Gaiutra Bahadur: enigmas and arrivals

When writer Gaiutra Bahadur — born in Guyana, grown up in the United States — set out to answer questions about her great-grandmother, she discovered that “facts get compromised with time.” Her book Coolie Woman uncovers hidden stories about the “odyssey” of indentured Indian women in the Caribbean, writes Nicholas Laughlin

Gaiutra Bahadur. Photograph by Ulrike Wilson

On 4 November, 1903, a British merchant ship named The Clyde pulls into the mouth of the Demerara River, the harbour of Georgetown, capital of British Guiana. It is the end of a journey that started three and a half months before, and nearly on the other side of the world, in Calcutta. On board the ship, according to a report in the Daily Chronicle newspaper, is a cargo of “three hundred bales of gunnysacks . . . and a box of cigars” — and several hundred indentured immigrants from India, who have arrived in the New World only to begin another kind of voyage.

One of these passengers is a woman whose name is recorded as Sujaria. She arrives with an infant son, Lalbahadur, born on board The Clyde during its cramped and sometimes dangerous ocean voyage — but with no husband or adult male companion. Landed on the soil of South America, mother and child are soon on their way to a further destination, the Enmore sugar estate, fifteen miles east of Georgetown.

Nine decades pass. In the summer of 1997, Sujaria’s great-granddaughter and grandson sit in the departure lounge at Newark airport in New Jersey. Sixteen years after their family migrated from Guyana to the United States, Gaiutra Bahadur and her father are returning to their birthplace for a visit. “As we sat, poised to board our flight,” Bahadur writes, “I asked my father what he knew about our family’s roots in India.” Yet another journey is beginning — this time, into the past.

“I was a shy girl,” Bahadur recalls, “and reading was what I did for fun. I don’t think I ever made a conscious decision to write. There was, instead, a subconscious need to write. I think this had everything to do with being an immigrant child.”

Bahadur opens her debut book, Coolie Woman: The Odyssey of Indenture, with her memories of the day her family left Guyana — 7 November, 1981. The conflicted emotions of the event are captured in a photograph: mother, father, two daughters, two grandmothers providing moral support. “Everyone looks annoyed,” Bahadur writes. “I wonder what was wrong.”

Soon the family had exchanged the world of Cumberland Village, Berbice — “bottom house” hung with hammocks, guinep tree, blue-painted domestic mandir — for a claustrophobic apartment in Jersey City, across the Hudson River from Manhattan. Though surrounded by fellow emigrants from Guyana, there was a new life to negotiate, with new weather, new language, new morals. “Writing things down was the way I tried to bring order out of the chaos of migration,” Bahadur says.

Her parents tried to make this new home “a fortress,” protecting their daughters from physical dangers lurking outdoors, but also from American habits so different from those of rural Guyana. “I was outside mainstream American society,” she says, “and I was also outside my own community in many senses. I didn’t fully fit in either place.”

After studying for a literature degree at Yale University, Bahadur decided to become a journalist. “It seemed like a way to earn a living by doing what had already become second skin: the habit of observing and describing, from the outside,” she says. “I chose journalism almost as an expression of my own alienation.” She worked as a staff writer for the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Austin American-Statesman, and built up an impressive portfolio as a freelance contributor to the Washington Post, the New York Times Book Review, The Nation, and other magazines, often covering issues of migration, ethnicity, and gender.

Then in 2008 — “part of the massive bloodletting the industry was going through” — Bahadur was laid off from her newspaper job. But she “landed rather luckily and softly,” winning a prestigious Nieman Fellowship at Harvard University. It was the catalyst she needed to really begin the writing project that had slowly been taking shape since she began asking questions about her family’s past, and about her great-grandmother Sujaria.

The first step was a temporary move to London, to start exploring the archives of the old Colonial Office. “Once I was deep in the records,” Bahadur says, “it became apparent that there was a wealth of stories about indentured women that had not been told. In other words, I’d be telling a larger story — a family story, yes, but also one that spoke to and spoke for a much broader group of people.”

Her research also took her back to Guyana, to investigate the slippery details of her family history, and the plantation society shaped by indentureship. And it took her to India, where she twice visited the remote village of Bhurahupur in Bihar state, which was — according to the emigration pass issued to Sujaria nearly a century before — her great-grandmother’s original home. In Bhurahupur, Bahadur met a family who may or may not have been her distant kin, and who may or may not have preserved the memory of long-lost Sujaria. As she describes in Coolie Woman, this was no straightforward “homecoming.” Culture is as great a barrier as language. The young writer realises how North American are her instincts and assumptions. It’s hard to know if the Bhurahupur “cousins” are telling her what they think she wants to hear. “Or, it could just be that facts get compromised with time.”

Coolie Woman is a book about questions — those that can be answered and those that can’t. The two questions at its heart are personal ones. “I wish I’d been able to discover, conclusively, why my great-grandmother left India pregnant and unaccompanied by a husband,” Bahadur says. “I wish I had been able to find out who was the father of her child, my grandfather, the one born on that ship to Guyana.” Three years of research on four continents couldn’t provide those answers. But they did produce a wealth of information, much of it previously hidden in archives, about the quarter-million other Indian women who joined in the great historical uprooting that was indentureship.

Women indentured immigrants were always vastly outnumbered by men. Their reasons for leaving their homes in India were often different: some were runaways from oppressive marriages, others hoped to escape the cultural stigma of widowhood. Some women travelled with husbands and children, others were alone and hence unprotected, in the eyes of fellow immigrants and colonial authorities alike. They arrived in plantation societies characterised by backbreaking labour and a desperate quality of life. A chronic shortage of female companions for male immigrants was a recipe for sexual exploitation and violence. In her chapter “Beautiful Woman Without a Nose”, Bahadur documents in blood-chilling detail the phenomenon of indentured women killed by “intimate or would-be intimate partners,” and in her final, grim chapter she shows how this history of violence against women continues in present-day Guyana. Even so, some women were able to use their sexuality as a tool for improving their social position.

These aspects of the history of indentured women don’t always sit easily with today’s Indo-Caribbeans — such as members of Bahadur’s own family. “A great-aunt in London told me the text was so disturbing, she had to go for a bracing walk,” she says. And a cousin, talking about the book, “started to tear up, to talk about how upset she was to discover that some of the women who left India for the West Indies had been, for instance, prostitutes.” But, she adds, “Even if they’re uncomfortable with some of the content, they are big enough and bold enough to face that discomfort.”

As she contemplates these uncomfortable matters, the poise of Bahadur’s narrative voice is remarkable. So is her ability to weave her own story into history, and vice versa. “Coolie Woman is groundbreaking because it’s so personal and yet so political,” says scholar Gabrielle Hosein, based at the University of the West Indies’ St Augustine campus. “It’s an example of a contemporary generational voice, one that is able to learn from and further almost thirty years of Indo-Caribbean feminist analysis and reflection.” For the Trinidad-born, Toronto-based artist and academic Andil Gosine, the book is “about moving beyond a representational story of our community to also tell each of our own complicated stories that are connected to, but not contained by, the historical narrative. And by ‘complicated,’” he adds, “I mean a willingness to consider and embrace the ‘dirty’ parts of our history . . . not simply some ethnic pride narrative.”

That sense of complication sits even in the title of Bahadur’s book, as she acknowledges in her preface. Tracing the evolution of “coolie” from its origins in Tamil — “kuli, meaning wages or hire” — Bahadur describes how the term became an ethnic slur, but also notes the attempts of previous writers “to reclaim the word . . . to invest it with pride and subvert the old stigma.”

“My great-grandmother was a high-caste Hindu,” she writes. “But she also left India as a ‘coolie’ . . . The power of her colonisers to name and misname her formed a key part of her story.” Bahadur may not have succeeded in answering her original questions about that arrival on The Clyde. But, a century later, the power of Sujaria’s great-granddaughter has been to reclaim a story of communal survival which — like the complicated “c-word” itself — “bears the burdens of history.”