When I first read Coolitude: An Anthology of the Indian Labor Diaspora, I was transformed. I accepted the trauma of my history as a dreamscape that shades my daily life. I accepted that the hauntings of colonization, dehumanization, and diabetes were part of this reckoning with my own history. What was it like for my own ancestors Latchman and Sant Ram Mahraj to leave their homes, beset by economic dependence on a colonial system? When they landed in Guyana in 1891 and 1885 what did they see? What colors were the ocean? What songs did they sing aboard the ship? What of all my women ancestors that are not recorded in familial lore — what did they survive? What survives in us because of all of these people’s strains and triumphs?
In this interview I ask Amar Ramesar questions about his life as a musician. He has taken the lyrics written by Lalbihari Sharma in 1916 on the Demerara sugar plantation and put it back into music. This kind of revivification of his music lends itself to new interpretations, which it finds in his craft.
To think of haunting as abstract and divorced from a present history is to depoliticize the present moment in which brown bodies actively resist oppression — be it from corrupt governments, institutional racism, and/or misogyny sponsored by a patriarchal culture. Yes, there is a past that haunts Caribbean poetic and imaginary landscapes: slavery, indenture, and colonization.
One of the most important poets of the Indian Labor Diaspora is Mahadai Das (1954–2003). Born in Eccles, East Bank Demerara, Guyana, her poem “They Came In Ships” serves as an ancestor poem to all of the poetry written by Indo-Guyanese people today. According to Peepal Tree Press’s website,
The poetry of David Dabydeen’s Coolie Odyssey (1988) is the first of the Indo-Caribbean body of poetry that I examine, as it was my own personal entry point into poetry. In his first book of poems, Slave Song, Dabydeen wrote entirely in Guyanese Creole ekphrastic poems that gave voice to the brown and black bodies painted by colonials in Guyana during the days of slavery and indenture-era plantations. This book moves between Guyanese Creole and standard English to produce the effect of a Caribbean person living a bicultural life in diaspora.
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.
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.