Coolitude: Theoretical underpinnings


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”

You’ve come to Natal,

give thanks in song, brother

With a cambu in your hand

and a hoe on your shoulder,

Let the foreigners go home. (A South African Bhojpuri folk song, Mesthrie 198)

Négritude et Coolitude

Négritude is the ancestor of Coolitude. They rhyme not only on the word level but also on a conceptual one. In the book Coolitude: An Anthology of the Indian Labour Diaspora, Carter and Torabully chart the differences between creolité, antillanité, Indienocéanisme, Négritude, and this new movement toward the neologism “Coolitude.” Négritude, of Aimé Césaire, Léon Damas, and Léopold Senghor, has been criticized as being both essentialist and nativist in its articulation of commonality between all people of African descent — that there are essential characteristics, shared, internal. Despite this, even Frantz Fanon has acquiesced that a movement like Négritude was helpful for the colonized mind, necessary for Black folks to see themselves as being humans. As such, in a time of devastating oppression, Négritude was embraced by many Black writers. Folks in Senegal, Martinique, Louisiana, London, and Harlem were all put together into one broad category that served as a launching point for building a global network of people united by the idea that all African-descended people share a commonality. The essential problem was the centering of Africa — that Black folks could always trace a cultural and psychic element of their ontology to Africa without consideration for diasporic experiences or the diversity of African experience even on the African continent. Baton Rouge is vastly different from Paris.

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 to 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.

Poet and scholar Khal Torabully posits that there is no one singular “Indian” and that the word “coolie” suffices as allowing for this diversity and multiple originary stories as the figure of the “coolie” was created as an economic marker. There was no one single India. Suva is different from Port-of-Spain. This allows for what they say is “the chief characteristics of Coolitude are, to sum up, the redefining of ‘India’, of the relation to India, to other cultures, in the setting of their adoptive homelands. A crosscultural vagabondage (cultural vagrancy) is at its heart” (Carter and Torabully 194). Véronique Bragard says of this that:

Coolitude is not based on Coolie as such but relies on the nightmare transoceanic journey of Coolies, as both a historical migrant and a metonymy of cultural encounters. The crossing of the Kala Pani constitutes the first movement of a series of abusive and culturally stifling situations. By making the crossing central, Coolitude avoids any essentialism and connection with an idealized Mother India, which is clearly left behind. It disclosed the Coolie’s story, which has been shipwrecked (‘erased’) in the ocean of a Western-made historical discourse as well as a world of publication and criticism. (Bragard qtd. Carter and Torabully 15).

The central mark of identification is no longer racial for the Coolie, it is the material history of crossing the ocean, being called by an economic class. India is no longer at the center of understanding self. Rather India is a fiction; the trauma of passage and plantation are now the heart of Coolitude.

In this positioning of Coolitude, Torabully supports the diffusion of culturalisms between groups of people in the colony — “an exchange of histories, of poetics or visions of the world, between those of African and of Indian descent without excluding other sources” and the “Indian” is not a fixed entity, but rather something changing.

The implication here is that identity is not static in diaspora but fluid, created and renegotiated in various national spaces. A Coolie in Réunion is different from a Coolie in Guyana. After the decision to remain in the colonies and after the periods of indenture lapsed, Coolies stayed, deciding to make colony into personal home. They adopted new languages, customs, foods, and worldviews.  Transformation and cultural syncretism are necessary for Coolitude as it relies on diversity and cross-pollination of ideas.

Carter and Torabully position Coolitude as being additive to both Négritude and Creolité as the latter deals with complexities of identity in Caribbean space. In Torabully’s configuration, India is not culturally monolithic, but rather a place of great diversity — the Coolie was formed through the economic relationship and exchange of British imperialism and the global capitalism that spawned the sugar trade. Here, India is not the “Ultimate Referent. It is certainly one of the starting points, but definitely not the final goal of Coolitude, in an ontological perspective,” (147), which differs from the Négritude of Césaire, Damas, Senghor in that Africa — as Torabully would claim — is the Ultimate Referent. To him, even though “there is a view that the ‘Indian migrant’ should become part and parcel of an identity open to the dynamics of cultural interplay. This does not mean doing away necessarily with India, as every cultural element is with scrutiny and interplay” (148). Rather there are traces of Indian-nesses (here pluralized to increase the potential for understanding the diversity of sub-continental heritage) that are negotiated, new local Indian identities forged on the anvil of the plantation.

Creolization and Coolitude

Striking in Aimé Césaire’s Cahier d'un retour au pays natal is the lack of consideration of the Indian Caribbean person — even Raphaël Confiant was upset by the lack of Césaire’s actual consideration of “the Hindu of Calcutta” that he only eludes to in his work Cahier. Some have criticized Creolization as a process of upholding a black and white polarity that renders the hybridity that it aspires to invalid. This is not Torabully's concern here — rather, he is interested in coming up with a descriptor of Creolization as an ongoing process that also "faces Asia."

Torabully says, “at the heart of Coolitude, there is a view that the 'Indian migrant' should become part and parcel of an identity open to the dynamics of cultural interplay. This does not mean doing away necessarily with India, as every cultural element is worth scrutiny and interplay” (148). What it does is accounts for the Indian element, as a reference, in order to locate various amalgamated South Asian identities — there is no one India, it’s a place of great diversity. Coolitude links people through considering the economic appellations and reasons for migration under colonization.

Of this connection between Coolitude and Creolization Torabully says, “I likened, at this stage, Coolitude to Creoleness, because compared to restrictive definitions of indianite, créolité seems to be a more open concept, as it tries to go beyond the essentialism of négritude and the geographical limitations attached to a subsequent concept, that of ‘Caribbeanness’ or antillanité. In Eloge de la Créolité, Confiant, Chamoiseau, and Bernabé define creoleness as the annihilation of fake universality, of monolingualism and of purity’” (153). Through this distinction Torabully solidifies Coolitude’s contribution to the discourse. Coolitude attempts to locate Coolies in their disparate locations.

Coolitude is Alive

And what of the writers? Cultural fragmentation seems to be the overwhelming trope that descendants of the Coolies focus on when writing from a space of “cultural anxiety” (13) including various language varieties in their work — a linguistic hybridity that carries the weight of their histories. From Sonny Ladoo’s No Pain Like This Body to Rooplall Monar’s Koker, the speakers and characters lament a severance from an India that their families left long before. Or as in Mahadai Das’s “They Came In Ships” the journey into the speaker’s new positionality begins with a Transoceanic crossing — a reforging of identity, a new creation story.

Coolitude “may be seen as an attempt to bring the past and present of these groups into contact and to go beyond past conflicts and misrepresentations — a reconciliation” (150) of sorts. According to Torabully, Coolitude can be summed up in a metaphor, “Ma coolitude est une pierre non plus, / elle est corail / partage d’une terre de giboyeuse parole… (My coolitude is a rock either / It is coral, / Fruit of an earth laden with speeches of birds and beasts) (151-152). For Coolitude identity may appear to be frozen in time and space, but is actually rooted in the marine — the Voyage that created the Coolie as a labor category — and is living as coral in a state of continual changing/growth.


Works Cited and Further Reading

Bragard, Véronique. Transoceanic Dialogues: Coolitude in Caribbean and Indian Ocean Literatures Véronique Bragard. Bruxelles, Belgium: P.I.E. Peter Lang, 2008. Print.

Carter, Marina, and Khal Torabully. Coolitude: An Anthology of the Indian Labour Diaspora. London: Wimbledon Publishing, 2002. Print.

Césaire, Aimé. Notebook of a Return to the Native Land. Trans. Eshleman. Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 2001. Print.

 Mesthrie, Rajend. Language in Indenture: A Sociolinguistic History of Bhojpuro-Hindi in South Africa. London: Routledge, 1992. Print.