Rajiv Mohabir

Coolitude: Poetics of the Indian Labor Diaspora

Performing Coolitude at the Queens Museum

On March 29, 2014, four Coolitude artists assembled a performance that engaged with the present state of Coolitude as a concept. The four performers displayed, screened, and read their works for a crowd of about sixty people at the Queens Museum of Art in Flushing. Known locally as the heart of Little Guyana and Trinidad, Queens is a blooming metropolis of language and cultures. Sponsored by the Indo-Caribbean organizations Jahajee Sisters, the Rajukamri Cultural Center, Urban+Out, and the Indo-Caribbean Alliance, this event highlighted notable works that interrogate the history of British indenture and its postcolonial fallout in North America. Chaired by Lisa Outar, this was the brainchild of Andil Gosine and Gaiutra Bahadur.

On March 29, 2014, four Coolitude artists assembled a performance that engaged with the present state of Coolitude as a concept. The four performers displayed, screened, and read their works for a crowd of about sixty people at the Queens Museum of Art in Flushing. Known locally as the heart of Little Guyana and Trinidad, Queens is a blooming metropolis of language and cultures.

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, a poetics for 2017

What draws me specifically to this kind of engagement is its implication of history and by extension the importance of the first-person perspective. So often in the United States brown and black bodies are erased in the white world of poetry. I think the assertion of my brownness coupled with my complicated history is important since the de facto subject position is no longer cishet white and male.

What draws me specifically to this kind of engagement is its implication of history and by extension the importance of the first-person perspective. So often in the United States brown and black bodies are erased in the white world of poetry. I think the assertion of my brownness coupled with my complicated history is important since the de facto subject position is no longer cishet white and male.

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”

A century after the end of Indian indenture

An introduction to the scope of this project

Indentured Laborers 1897, Trinidad

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.