You might have caught the film “12 Years a Slave.” We hear less, though, about the lives of indentured workers who replaced slaves.
But a new book by Gaiutra Bahadur is changing that, and rescuing her great-grandmother's story along the way. Bahadur’s new book is called “Coolie Woman.” But, what’s behind the title?
“The word ‘coolie,’” Bahadur says, “comes from the Tamil and it means wages. But then the term was given this stigma of this new form of slavery when British bureaucrats used it to describe indentured laborers.”
Those workers include the hundreds of thousands of South Asians who crossed the Atlantic to work under contract in the colonial Caribbean in conditions similar to slavery.
“Coolie” eventually became known as an ethnic slur for Asian workers.
But Bahadur’s connection to the word goes back to her great-grandmother. She was a so-called “coolie woman,” who left India for Guyana in 1903.
But Bahadur didn’t know any of this growing up in New Jersey. She was six when her family left Guyana for the United States.
“Amazingly, I didn’t hear about her story until I was in my early 20s," she says. "I was on a trip back to Guyana with my father. I remember his words exactly: ‘She was a pregnant woman traveling alone.’”
So, Bahadur, a journalist, went to London (among other places) and scoured the archives of voyages from India to the Caribbean for her great-grandmother’s records.
Bahadur found Sujaria’s emigrant pass — her name was Sujaria, she didn’t have a last name — from 1903. It was yellowed and delicate, and noted that Sujaria was 27, petite, with a burn mark on her left foot. She was also pregnant, but no husband was listed.
“I pictured her at the docks, about to get on this ship,” Bahadur says. “And I know she’s pregnant, but aside from that I don’t know anything about her. I don’t know what she looks like. But I thought if I could work around her, then I could tell this story, you know, with her sort of as a ghost at the center.”
Bahadur recreates her great-grandmother’s world: a rough sea voyage from Calcutta to Guyana.
“There were high suicide rates on the ships,” Bahadur says. “If there were people on the ships who didn’t want to be there, or if they’d been tricked into it, how do you resist being taken? You end your life.”
What Bahadur can’t tell from the records was why her great-grandmother made this journey, which included her giving birth to her son at sea. But Bahadur has a possible clue from a relative.
“One of them remembers my great-grandmother was smoking a clay pipe at home and told a story about being on a pilgrimage, going from one holy city to another,” Bahadur says. Sujaria, according to the story, talked about “white men in boats” offering to take her to the next stop on her holy tour.
“And then suddenly,” Bahadur says, “she found herself in the depot in Calcutta and on her way to sugar plantations in British Guiana. So that story, if it’s true, suggests that she didn’t want to go, that she might have been kidnapped even.”
However the story went, Sujaria left for Guyana — and so did Bahadur. Her research took her to the fields of Guyana, places that her great-grandmother likely knew well. She says she wanted to “feel what, literally, what is a cane leaf, how does that feel — it’s sharp as hell! You know, what does a burning cane field smell like?”
Bahadur also researched how indentured workers lived. They “lived in part of a plantation that was called the n-word yard. So, there were sort of military-style barracks, no privacy. They worked very long hours for little pay,” she adds.
And like slaves, indentured workers sang to help the days go by. Recently, Bahadur discovered that one of her friends, the Guyanese-American poet Rajiv Mohabir, had recorded his grandmother, the daughter of indentured immigrants, singing a song in Hindi kept alive by indentured women.
The recording is scratchy, but the woman’s soft voice is heard singing a song about a new bride leaving her family.
“This was a song that made the journey from India to the West Indies and was kept alive primarily by women,” Bahadur says.
Eventually, indentured immigration to Guyana stopped in the early 1900s.
So what became of Bahadur’s great-grandmother? She worked off her contract and was freed in 1908, five years after arriving to Guyana.
“She recreated family in Guyana,” Bahadur says. “Whatever she had lost in India, she managed to rebuild and she never returned.”
But Bahadur’s return to her Guyanese roots helped her tell a chapter of her own family’s story that might have easily disappeared.