The Times Literary Supplement: “In reconstructing the lives of the indentured and, in particular, the experience of her great-grandmother, Gaiutra Bahadur has produced an intricate, thoroughly researched and beautifully written book that evokes the experience of emigrant Indians and their descendants.”
The Guardian: “Coolie Woman is a genealogical page-turner interwoven with a compelling, radical history of empire told from the perspective of indentured women – or ‘coolies,’ as they were known by the British. The collective voice of the jehaji behen (ship sisters) has been barely audible across the centuries, until now. … Bahadur grants us rare imaginative access to the odyssey through the experience of women’s stories she finds in the archives.”
Andrea Stuart, The Literary Review (Edinburgh-based): “As Bahadur clambers down the generations, she provides the reader with a meticulous and lushly detailed family memoir. …This is a fascinating story, which will have resonance for millions of others who are swept up and transformed by history and have to find a new way to create ‘home’.” Here’s a PDF of the full review: Literary Review – Andrea Stuart
The Independent: “In Coolie Woman, [Bahadur] combines her journalistic eye for detail and story-telling gifts with probing questions, relentlessly pursuing leads to create a haunting portrait of the life of a subaltern. ‘Can the subaltern speak?’ the theorist Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak had asked rhetorically. Yes, she can. … Bahadur shows how.”
In Scotland’s Herald, columnist David Ross says Coolie Woman “should be read by anyone with an interest in Scotland’s role in empire and in particular the fate of women.”
The literary magazine Wasafiri: “Like the American woman she is, Gaiutra Bahadur has written a book that is messy and complex — unapologetically so, and exciting for it.”
THE UNITED STATES
STARRED REVIEW, The Library Journal: “Bahadur has written a masterly chronicle of the lives of ‘coolie women’ (and also ‘coolie men’). . . . . This spellbinding account of a story that needed to be told is highly recommended.”
The Women’s Review of Books says: ““It is a moving, foundational book, investigating the experience of indentured Indian women in the Caribbean. It is solidly researched and as such it reveals the difficulty of understanding the human lives concealed within documents. Bahadur delicately reconstructs these women’s lives, seen only through a glass darkly, piecing them together with respect and even admiration. …This is the overarching vision of the book: the possibility of freedom. Could these women, despite the horrors of indenture, have found in Guyana a greater power to control their lives and direct their destinies than they had at home. It is of course impossible to answer such a question definitively. However, the lasting strength of Coolie Woman lies in the ingenious and far-reaching combination of resources Bahadur musters as she makes the attempt.”
Reviewing the book for The Appendix, historian Maura Cunningham writes: “What would it mean,” Jill Lepore asks, “to write the history of an age not only from what has been saved but also from what has been lost? What would it mean to write a history concerned not only with the lives of the famous but also with the lives of the obscure?” We’ve left behind the days of biographies limited to the great men of history, but it still takes a combination of creativity, boldness, and luck to write books like these. Coolie Woman and Book of Ages offer impressive, sensitive portraits of women who might have otherwise remained obscure, providing further evidence of the valuable work that is possible when we look at those neat rows of archival boxes and ask, “What’s missing?”
In its Summer 2013 issue, Ms. Magazine bookmarked Coolie Woman as one of its “Great Reads,” a nod to upcoming books the editors like.
The New York Times Book Review featured the book in its Paperback Row column, a roundup of noteworthy recently released paperbacks, in October 2014.
In “A Coolie Woman’s Work Is Never Done,” for the Asian American Writers Workshop magazine The Margins, Annie Paul writes: “Bahadur manages to unpack some of the burdensome baggage she found encumbering the figure of Sujaria, and many others like her, by producing the best kind of history book there is: an innovative narrative combining archival research, personal memoir, oral testimonies, folk songs and compelling storytelling.”
The Philadelphia Inquirer concludes: “By analyzing, with a rare combination of empathy and painstaking research, the love lives of coolies, Bahadur has shed unexpected light on the origins of sexual violence in many a dislocated community.”
Mukund Belliappa, Michigan Quarterly Review (The University of Michigan), “Imperial Chutney”: “The topic of violence against women in indentured societies is not new, but Bahadur—tenaciously exploring the issue through various prisms and diving into its origins in the fringes of uprooted north Indian society—gives us, arguably, the most minute and intimate view to date of this blight.”
CIMA Mag writes: “Bahadur’s book gives voice to [a] repressed history, which in itself pieces together answers to questions that most have never even dared to ask.”
Describing the book as “a new story … told in a new way,” a reviewer in Socialist Action writes: “By the time a reader reaches the end of ‘Coolie Woman,’ she has been privileged to explore the inner workings of British imperialism, the social impact of colonial polices on two continents, and the poignant yet powerful stories of numerous turn-of the century working women who, consciously or unconsciously, tried to fight their way out of the restrictions of capitalist patriarchy. All feminists and socialists should be sharing it with fellow activists.”
THE WEST INDIES
The Trinidad Guardian: “(Coolie Woman) marks a series of redefinitions, broadening the basin of one’s assumptions governing indenture. It illuminates the tableaux of Indian women’s stories, blowing heaped decades of dust from their surfaces. Bahadur handles this history without compromise, imbuing it with prismatic context, deepening the true stories that can be told about the journeys that so many women undertook.”
The Stabroek News (Guyana): “Part of the beauty of this book is that we are invited into the author’s intensely reflective consciousness and so receive fresh insights about the complexities of inhabiting Indo-Caribbean identity in the spaces of New Jersey, New York, back in Guyana and indeed in India itself where she travels as a young woman alone much as her great-grandmother did. …a gripping, careful, scholarly and at the same time poetic and passionate narrative.”
Historian Bridget Brereton writes, in The Trinidad Express: “This excellently written and well researched book combines academic historical writing, based on documents in the British and Guyanese archives, with a deeply personal story of the author’s search for her family history. It’s not easy to pull off this kind of hybrid, but Bahadur succeeds brilliantly—the book is very readable yet deeply researched (and heavily annotated too).”
The reviewer for Kaieteur News in Guyana concludes: “I could not sleep. ‘Coolie Woman’ does that to you. … Gaiutra Bahadur went to trace the roots of her great grandmother Sujaria, but what she did in the process was create a path where all Indo Guyanese and those in the wider Diaspora can go back into their past, to learn the dark secrets their forefathers overcame to preserve future generations.”
The Sunday Times: “[Bahadur] has ferreted out the women’s voices … through exceptional archival detective work across four continents and an ancestral pilgrimage to her great-grandmother’s village. … Coolie Woman is a lavish family memoir and a magisterial tome of scholarship in the tragically neglected study of imperialism and indenture.”.”
The Con: “This is a complex story about our complex past that offers little to the often crude nationalisms that, from Guiana to Fiji and South Africa, not to mention India, are emerging in response to our inability to really decolonise our societies. Those who wish to find romantic myths in the past to power deeply conservative ideas about the present, and the role of women in an imagined future, will find little to work with here. What this book does show, and what history always shows when it’s examined properly, is that the past was just as complex and messy as the present. But it also shows that in that messy complexity there is, then as now, resilience, innovation, renewal and courage.”
The Sunday Times Magazine (Johannesburg): “This is an ode to the women who left their homes in Calcutta for the Caribbean… The stories are uplifting and heartbreaking by turns, but they have one thing in common: they are finally being told.”
The Witness (Pietermaritzburg): “meticulously researched… a fascinating, if at times harrowing, read. It is a story of suffering but also of triumph over adversity.”
The Sunday Independent: “It’s a mighty read. As far as I have gone, it is striking how many similarities there are with the experience of indenture in South Africa. … Bahadur’s book is an important contribution to us understanding each other and our rich and complex histories. Perhaps we can understand how it came about that diverse peoples were plucked and planted around the globe.” – Imraan Buccus, “Slavery was reinvented as indentured labour,” August 24, 2014
The Mascara Literary Review: “The book shifts the balance of power from official colonial archives, to the unauthorised versions of indenture told by the memory keepers whose stories descended generations. Bahadur articulates the relationship between stories and the unreliable nature of memory. (‘The will to remember the past is undermined by an equally formidable will to forget,’ and ‘the stories that did descend often reveal as much about how families choose to see their histories as they do about the actual histories.’) What emerges from the narrative is an exploration of story and its power to shape identity.”
Nilanjana Roy, The Business Standard (India): “Coolie Woman is an important, unmissable account. From colonialism to labour in India, immigrant narratives to the hidden lives of women, Ms Bahadur excavates a rich and unforgettable set of stories that will permanently change our view of the past.”
Mumbai Boss named Coolie Woman the BEST NONFICTION BOOK published in India in 2013: “Bahadur does a remarkable job of putting together the jigsaw puzzle of what life was like for women like her great grandmother by drawing upon less conventional sources like photographs, postcards, newspaper headlines and so on. What emerges is a remarkable narrative of survival that spans continents and turns silences into testimonies of indomitable character.”
Mint, a leading Indian business daily affiliated with The Wall Street Journal, listed Coolie Woman among its picks for the most original nonfiction and fiction published in India in 2013.
India’s Financial Express reviewed the book, calling it an “incredible story” that “throws light on … the quarter million coolie women lost in time and memory.” Read their piece, “Lost in Transition,” here.
First Post, in India, says: “Bahadur wrote one of the best works of non-fiction this year, titled Coolie Woman. Making a book about indentured labourers unputdownable isn’t easy, but Bahadur managed this feat.”
The book made Vogue India’s post-Jaipur Lit Fest reading list and made Harper’s Bazaar India and Vogue India’s hot lists.
Genderlog India’s Storify of their excellent tweets about Coolie Woman, literary criticism in 140 characters or less, closely-observed, richly-mined for detail, attuned to the book’s significance.
Reviewing the book for The New Indian Express, Nalini Mohabir writes that one of the book’s strengths is that it “goes beyond a solely Indian or Indo-Caribbean perspective, to consider our intertwined relationships to different parts of the world, as well as to each other (i.e., Indo-diasporic and Indian, Indo and Afro, or Indo and European).”
Brij Lal, The Journal of Asian Studies (Cambridge University Press): “In this fine book, Gaiutra Bahadur probes the hidden world of these indentured women deeper than most scholars I know. … Bahadur’s research (conducted in Guyana, India and the United Kingdom) is deep and meticulous in both primary and secondary literature, and the story is told with the novelist’s practiced eye for the telling detail. Good history here is a good read as well.”
Marina Carter, The Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History (Routledge): Carter describes Coolie Woman as “lyrical and informative” and concludes: “…it is a fascinating journey of discovery, the Indo-Caribbean experience is well-researched and one is left wanting to know what Ms. Bahadur will tackle next.”
William Crawley, Asian Affairs (official journal of the Royal Society of Asian Affairs): “At one level this is a family history, as the author, born in Guyana into an ethnic Indian family who migrated when she was a child to the USA, searches for her roots. At a deeper level, it explores the social history of indentured labour and the imperial policies by which it was governed – or misgoverned. Her story moves seamlessly into an examination of issues of identity for the generations descended from indentured labourers, their detachment from both Guyanese and Indian customs and the tensions that this has created. It is a colourful story, well told.”
Ralph Premdas, Ethnic and Racial Studies (Routledge): “Overall, this book written in vivid clear style is an arresting presentation of a badly neglected area of scholarship that focuses on the indentured Indian woman’s condition in plantation society. While it can be argued that it brought to bear a feminist perspective, the treatment of the subject was broadly cast in the context of plantation society, with many valuable comparisons alluding to the condition of the antecedent African slaves whose quarters were occupied by the new Indian indentures in a veritable new form of slavery. In the end, Bahadur may not have discovered her authentic roots since so much in the archives that she examined were inadequate, even her trips to India were unproductive, but she has left from her own labour a nice treasure chest of materials for the next group of researchers to build on.”
Arun Mukherjee, Canadian Journal of Latin American and Caribbean Studies (Routledge): “Near the tail end of Coolie Woman: The Odyssey of Indenture, the author, Gaiutra Bahadur, tells the reader that her motive for traveling to the village of Bhurahupur, a century after her great-grandmother left it as an indentured worker, was not to claim a share in the property, as her suspicious hosts thought, but to dig for “narrative gold”. Indeed, this book is pure “narrative gold”. Although a history, it has the gripping power of a good detective novel. Deftly combining autobiography, family history, and colonial archival records, Bahadur brings not only her great-grandmother, Sujaria, to life, but also throws light on the quarter of a million women who left the shores of India as indentured workers to work in more than a dozen colonies of the British empire during 1838–1917, replacing the African slaves after Emancipation. Her book exemplifies what it is to write history from below; not the history of leaders and kings that was the norm for millennia, but the history of little people who lived and died doing the work of the world without their due compensation.”
Bridget Brereton, Slavery and Abolition: “a moving, richly detailed & rewarding account of two intertwined life journeys.”