safe workplace for women?

Also Read: India’s #MeToo Movement Makes The Most Glamorous Industry Its Subject Of Scrutiny

“Human beings are vulnerable to all this and more. But I can only say that you lead by example. You set the tone about what the morality of the house is going to be. I have enough women force. I have my own daughter (Pooja), who is a tough chick. I have my sister who is hands-on. I have my niece.”

“If there is any outrage anywhere, I think there are enough pockets to bring out what is happening,” added Bhatt , who will be back as a director with “Sadak 2”. (IANS)