Coolie Woman and me

Sugarcane has always been a part of my story. Fruit, vegetables and a few hundred gods, too.

As the daughter of indentured sugarcane labourers on my father’s side and a farming family on my mother’s side, my very existence is a product of at least five generations of ownership and indenture, of farmhouses and barracks, of Indian blood and English morals, of Coolie-tude and Gandhi-tude, from India to South Africa.

Who were they—my ancestors who first boarded ships to South Africa? Where in that subcontinent did the roots of our family trees begin and where were they uprooted? Why not Guyana or Kenya? Was there a choice, like a time-share scheme for colonial subjects? Did they resist?

Further west, in the United States, writer Gaiutra Bahadur, a descendent of British Guyana, is asking similar questions. In 2013, she published Coolie Woman: The Odyssey of Indenture, which was short-listed for the Orwell Prize in 2014.

In the book, Bahadur traces her great-grandmother Sujaria’s journey as a 27-year-old woman from Calcutta to Guyana in the British coolie trade that, “for roughly 80 years after the abolition of slavery in the British empire, provided exploitable bonded labour to plantation owners across the globe”.

What Coolie Woman accomplishes, in focusing on the untold stories of the women in this period, is both deeply personal and a public service to collective memory.

The story is told through personal narrative, testimonies, archival material and open-ended mediations. There is no shock-and-run as Bahadur enters into what she calls “imagine(d) interiorities withheld by the written record”.

Through her approach, we learn that high-caste Hindus would be stripped of their status by leaving India and crossing “the dark waters”. This implied that lower-caste Hindus had more to gain by leaving for what was advertised as “a better life” on plantations. We are left questioning Hinduism’s own oppressive legacy.

We also learn of quotas imposed on coolie ships: one in which women were greatly outnumbered by men. A disturbing record of suicide rates among Indian women on coolie ships offers insight into the mental states in which coolies began their new lives: tracing “the inheritance of harm” as well as the roots of systemic gender-based violence.

Add to that records of cheap liquor, depressed wages and false promises of returning to India, and suddenly alcoholism and domestic abuse feel less like gatecrashers and more like distant cousins.

Growing up, I didn’t think to turn to my elders to learn about parts of myself that only they could pass on—to value their experiences as much as I valued matriculating with a distinction in history. I got my distinction but got no closer to knowing how much of my own past I did not know. What mechanisms led me to overlook my own family history? What do taboos about speaking about the past reveal about its contents? Shame? Loss? Nothingness?

In Coolie Woman, questions of how and why we remember ourselves become just as important as what we remember. Entire sections of the book invite us to experience the author’s inner conundrums and, in so doing, to ask questions of our own—to resist the urge to turn a blind eye on ourselves.

When India decriminalised consensual gay sex on September 6 this year, my joy for the Indian lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex community was followed closely by the question of why it took so long to remove a law now deemed “irrational, indefensible and manifestly arbitrary”.

Could Macaulay’s children have anything to do with this? The term describes the product of Thomas Babington Macaulay, who was appointed the chair of the Indian Law Commission in 1833, and who drafted the educational policies and Article 377 of India’s Penal Code, the same homophobic article that was repealed earlier this month.

Macaulay’s children preserved a hierarchy of Indian elite: anglicised lawyers, accountants and civil servants who would be described as “a class of persons, Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals and in intellect”.

Using Coolie Woman’s questioning lens, we are asked to look for connections in personal narratives, geopolitical shifts and the jiggling of human rights in order to grasp the pace of progress—and whose rhythm this pace is walking to.

How many more of Macaulay’s children are calling the shots around the world,policing bodies, hearts and minds?

As I begin to piece together my family history, I can understand a desire not to look back. Every time my grandmother reproaches me because I’ve asked too much, and superstitions about summoning an early death abound, Coolie Woman reminds me that “the will to remember the past is undermined by an equally formidable will to forget”.

There was never going to be a neat way of remembering those whose bodies were interchangeable with shiploads of steel and sugar. Despite the voices in my head telling me that it’s not worth remembering, Coolie Woman reminds me that the other function of history is to help us understand our complex and chaotic selves so that we can forgive, heal and, with greater sensitivity, decide: Where to from here?

Extracts from Coolie Woman: The Odyssey of Indenture by Gaiutra Bahadur have been reprinted with permission from the author

Subscribe to the M&G

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years, and we’ve survived right from day one thanks to the support of readers who value fiercely independent journalism that is beholden to no-one. To help us continue for another 35 future years with the same proud values, please consider taking out a subscription.

Dinika Govender
Dinika Govender
Writer and Entrepreneur.

Related stories

Many memories make history

The lived experience of each generation and every person expands on the official version

Mdingi isn’t your hype beast

Three years into a globally appraised luxury fashion business this designer is investing in honesty and environmental integrity

Déjà blues in New Orleans

The Big Easy is much like small-town South Africa — charming, with poverty in the back streets

On companies and scandal

"If we can stay on the right side of the law and keep the books presentable, what’s going on at these big organisations?"

​Walking among unicorns

Facts about San Francisco are hidden; they are gleaned from trying to make sense of being there

A lens on a portfolio review

Two South African photographers were chosen to showcase and reflect on their work in New York

Subscribers only

SAA bailout raises more questions

As the government continues to grapple with the troubles facing the airline, it would do well to keep on eye on the impending Denel implosion

ANC’s rogue deployees revealed

Despite 6 300 ANC cadres working in government, the party’s integrity committee has done little to deal with its accused members

More top stories

Hawks swoop down with more arrests in R1.4-billion corruption blitz

The spate of arrests for corruption continues apace in Gauteng and the Eastern Cape.

Catholic NGO boss accused of racism and abuse in Sudan

The aid worker allegedly called his security guard a ‘slave’

Agrizzi too ill to be treated at Bara?

The alleged crook’s “health emergency” — if that is what it is — shows up the flaws, either in our health system or in our leadership as a whole

SANDF hid R200m expenditure on ‘Covid’ drug it can’t use

Military health officials are puzzled by the defence department importing a drug that has not been approved for treating coronavirus symptoms from Cuba

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…

The best local and international journalism

handpicked and in your inbox every weekday