Over the past eight months or so Gaiutra Bahadur’s book, Coolie Woman: The Odyssey of Indenture, Chicago & London, University of Chicago Press, 2013 has received some good publicity in Guyana and in the United States. I understand that the book is shortlisted for an award. I reviewed this book for a journal and the review is expected to come out soon. While I cannot share everything I wrote in that journal here since that information is copyrighted, I will comment on the book without violating my agreement with the journal.
The general thesis of the book is that Indian women experienced a brutal history before, during, and after their indentured servitude. In every stage of indenture and beyond—in India, in the depots, on the sea voyage from India to the Caribbean, on the plantations, in the home, Indian women were ridiculed, abused, raped, and murdered by European, African, and Indian men. Indian women were certainly exposed to such atrocities because they were positioned at the lower end of a patriarchal indenture system and were treated as inferiors, even by their own spouses. Now, here are some major flaws of the book.
The author neglects to point out that despite Indian women’s experience of the structural domination during indenture, they had agency. The author accepts as well as promotes the school of victimology, that is, the idea that women were powerless in their day-to-day lives. Bahadur neglects to examine Indian women’s agency during indenture because she relies too much on historical records written by the colonialists, for example, George Greirson and Duncan Pitcher. These colonialists relied on anecdotal rather than analytical evidence to write their accounts on indentured Indians. Their writings or documents can be described as a scholarship based on the oligarchy of strangers to the reality of indenture, at least from the point of view of the indentured. Most of the chapters add nothing particularly new to the existing literature of Indian women’s indentured experience in Guyana. Most of the book is a review of published studies.
Some quotes and information that appear in other studies are also in identical form in Bahadur’s book. For example, Brij Lal’s article “The Odyssey of Indenture” (1996) is also part of the title of Bahadur’s book. The first quote from Comins’ report in the preface was quoted in Lomarsh Roopnarine’s Indo-Caribbean Indenture: Accommodation and Resistance (2007). Similarly, a photo, number 21, in the middle of text is the cover photo on Dale Bisnauth’s book Settlement of Indians in Guyana (2000). Other published studies on indenture are repeated throughout the book. Actually, the sources are decorative. Is the replication of previous works without giving credit a coincidence or a poor review of the literature on Indian indentured experiences in Guyana?
The contents of Coolie Woman: The Odyssey of Indenture are at odds with the marketing inscriptions.
The title of book “Coolie Woman,” is rather offensive. It is the Indian “C” word. Bahadur apologizes at great length for the word “Coolie” as it “bears the burden of history” (xxi). Can you believe this? The usage of the “C” word is what most modern writers on indenture try to avoid because it is insensitive to the scholarship on indenture and Indians in Guyana and the Caribbean.
The book was obviously not peer-reviewed by someone in the field since many of the aforementioned flaws would have been avoided.
In conclusion, Bahadur’s book offers no newly emerging trends in the historiography of indentureship in Guyana and the Caribbean. Instead, the readings reveal a replication and retention of the status quo, namely the same historical works of a few dominant scholars in the field. Moreover, the author has become the recent victim on the discussion, debate, and discourse on Indian indenture, that is, the shifting of the scholarship from Eurocentric to Indo-centric without a middle ground. Indian writers wished a radical, not a gradual, improvement on the understanding of Indian indenture from the perspectives of not only the indentured servants but also the descendants of indentured servants. They believed that it was the right place to begin the study of indenture in the Caribbean. What is needed are published studies that will serve as a platform for rigorous debates, international engagement, openness, the introduction of new modes and models of thoughts and ideas, among other things. Bahadur’s book does not remotely meet these expectations.
Yours faithfully, Lomarsh Roopnarine