Dabydeen’s Coolie Odyssey: another side of the Caribbean immigration experience

Coolie Mother


Jasmattie live in bruk –

Down hut big like Bata shoe box,

20110807artsonsundayBeat clothes, weed yard, chop wood, feed fowl

For this body and that body and every blasted body,

Fetch water, all day fetch water like if the whole –

Whole slow-flowing Canje River God create

Just for she one own bucket.


Till she foot bottom crack and she hand cut up

And curse swarm from she mouth like red-ants

And she cough blood on the ground but mash it in:

Because Jasmattie heart hard, she mind set hard.


To hustle save she one-one slow penny,

Because one-one dutty make dam cross the Canje

And she son Harilall got to go to school in


Must wear clean starch pants, or they go laugh at he,

Strap leather on he foot, and he must read book,

Learn talk proper, take exam, go to England


Not turn out like he rum-sucker chamar dadee.



Coolie Son

(The Toilet Attendant Writes Home)


Taana boy, how you do?

How Shanti stay? And Sukhoo?

Mosquito still a-bite all-you?

Juncha dead fe true-true?

Mala bruk-foot set?

Food deh foh eat yet?


Englan nice, snow and dem ting,

A land dey say fit for a king,

Ice-apple plenty on de tree and bird a-sing –

Is de beginning of what dey call ‘The Spring’.


And I eating enough for all a-we

And reading book bad-bad.


But is what make Matam wife fall sick

And Sonnel cow suck dry wid tick?


Soon I go turn lawya or dacta,

But, just now passage money run out


So I tek lil wuk –

I is a Deputy Sanitary Inspecta,

Big-big office, boy! Tie round me neck!

Brand new uniform, one big bunch keys!

If Ma can see me now how she go please . . .


David Dabydeen

(from Coolie Odyssey)


These two poems are by Guyanese (British) novelist, poet, editor, anthologist, academic and critic David Dabydeen, who was recently Guyana’s Ambassador to China. They are both taken from his dramatic collection of poems Coolie Odyssey in which the poems are bound by the concept of the journey, the indentureship, the existence and the struggles of East Indians in Guyana.

Dabydeen is among the foremost scholars and creative writers in the UK where he is Professor at the University of Warwick and primarily celebrated as a major prize-winning novelist. He is a leading scholar on blacks in eighteenth century Britain and African slavery in the Caribbean.  Some of his most prominent novels such as The Harlot’s Progress and Johnson’s Dictionary have their background there. So does his best poetical work – Turner, inspired by English landscape painter JMW Turner and in particular by his seascape painting “Slave Ship”.

Coolie Odyssey is actually a companion volume to Dabydeen’s first book of poetry Slave Song that won the Commonwealth Prize and launched its author into the upper echelons of British literature. The poems in Slave Song are strung around themes of African slavery, the plantation experience, the colonial conditions as well as the post-emancipation conditions in British Guiana and post-colonial concerns including race, sexuality and colonialism. It is written in Creole, often attempting the speech and point of view of the black slave.

It is the success of this work, or rather experiences arising from it that drove Dabydeen to write Coolie Odyssey. It is another side of the Caribbean immigration experience, this time focusing indentureship, post-indentureship and the contemporary existence of East Indians in Guyana, with special reference to the Canje area of Berbice of which both Cyril and David Dabydeen are natives. In similar fashion to Slave Song, it is a post-colonial work, which also touches on themes of the other great wave of migration – that of Guyanese to the UK.

The two poems, extracted from their original collection, are often anthologised together because of the way they mirror, complement and balance each other, particularly with telling irony.  “Coolie Mother” is set in the peasant post-estate setting of working-class people in the Canje Creek area on the outskirts of New Amsterdam. It focuses the hard work and sacrifice of a woman who pushes her body, works herself to the point of injury and ill health, not only for plain survival, but to fulfil a dream. It is the standard dream of educating children so that they can pull the family out of poverty and hardship. But it is also a goal of pride in scholastic achievement.

The poem has a tone of bitterness, hostility and almost anger, dramatising the personality of the woman Jasmattie who is given to cursing that “swarm from she mouth like red-ants”. That seems a fitting bad-tempered reaction to a hostile and unpleasant environment as much as it is to her husband who is no help and a bad example – a “rum-sucker” and a “chamar”.

Yet she is determined to remain steadfast to her goal – to educate and liberate her son Harilall who will then liberate them all. Although it is a third-person omniscient narrative, one can hear Jasmattie’s thoughts, temperament and language throughout. Along with that is the emphasis of the sacrifices she makes that physically consumes her. She is then spurred on by the determination that Harilall “must” first get an education and then make a success of it. This must happen.

The poem’s dramatisation includes the use of the Guyanese proverb “one-one dutty build dam”.  The poet uses a variant of this idiom – “one-one dutty make dam cross the Canje”. It seems a variant influenced by geography, since it is a Berbician usage which refers to known objects in the experience of the people – in this case the Canje River (or Creek), which is a wide expanse of water, difficult to dam with a small handful of earth. The reality is, however, that it expresses a truth.

This poem is ironically placed alongside “Coolie Son” which is spoken from the first person experience of a boy who actually went to England with the intention of university and a profession.

He fails; is obviously not in university and probably never set foot there. But he lies to his family in Guyana, believing that they know nothing about England and would never find out about his situation. The poem itself is built on an irony that weighs what he tells them in his letter against what the poem tells the reader in its subtitle: (The Toilet Attendant Writes Home).

The ironies persist because he seems to have an interest in and concern for the welfare of friends and family back home, with his consistency of enquiries. Yet there is the lurking suspicion that he is only putting up a show and pretence because in the same breath he lies about himself.

Ironically, “Coolie Son” gives the other tragic side of “Coolie Mother”. The struggles and sacrifice on the one side and dreams unrealised on the other. The poem set in England tells the story of so many who go there seeking success and perhaps scholarship but end up like so many migrants in the positions of toilet attendants. The “son” might well be the product of the sacrifices of the “mother”, but one that lacks the capacity to be as hard working, resolute and determined as the woman and does in fact end up like the “chamar dadee”.


With Coolie Odyssey Dabydeen contributes to what has developed as Guyanese East Indian literature. This is a contemporary development in mainly fiction and poetry that strongly reflects different elements of the East Indian ethos in Guyana as interpreted by the literature of writers of Indian descent. It is multi-faceted and led mainly by writers resident overseas, but still having a substantial component involving local residents such as Rooplall Monar and Ryhaan Shah. In these poems Dabydeen dramatises the whole “odyssey” of Indians who came to Guyana, their contemporary experiences and extending it to the quest for betterment, ironically, through crossing the ocean again to the UK.

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