Coolie Woman strives to recover the voices of people who didn’t have the power to write themselves into history

Dear Editor,

I write to correct misimpressions created by Lomarsh Roopnarine’s letter published in the May 2 edition of this newspaper. Mr. Roopnarine’s speculation that my book was “not peer reviewed by someone in the field” is wrong. Coolie Woman was, on the contrary, peer reviewed by two of the foremost scholars in the fields of gender and indenture: sociologist Patricia Mohammed and historian Verene Shepherd. Their books on indenture (“Gender Negotiations Among Indians in Trinidad” and “Maharani’s Misery,” respectively) are acutely sensitive to the agency of Indian indentured women.

My own work owes a debt to theirs – and also to the scholarship of Brij Lal, Clem Seecharan, Prabhu Mohapatra, Rhoda Reddock and Brinsley Samaroo, among others. I stand on the shoulders of those who came before me, the shoulders both of our indentured ancestors and of an earlier generation of scholars in the field. I express my profound gratitude to them in the text, in acknowledgements and in ample footnotes. The footnotes (50-pages strong) also point to the extensive and original primary source research that I conducted in Colonial Office and India Office archives in the UK, as well as at the University of West Indies in Trinidad and the Walter Rodney Archives here in Georgetown. To provide just one example, I analyzed the reports on 77 indenture voyages from Calcutta to the Caribbean, mining them for the stories of the indentured but also grounding this qualitative data in quantitative analysis, generating statistics on the percentage of pregnant women, married couples and returnees aboard ship.

This brings me to another inaccuracy in Mr. Roopnarine’s letter. My book’s historiography – the techniques and principles of historical research that it embraces – is radical not, as he claims, conservative. I do use official sources, but critically. Indeed, I interrogate the archives, adopting a rhetorical strategy of question-asking and a poetic register that draws on folk songs, oral histories, family histories, transcripts of interviews conducted in Trinidad and Fiji with the ex-indentured, the Hindu epic The Ramayan and even body art (reading the “Sita ki rasoi” or “Sita’s Kitchen” tattoo that many elderly Indo-Guyanese women bore on their arms as a sign of their fraught commitment to family and tradition). I relied on official archives but also sought to fill in the many gaps and silences in the archives – they can lead us to the texture of indentured women’s lives, but not to the texture of their thoughts – with alternative and personal sources. My entire aim was to re-construct and re-imagine the experiences of the indentured from their own perspectives, rather than from the perspectives of British colonial officials. What I have written is not an establishment book but very much a subaltern history, a history from below that strives to recover the voices of people who didn’t have the power to write themselves into history.

Nor have I written a polemical book, but one guided by evidence and fact and one open to complexity. Whether Indian women in indenture were victims or agents is perhaps the most complex question I ask in Coolie Woman. The answer is multiple, as messy as truth often is. It was perhaps different for each woman in indenture, and I try to let their individual lives speak as much as possible, to let their experiences testify rather than to impose on them my own interpretation. My sense is that, for each woman, the reality was layered: they were both victims and agents, existing in a borderland between freedom and slavery.

I’d like to close by offering the story of one particular woman I found in the archives. (No scholar had told her story, narrated in my sixth chapter, “A New World.”) I’d like to think she is speaking for herself, rather having me – or Mr. Roopnarine – speak for her. I quote from the book:

“One gutsy young woman, nicknamed Baby, dared to ‘summons’ more than one lord and master. She asserted her rights in legal claims against overlords political as well as personal.

In 1896, she took the man she had recently left to court for assault. The charge stemmed from a scuffle one summer morning when the ex, Talloo, barged into a Georgetown lodging house where she was living with another man.”

He stormed in, hoping to reclaim jewelry, because she had left him. Baby had exercised the power that some Indian women in colonial Guiana had, because they were in short supply. When her husband beat her, she left him for another man. She could, because indentured women were in demand. In fact, there were several ‘other men’ in her life, including possibly the colony’s white police inspector. When Talloo tried to take Baby’s ankle bracelets and toe rings, by force, the inspector put her under police surveillance for six weeks, claiming it was to protect her from her angry partner. (She claimed it was out of pique, since she had ended her relationship with the police inspector.) What was Baby’s response to this surveillance? As I write in Coolie Woman, she sued:

“Although the police ultimately backed off, Baby pushed for reparations. To elevated government officials, she declared: “your petitioner has been guilty of no offence against the laws of the colony, yet she has been subjected … to the same police supervision as is meted out to confirmed criminals.” She didn’t just put forward a personal grievance, but criticized an entire system. Baby, whose formal name was Sumarea, boldly marked her X on a document that leveled a politically savvy charge. It read:

Your petitioner as well as other East Indian immigrants have latterly been subjected to great annoyances and indignities by the police, and such treatment can only have a deterrent tendency to the East Indians remaining in the colony and making their homes in it, as is the wish and offer of the government.

Her extraordinary petition—alleging a pattern of police harassment and racial profiling to which many (Indian day laborers) could testify—was all the braver because she wasn’t literate enough to sign her name. She had the courage to demand accountability not only from her commandeering ex, but also from the very state of British Guiana.”

I ask the readers of this paper if Baby sounds like a victim. It’s up to them to decide.

Yours faithfully,

Gaiutra Bahadur

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