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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 her great-grandmother's story as one that carries the burdens of many forgotten and discarded histories—of family and identity, of colonialism and race and labor, and, perhaps most of all, of gender. If India's indentured are overlooked in history, India's indentured women are systematically ignored. Coolie Woman is Bahadur's attempt to unearth the story not only of Sujaria, an Indian woman who voluntarily committed herself to indentured servitude across the ocean and never returned, but of many others like her.

With deftness, Bahadur explores the jostling and radically unequal contest for power among British lawmakers, trading companies, plantation owners, Indian men, and Indian women. She attempts valiantly, if not quite successfully, to find the leverage points of power that these women held in their own right.

Readers are presented with the lives of women with complicated motivations, limited options, and uncertain endings—Maharani, a young woman who made a cooking mistake and, unwilling to accept another beating from her family, hopped a boat to the colonies; Radhia, a sickly woman who leapt overboard to her death; four women in passage who accused a surgeon of sexual assault and secured his removal from the ship; a woman who returned to India and wound up in poverty even more abject than when she was in Guyana; a woman who used her charms aboard ship and on the plantation to amass a "considerable fortune" for herself; and many, many more.

Self-protection makes for curious allies, and Bahadur presents both the terrible horror and the fierce defense of dignity that may result from a self-interested system. In one passage, a plantation recruiter makes what amounts to a feminist argument on behalf of would-be indentured women hoping to depart: "There seems to be everywhere too great a tendency to treat a native woman as an ignorant child … . I do not think any government official has any right to stop her."

One chapter, "Beautiful Woman Without A Nose," details cases of Indian men hacking their wives or lovers to death in a desperate attempt to assert control in their new location. I found it too horrible to get through in one sitting.

Bahadur is compelled to tell these stories, yet she seems underprepared for the sheer scale of the sprawling system of indentured servitude. If the writer is drawing a map for her readers, the legend is clearly marked but the coordinates are often blurry. Some characters are introduced only to be dropped in favor of new ones; and when narrative arcs are reconnected on the other side, they are often so separated by additional anecdotes and details as to be unrecognizable.

Granted, Bahadur is limited in what stories she can find, and her digging reveals an uncompromising limit: history can only speak with the language granted it by the prevailing systems of power.

"Can the subaltern speak?" Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak famously asked in 1988. Bahadur is trying, but ultimately what we learn about these women is primarily through the recorded history of the British Empire—and those who kept the records and wrote the rules and transcribed the testimonies were largely white and male. This is the irony inherent in Coolie Woman, one Bahadur acknowledges with regret.

Yet in her mission of reconstruction, one strong voice Bahadur unearths is her own. The most poignant chapters are those that recount her own visits to India, Guyana, and Scotland. Here Bahadur writes freely, confessing trepidation, disgust, confusion, and delight at her encounters. If Coolie Woman necessarily relies on the limits of state-sanctioned history, Bahadur's personal journey explores everything that isn't said.

The thread of truth within family memory is elusive, as Bahadur discovers. She asks as many questions as she provides answers. And these questions act as their own emotional map, that of a multicultural woman opening herself up to the full force of what she does not know about her own history. What reader empathy Bahadur loses in the scrambled telling of indentured women's lives, she regains with her own vulnerability in the face of this mystery.

"Who certified [Sujaria] fit to sail if the depot doctors didn't really examine women? Did [she] reject the notion that seafarers automatically lost caste? Did she care?"

Later, upon learning her great-grandmother's ultimate fate as an unpaid laborer and a victim of domestic abuse, Bahadur asks, "Did she ever doubt whether it was worth it to suffer dutifully?"

And finally, after a visit to a family of dubious genetic connection, "Was she telling the truth when she talked about leaving India?"

By failing to transcend her source documents' limitations, Bahadur presents a work all the more illuminating and indicting of our institutional memory. Can the subaltern speak? Yes—but the lingering vestiges of empire still limit what she can say. And indeed, Bahadur's story ends with a bleak condemnation of those signs of empire, citing Guyana's entrenched poverty and corruption and its culture of sexual abuse and domestic violence.

India's indentured women may have been deprived of the right to tell their own stories, but Bahadur has told us hers. And through it she breaks a historical silence, and gives untold truths a voice.

Catherine Woodiwiss is senior associate web editor for Sojourners.

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