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. Each of these versions of theorizing the Indian Labor Diaspora fills in gaps where others leave off — for example, how does the idea of the “Coolie” as such include or exclude people of mixed racial heritages? Some balk at the idea of any kind of cultural and ethnic purity in favor of what they believe to be a more inclusive model. These frameworks are not necessarily at odds with Coolitude but enliven the discussion of the fraught ways in which we discuss ourselves and poetic interventions.

Girmit ideology        

In The Literature of the Indian Diaspora: Theorizing the Diasporic Imaginary, Vijay Mishra makes distinctions between the “Old” and “New” Indian diasporas, where the Old diaspora refers to the Coolie trade that brought indentured laborers into European colonies in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Here “girmit” is a Fiji Hindi version (corruption) of the English “contract” or “agreement” of indentured labor. The South Asians of these old diasporic spaces of Fiji, South Africa, Guyana, Trinidad, Mauritius, and Surinam “occupy spaces in which they interact by and large with other colonized peoples with whom they have a complex relationship of power and privilege” (Mishra, 3).

According to Mishra, there are three component parts that inform what he terms the “diasporic imaginary.” These three parts are mourning/impossible mourning, travel and translation, and trauma. Mourning/impossible mourning is the condition wherein mourning never arrives due to its definition being rooted in absence. For Mishra this means “the traumatic moment may be seen as crystallizing that loss, as a sign around which memory gives itself to the past … referred to as “temporality of memory.” The (ideal) loss persists because there is no substitution for it in the “new object of love” (in the nation-state in the case of the diaspora) (8) which produces a feeling of melancholia. Travel and translation come from the journey across the sea. Trauma “creates a breach in a protective covering of such severity that it cannot be coped with by usual mechanisms by which we deal with pain or loss” (12), and this loss and pain, for Mishra, refers to the loss of a homeland/India and the grief of plantation life. (din cale kudārī rāt nīnd nāhi(m) āve) (12). This trauma “always arrives late … occurring after the event as a deferred experience” (109), is a repetition of this event, disrupting temporal flow.

Mishra’s girmit ideology is something he posits for an Old diasporic poetic in which he quotes the poet Sudesh Mishra as saying that the term girmit is “a singular subaltern plantation experience —designates a form of consciousness, a system of imaginary beliefs, and defines a ‘subaltern knowledge category; that grew out of the collective indenture ethos” (22). It centers the realization that the once-promised riches to be found in the colonies and return passage to India were indeed illusions (23), and the trauma of passage and plantation are tied to capitalism and labor exploitation (70). Mishra concludes that “in terms of the Indian diasporic imaginary the girmit ideology’s significance lies in the way in which it functions as a destructive crucible of unhappiness, and as a means of understanding the ways in which we have invested in our own unhappiness. For the people of the old plantation-Indian diaspora the girmit ideology is a ghost that reminds the son of the endless unhappiness of diaspora” (70).

Yet Miraim Pirbhai, in Mythologies of Migration, Vocabularies of Indenture, criticizes Mishra for his over-reliance on the “traumatic:”

similarly in his emphasis on the diaspora’s ethnocentrism as a compensatory drive to transplant and recuperate the motherland (the object of loss), Mishra also glosses over the local expressions of national and cultural belonging or the complex processes of syncretism, creolization, and indigenization that are evident in multigenerational communities in the Caribbean and other locations. (Pirbhai, 19)

She also indicated the cohesion of diasporic South Asian communities around versions of the Ramayana means an over emphasis on Hinduism in these cultural groups.


Shalini Puri, in her book The Caribbean Postcolonial: Social Equality, Post-Nationalism, and Cultural Hybridity, indicates that hybridized identities are constantly expanding in a motion towards an evolving culture. Puri uses the terms creole, jibaro, mestizo, mulatto, and dougla to describe this ethnic hybridity. The term dougla comes from the Bhojpuri/Hindi term for mixed-caste, but in the Caribbean context it refers to an individual who is mixed-race Indian and Black in the Caribbean. The word dougla comes with racist and exclusionary connotations of belonging to the periphery or a state of unbelonging given both its sociopragmatic usage and etymology. She harnesses this velocity in order to reclaim and recuperate this word and “to articulate potentially progressive cultural projects delegitimised by both Afro-Creole dominant culture and the Indian ‘Mother Culture’” (Bragard, 55). Such syncretism in a poetic that relies on this framing of mixing of identities and cultures — a metaphor for Caribbean space — allows for questioning the nation-state in its purist model.

Puri writes that “dougla:”

captur[es] the triple discourse of illegitimacy that has haunted Indo-Caribbean history: the colonial state’s policy not to recognize Indian marriages, which therefore deemed Indian children illegitimate (a policy from which several Creole constructions of Indians as outsiders with no legitimate claims upon Trinidad took their cue); independent India’s rejection of the requests of some Indo-Caribbeans for repatriation, which rendered Indo-Caribbeans illegitimate children of India; and finally Indo-Caribbeans’ own exclusionary and disciplining pejorative that demonizes the mixed descendants of Indo- and Afro-Caribbean as illegitimate. (Puri, 221)

Veronique Bragard, in Transoceanic Dialogues: Coolitude in Caribbean and Indian Ocean Literatures, claims that douglarization is a necessary means by which the tensions and similarities that arise from similar histories of bondage in the Caribbean are documented and explored poetically. For Bragard, however, “the term dougla somewhat restricts the scope [of Puri’s] analysis” (Bragard, 56) but is useful in that it exposes the spaces of contestation between a culturally hybrid space such as the Caribbean. Bragard claims that Puri approaches reading cultural productions through a Marxist framework wherein dominant ideological paradigms such as nation and race are addressed and challenged.

Kala Pani poetics

Another articulation of the Indian labor diasporic poetics comes from Brind Mehta who writes on Kala Pani poetics, which centers a female Indo-Caribbean subjectivity, previously unimaginable as a subject position. The Kala Pani of Mehta’s book Diasporic Dis(locations): Indo-Caribbean Women Negotiate the Kala Pani:

“The kala pani supplied [Indo-Caribbean women] with the necessary language and framework of reference to position Indo-Caribbean female subjectivity as an autonomous self-reflecting Caribbean experience by equating writing and pre-discursive modes of communication with a public declaration of one’s identity and right to claim creative agency” (Mehta, 5).

Based on what Mehta calls “Hindu belief,” the crossing of the Kala Pani would cost the voyager her caste — an unthinkable thing for Hindus and especially for women at that time. The fact of the crossing the ocean then becomes an act of enlivened agency whereby Indian women undo the abuse of patriarchal norms that leads to increased female autonomy. In centering this act, Caribbean hybridity is mobilized to provide a space of alignments with others with similar experiences and differing ethnicities. It also disaligns with the patriarchal constraints of the nation-state. Here the crossing of the ocean is centered in her approach to excavating Indo-Caribbean women’s cultural productions.

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.

Mehta, Brinda J. Diasporic (dis)locations: Indo-Caribbean Women Writers Negotiate the Kala Pani. Kingston, Jamaica: U of the West Indies, 2004. Print.

Mishra, Vijay. The Literature of the Indian Diaspora: Theorizing the Diasporic Imaginary. New York: Routledge, 2008. Print.

Puri, Shalini. The Caribbean Postcolonial: Social Equality, Post-nationalism, and Cultural Hybridity. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004. Print.