Can the Subaltern Body Speak?

While pursuing the history of indentured women, the sources I most craved were their stories in their own words: in letters, diaries, memoirs. I found none in archives private or public. The women did not write down their stories. For the most part, they couldn’t. For the most part, they weren’t literate, in English or any Indian languages.

Their testimonies do survive in a few cases, involving mistreatment on plantations or during sea voyages, but those words cannot be seen as completely their own. Sometimes, the accused sat in the same room as the women, his presence intimidating, censoring. And their words come to us through middlemen: immigration officials who decided what questions to ask, court clerks who recorded the answers (but not the questions), translators who put English in the women’s mouths.

Confronted with gaps in the archives, or flawed documents, I had to contend with postcolonial scholar Gayatri Spivak’s almost existential question: Can the subaltern speak? Can the unlettered ever be properly historical figures, without a paper trail to the texture of their thoughts? I had to look to alternate sources to imagine their values and sense of self. There were folk songs about childbearing and marriage, loss and longing, to work with, as well as religious allegories and stories handed down in families.

Surprisingly, there was also physical evidence to consider: an elaborate tattoo snaking up the forearms of most indentured women, many of their daughters and even some of their granddaughters. A woman nearly a century old, born to indentured parents in plantation barracks in Guiana, unlocked this clue for me as we chatted in Long Island one winter afternoon. Her tattoo, she said, was called “Sita ki rasoi,” or Sita’s Kitchen. She told me that she couldn’t cook for her in-laws without it. And sure enough, The Popular Religion and Folk-Lore of Northern India: Volume 2, an ethnography written in 1896, confirmed that brides in northeast India could not cook for their in-laws without being inked with the tattoo. That the practice continued for generations in the Caribbean, far from the villages where it began, speaks to an enduring cultural commitment to family and tradition. Apparently, the subaltern body could speak, in the case of indentured women. Their vow of housewifely devotion was written on their very bodies.

And those bodies mattered. They were put to work, bent in indentured as well as sexual service. They were desired, leveraged, taken by force. A cause for plantation uprisings and strikes, they were fought over. Mannequins modeling honor, then dishonor, they were dismembered. When “coolie” women were attacked by men they refused, with machetes used to cut cane, newspapers and coroner’s reports catalogued the injuries in grim detail. The number of cuts, the inches they bit into the skull, or a cheekbone, not only spoke to the trauma; they quantified it. If their body art, if their wounds, could testify, then certainly photographs could.

Midway through my research, I was thrilled to discover a series of photographs of Indian women taken in a photo studio in Port of Spain, Trinidad, from the 1870s through the 1890s. My elusive subject was suddenly staring right back at me. Dozens upon dozens of images of Indian women, decked out in ornate jewelry, dressed in flowing ghararas, smiling, holding a large urn, standing jauntily beside a decorative column, heads covered with dupattas or orhnis, heads bare, one smoking a cigarette, expressions coy or bold, defiant or miserable. If I didn’t have their words to read, could I at least read their eyes? How about their clothes? Or their jewelry? Were subaltern figures speaking in these images, or the photographer who posed them? (He was a land surveyor named Felix Morin, and the images he took adorned postcards subsidized by haberdasheries, general stores, newspapers and other businesses in the Caribbean, now collectors items.)

In my next post, I will compare these touristic images to mugshots of “coolie” women in a police archive in Trinidad and images of indentured women that families kept for themselves. I’ll share more of the images and try to answer some questions about how they speak. The rhetoric of each of the three types of images is definitely distinct, which led to three different covers for the three editions of Coolie Woman. More on that next post.

Copyright: The Michael Goldberg Collection, The University of the West Indies, St. Augustine, Trinidad / from The Michael Goldberg Collection, UWI, St. Augustine, Trinidad