A coolie woman’s work is never done


Gaiutra Bahadur unearths buried stories of indenture—those of women who battled rigid patriarchy on either side of the black water: The Margins

cooliewomantheodysseyofindentureSome months ago, I found myself stewing over a Facebook argument that flared up after I posted on my timeline the link to Gaiutra Bahadur’s magnificent new book Coolie Woman: The Odyssey of Indenture. “‘Indian woman’—not ‘Coolie woman’” a well-meaning African-Jamaican friend responded, a bald declaration that irked me for various reasons. Do you think the two are synonymous, I asked?  

The C-word, as Gaiutra Bahadur calls it, has a long history, dating back to the late 16th century when Portuguese captains and merchants relayed the Tamil word ‘kuli’, meaning wages, to the British and other Europeans. By the 20th century it had become attached to the indentured workers from India, China, and the Philippines sent out to work on colonial plantations around the world. The novelist Anita Desai records how “[i]t was a shock to Gandhi to find that in South Africa he was considered a ‘coolie’—within India the word is reserved for a manual laborer, specifically one who carries loads on his head or back. In South Africa the majority of Indians … had come to Natal on an agreement to serve for five years on the railways, plantations, and coal mines. They were known collectively as ‘coolies,’ and Gandhi was known as a ‘coolie barrister.’”

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