The way a free bird is imprisoned

cropped-coolies-on-shipboard-recently-arrived-c-1890-22.jpgOn this day one hundred years ago, the system of semi-forced labor that scattered 1.2 million Indians to plantation colonies across the globe was suspended. Indenture, denounced as “a new form of slavery,” was abolished after a campaign by Gandhi and the Indian nationalists. They argued that the system made Indians “harlots and helots in the eyes of the world.” To mark the centenary, I’d like to share a reading of a section of “Into Dark Waters,” the fourth chapter of Coolie Woman, that dramatizes the ways that indenture  occupied a disputed borderland between enslavement and freedom, kidnap and escape. As the indentured immigrant to Fiji quoted wrote in a memoir used in the abolition campaign, the moment when ships of “coolies” left India was charged with contradictory emotions. For him, the overwhelming feeling was of capture. “In just the way a free bird is imprisoned in a cage, we were all locked in,” he wrote.

Here’s actress Meera Mohan, in a reading staged by the New Jersey Playwrights Theater and sponsored by the New Jersey State Council on the Arts in 2013.



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