In her debut collection Thungachi (2017, Uhlanga Press) Francine Simon draws from the vast well of her Coolie inheritance to create poetry that speaks through the vocabularies of indenture. Being of Christian and Hindu Tamilian descent, Simon begins her book with the indenture story, fulfilling Vijay Mishra’s prescription that Indian Labor Diaspora be haunted by its traumas of oceanic crossings.
In her debut collection Thungachi (2017, Uhlanga Press), Francine Simon draws from the vast well of her Coolie inheritance to create poetry that speaks through the vocabularies of indenture. Being of Christian and Hindu Tamilian descent, Simon begins her book with the indenture story, fulfilling Vijay Mishra’s prescription that the Indian labor diaspora be haunted by its traumas of oceanic crossings.
To extend my look into Pirbhai’s vocabularies of indenture I consider Khalil Torabully’s poetry, the generator of the Coolitude concept. It is through his conceptualization of Coolitude that the Mauritian poet establishes a discourse that empowers the Indian labor diaspora to begin to draw connections between themselves despite national identities.
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,
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.
This year marks a century since the system that displaced over three million South Asians ended. From 1838–1917, the British, after slavery was abolished, transported 341,600 indentured laborers from India to British Guiana. Worldwide they displaced 3.5 million Indians who they recruited to work sugar plantations in the Caribbean, South Africa, Réunion, Ile de Maurice, Fiji, and South America.
Some of the migrants, the girmitiyas, the kantrákis, the coolies, chose to sail across the seas into a life of new adventure.