Coolitude

Coolitude poetics interview with Sudesh Mishra

Sudesh Mishra

Sudesh Mishra is the author of five books of poetry, including Tandava (Meanjin Press), Diaspora and the Difficult Art of Dying (Otago University Press), and The Lives of Coat Hangers (Otago University Press); two critical monographs, Preparing Faces: Modernism and Indian Poetry in English (Flinders University) and Diaspora Criticism (Edinburgh University Press); two plays, Ferringhi and The International Dateline (Institute of Pacific Studies, Suva); and several short stories.

Fiji Indian Girmitiya poetry

New arrivals

Indian indenture migration to Fiji began relatively later than the trade to the Caribbean, South Africa, and elsewhere, starting in 1879 and ending in 1920, according to Sudesh Mishra’s article “Time and Girmit.” Coolies in Fiji suffered the same deception that laborers suffered at the hands of the arkotiya — the passage to plantation bound them to five-year renewable contracts. Yet the situation in Fiji was different specifically because of the indigenous Fijian presence in the governmental affairs. There were indigenous people present in Surinam and Guyana but their representation in governmental affairs was marginal, unlike the situation of the colonies in Fiji.

Vocabularies of indenture in the Indian labor diaspora

Girmitiya women working

In her book Mythologies of Migration, Vocabularies of Indenture: Novels of the South Asian Diaspora in Africa, the Caribbean, and Asia-Pacific, Miriam Pirbhai articulates the specificities of diaspora that are usually overlooked by scholars like Vijay Mishra in their approach to understanding the concerns of the Indian Labor Diaspora as unified. The context of each writer is usually neglected in favor of pointing out cohesion between national groups without a consideration of the nuances that shade each diasporic context.

Coolitude poetics: Interview with Gaitura Bahadur

Coolie Woman interweaves the author’s journey to uncover the mystery behind her great-grandmother’s exit from India, pregnant and alone in 1903, with the larger epic journey of Indian indentured women to the Caribbean as sugar plantation laborers from 1838–1917. The book is cross-genre, as much immigrant memoir and immersion journalism as it is narrative history or collective biography.

BIO

'Coolie Woman' and trans-creation

Gaiutra Bahadur came to visit the University of Hawai‘i while I was there as a graduate student. She gave a presentation on her book which emerged as a kind of light to guide my own writing. In Coolie Woman: The Odyssey of Indenture, Bahadur begins her process of investigating Caribbean history with the oral histories of her family. In pursuit of information about her great grandmother, Sujaria, Bahadur wonders about the particularities that women faced during the period of Indian Indenture.

Coolie Woman

Gaiutra Bahadur came to visit the University of Hawai‘i while I was there as a graduate student. She gave a presentation on her book which emerged as a kind of light to guide my own writing. In Coolie Woman: The Odyssey of Indenture, Bahadur begins her process of investigating Caribbean history with the oral histories of her family. In pursuit of information about her great grandmother, Sujaria, Bahadur wonders about the particularities that women faced during the period of Indian Indenture.

She begins her book with the assertion that,

The archive and the poet

As a relatively invisible community in the United States, you face many issues of representation. You’ve read that insulting article about how a white journalist “discovered” us off of the A train. How are you written about? How do you write about yourself and your community? Do you use formal poems to express your musicality of language — the sonnet or villanelle? Do you use postmodern methods of fragmentation and collage from a brown perspective? What sources do you draw from? What is important to you as a writer?

As a relatively invisible community in the United States, you face many issues of representation. You’ve read that insulting article about how a white journalist “discovered” us off of the A train. How are you written about? How do you write about yourself and your community? Do you use formal poems to express your musicality of language — the sonnet or villanelle? Do you use postmodern methods of fragmentation and collage from a brown perspective? What sources do you draw from? What is important to you as a writer?

Girmit ideology, douglarization, and Kala Pani poetics

More theories of the Indian Labor Diaspora

Above: The original uploader was Greensburger at English Wikipedia [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Coolitude is not the only way that scholars have written about the Indian Labor Diaspora; in fact it is one of several. The others I will briefly outline below, citing major sources and outlining their tenets. They move from girmit ideology to douglarization to Kala Pani poetics, each one invested in locating a subjectivity that is both specific to the particularities of each new diasporic context.

Coolitude: Theoretical underpinnings

The term Coolitude is derived from “coolie,” a word originating in Tamil that means “laborer” with the implication that the labor provided is physical in nature. The British started taking Indians into their colonies in 1838, a trade that lasted until 1917, created to provide labor needed in sugar plantations after slavery was abolished. Its roots are in labor and works to reclaim an identity that acknowledges histories of labor and the British labor trade in the colonies. This type of movement that faces Asia from spaces where overseas Indians live counters common wisdom that holds that fictions of “race” create identity.

 

kuli nam dharaya

Natalwa me ai ke

bhajan karo bhaya

hath me cambu

kandh me kudari

pardesita ghare jai

 

They’ve given you the name “coolie”

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