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Catherine Woodiwiss

Indentured Women's Forgotten Lives

A great-granddaughter assembles fragments of a lost history.

They were recruited, duped, bribed, invited, and taken away from their families, aboard ships headed west. They were carried across the sea in suffocating quarters below deck, on minimal rations. Most fell sick in passage, and many died. Once on land, they were subjected to backbreaking plantation labor, mean qualities of life, and punishing restrictions on how to assemble and whom to love.

They were India's indentured servants, sent by the British Empire in the 1800s to sugar colonies throughout the South Pacific and the Caribbean to replace lost slave labor. In the roughly 80 years between the abolition of slavery and the end of indentured servitude, more than one million Indian workers arrived on Western shores. Their stories, lived in the long shadow of slavery, would soon be reduced in historical memory to a singular pejorative: "coolie."

Journalist Gaiutra Bahadur sets about reclaiming this overlooked chapter of history in her first book, Coolie Woman. Originally a shorthand from the Tamil "kuli," for "wages, hire," the term "coolie" came to be used as a slur against low wage-earning immigrants of any origin. As such, Bahadur opens Coolie Woman with an explanation: "My great-grandmother … left India as a coolie. That is a fact. The word coolie … bears the burdens of history."

Bahadur's great-grandmother, Sujaria, left Calcutta for British Guiana in 1903, four months pregnant and traveling alone. Her descendants remain in Guyana, where Bahadur also lived before she moved to New Jersey with her parents as a young child. Bahadur remembers her mother worshipping before Hindu statues of gods in the closet, and her parents' insistence on creating a world-apart-from-the-world-outside in their tiny Jersey City apartment. Here Bahadur first became aware of what she calls the "magician's box" of cultural dislocation, and here she opens her memoir-cum-ethnography.

She approaches ...

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