Coolie Woman: The Odyssey of Indenture by Gaiutra Bahadur is published by C Hurst and Co priced £ It is available from the Guardian. In , a young woman sailed from India to Guiana as a “coolie”—the British name for indentured laborers who replaced the newly emancipated slaves on. Coolie Woman. The Odyssey of Indenture. Gaiutra Bahadur. SHORTLISTED FOR THE ORWELL PRIZE ‘A genealogical page-turner interwoven with a.

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It provided the name of her father and her native village and, with remarkable intimacy, hinting at possible trauma, even recorded a burn mark on her left leg. Missing from the written record, however, was her own testimony, the story in her own words of how she came to leave and who she truly was. A waylaid religious pilgrim? A fugitive from an abusive marriage? A woman deserted by her husband?

These were experiences shared by other recruits. So which was her story?

Did my great-grandmother choose to go and work on a Caribbean sugar plantation, or was she forced? On these and other crucial questions, the record is silent, stranding me at the very edges of the archives, at the limits of what can be known.

Coolie Woman is not only a family tge, but a broader social indebture narrative history of indenture; the system that, for roughly 80 years after the abolition of slavery in the British empire, provided exploitable bonded labour to plantation owners across the globe. More than a million Indians were transported to colonies from odysey Indian Ocean to the West Indies, in a traffic one-third the size of the British slave trade.


My book focuses on the women in this group, two-thirds of whom had quit India without men by their sides.

History had left these women voiceless. The existing archives that document indenture contain biases and elisions.

I could read the women only through rhe often sexist, racist eyes of government and plantation officials who had vested interests — economic, careerist, sexual — in telling the story from their own perspectives.

The stealing of the voices of indentured women, born into the wrong class, race and gender to write themselves odysse history, was structural. How could I write about women whose very existence the official sources barely acknowledged? To enter their unknown and to some extent unknowable history, I had to turn to alternative, unofficial sources.

I looked for clues wkman visual traces and the oral tradition: Perhaps most daringly, I turned to the self and wrote about my own journeys: In weaving myself into the narrative, Aoman was tracing not only roots but also the inheritance of harm. I was calling on my own experience in two ways, both as odyzsey former newspaper reporter and as a child immigrant: Coolie Woman is, as such, a speculative history.

Where the voices of indentured women were absent, I used my own, as their descendant, to question the records as aggressively as I could. This solution presented itself by accident. The short story, told through the eyes of a bodyguard assigned to a politician in an unnamed Latin American country, is written almost entirely coolif question form. Whole sections of Coolie Woman unfold entirely pdyssey questions: These questions allow me to imagine interiorities withheld by the written record.

They paint landscapes, advance the plot, convey a tone. They communicate my own attitude to the archive and its elisions and biases: So it was that, despite hard times for cane sugar, the Clyde arrived in British Guiana on 4 November The ship pulled in beside a floating lightship at the mouth of the Demerara river, its waters muddy with silt carried from the interior, a territory almost as undeveloped and lightly populated as when Raleigh explored.


Everywhere there were luxuriant trees providing shade and beauty: Fruit trees enfolded elegant wooden houses with verandahs for taking the air and jalousies for letting it flow. The indenturee had fanciful flourishes: Along the Demerara river ran a bustling commercial road with electric tram service. Nearby, dock workers loaded casks of sugar, rum and molasses and unloaded endless ice from America for coping with the heat.

Coolie Woman: The Odyssey of Indenture by Gaiutra Bahadur

It was in the briskness of all this shipping qoman and shipping out that the Clyde landed its human cargo. Between andthe death rate on ships to Guiana was 8. But she is careful to oryssey that coolie ships were not slave ships; indentured women also played games, sang, worshipped, fell in love and began the process of re-inventing themselves for their new lives. It is available from the Guardian bookshop. Topics Books Paperback writer.

Coolie Woman: The Odyssey of Indenture

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