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Gripping tale of India's women indentured labourers (Book Review)

Delhi,National,Art/Culture/Books,Diaspora, Thu, 08 May 2014 IANS

Book: Coolie Woman - The Odyssey of Indenture; Author: Gaiutra Bahadur; Publisher: Hachette India; Pages: 274; Price: Rs.599

Over half a million Indians were taken to the Caribbean colonies to work on the sugarcane plantations; a little more than a third of them were women. Some of them travelled abroad on their own without male relatives. Who were those women and why had they left their homes to go to a distant land? Gaiutra Bahadur takes the story of her great grandmother, Sujaria, who travelled alone to British Guiana (now Guyana), to relate the little known saga of the women immigrants during the indenture period.

Sugar is king, it was said during most parts of the 19th and early 20th centuries when its production fuelled the economies of the new imperial colonies. The bustling plantations in the Caribbean islands needed agricultural workers to labour on the sugarcane estates after slavery was abolished in the British empire. Indians became the preferred choice of agricultural workers to replace the freed slaves and thus began the indenture system that took Indians under contracts to the islands. There were few women recruits but colonial authorities mandated that each indenture ship should have 40 women to every 100 male recruits.

The indentured workers were known as "coolies" and most of them knew little about the contracts they had signed; many were deceived or tricked by smooth-talking recruiters. Single women were usually widows without support, abandoned or runaway wives, women who had lost their way and could not return home, those who had fallen from grace or prostitutes.

Sujaria was one of those indentured Indians. She was a Brahmin by caste and 27 years old when she reached Guyana with her son, born on the three-month-long sea passage in 1903.

Little is known about Sujaria's background, except for the bare details given on her emigration pass and a fading photograph. Bahadur learnt from her grandaunts that Sujaria was a fair, light-eyed beauty whose emigration pass had a blank space for husband's name. Who was she and why did she leave home alone? Gauitra poses a series of questions that throw some light on the fascinating stories of the thousands of women who migrated in similar circumstances.

Bahadur's search took her to India, to a small village in Chapra in Bihar where she was welcomed as a daughter of the village, but the visit left her wondering whether she had really reached her great grandmother's village. She felt a strange reluctance to tell the villagers that Sujaria was an indentured worker, that she had married a milk-seller and sold milk in the vicinity of Cumberland village, where she lived.

Indenture was akin to slavery in many ways because of the total control the plantation managers had over the lives of the workers through the five-year indentured period. But for women, it gave them a form of freedom from the strict patriarchal norms since they became wage earners. As men outnumbered women on the plantations, it gave the women the freedom to choose their partners.

"Coolie Woman" is a gripping tale of how women navigated the unfamiliar terrain of indenture and life afterwards. The women faced abuse and violence; even murder by jealous husbands and paramours but most of them held their own in the new land. Life after indenture meant remaking the family and replicating the village life and rituals that they had left behind in India. But Bahadur discovered that the violence, both verbal and physical that permeated the lives of the indentured, at the hands of the plantation supervisors or others, still lingers on in Guyana with it high rates of domestic violence and murders.

Through dusty records in the archives, half-remembered recollections of older relatives and other indenture narratives, Bahadur has woven together a compelling story of the men and women who travelled abroad more than a century and a half ago.

(08.05.2014 - Shubha Singh is an expert on the Indian disaspora in Fiji and the Caribbean. She can be contacted at

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