I am writing in reference to Ms. Gaiutra Bahadur’s letter captioned `Coolie Woman strives to recover the voices of people who didn’t have the power to write themselves into history’ in the Stabroek News on May 3, 2014. Ms. Bahadur wrote that in my letter `Bahadur’s book offers no newly emerging trends in the historiography of indentureship’ to the same newspaper on May 2, 2014, I am creating “misimpressions” of her book. I beg to differ. I am interested in examining and analyzing published studies on Indian indentureship in the Caribbean. In so doing, my comments may be simply difficult to accept. In the past, I have seen so many books on indenture slip through the cracks and make it to publication. Ms. Bahadur’s book is the most recent example. I have addressed this reoccurring problem in my soon to be published article “A Critique of East Indian Indentured Historiography in the Caribbean” Labor History 55. 3 (2014): 1-13. Moreover, most books, even the Bible, are subject to some degree of criticism. Why should Ms. Bahadur’s book be excluded?
Now, Bahadur wrote proudly that her book was reviewed by “sociologist Patricia Mohammed and historian Verene Shepherd”, individuals who “are acutely sensitive to the agency of Indian indentured women”. I know these individuals and they are indeed scholars. However, Ms. Bahadur simply does not get it. Look, the mere fact that you thanked these reviewers in your acknowledgement (xiii) leads me to believe that you must have known them personally and was perhaps in communication with them before, during and after the review process. Most published authors do not know their reviewers, sometimes for twenty years or never. You seem to know them soon after the book was published. I understand that some Presses ask to recommend names to help with the review process but they do not necessarily use them. The point is here that I suspect that Ms. Bahadur’s book was not reviewed anonymously. It might not be the author’s fault but she has to come clean on this issue.
What is even more puzzling is that the remarks on the back cover of the book (paper jacket) do not include Patricia and Verene but apparently four high level Professors: Junot Diaz, Adam Hochschild, Pankaj and Teju Cole. I have been studying Indian indentureship for over twenty years and I have published one book, over two dozen articles, a series of book reviews and presented a number presentations all over the world on the aforementioned theme and I have never come across these individuals in person or in publication. I am not blind. Two of them used the “C” word as if it is in style. Let me quote them. Diaz writes “Coolie Woman spans continents and centuries, the private and the national…..Cole writes “Coolie Woman recreates a vanished world and casts a personal searchlight on saga of indenture” They seem to have no clue that the “C” is offensive because they would have at least put the word in quotation. If they did realize that the word was offensive the author leads them to believe it is just fine because her scholarship is ground breaking as reflected in their comments on the back cover. Just imagine what these individuals would say when they see an Indian person close to or around them. Just imagine what they would say to a young Indian girl sitting in the front seat of their class. You must be a “Coolie”.
Ms. Bahadur stated that she did extensive research to write her book and that her book has about 50 pages of footnotes. Most mature researchers do not state how much they have done because that is what researchers do. Additionally, it is not about quantity but quality. It is not how many names and sources you have listed but how efficiently and effectively you have used the sources. Am I speaking to my undergraduate students? Sorry!
Here are some serious flaws of book. I will only address a few since this a letter column. If pressed, I will do so in another letter. Most of the chapters revolved around her personal experience in Guyana and in the US and they read like a personal diary “marinated” with a journalistic writing style. The diary is based on her travels. Now, every Indo-Guyanese I know has somewhat of a similar story but they chose not to air it. The text, for the most part, reads like a report or someone reporting on a story. That is okay but it must not be conflated to be research. Actually, the author confused reporting with researching. Readers will decide this large aspect of the book for themselves.
I would like to quote from the chapter “The Magician’s Box” and the readers would see why. “Ruled by a dictator who had rigged elections for decades, it was a country without legitimate democracy. Because it banned foreign goods as neo-colonialist (sic), it was a country without wheat flour needed for staples … Divided by race and ruled by the African dominated party, it was a country without equal opportunities for Indians, who were largely shut out….(9). The reference here is to the Forbes Burnham’s PNC regime. Now, this is what she wrote about Cheddi Jagan on the following page…”Cheddi Jagan, the independence leader who was a hero and father figure to Indians in this country, as well as symbol of how they had been wronged” (10-11). No one denies the repressive nature of the PNC but this individual was writing in 2012 or thereabouts when there is an opportunity to compare and contrast both regimes to arrive at an objective conclusion. What is appalling is that this book, according to the Stabroek News is shortlisted for a “prize [that) was set up in honour of George Orwell and the award is given to the book and journalism entry which comes closest to his ambition “to make political writing into an art.” It is really sad. I will continue to review this book.