In 1903, a young woman sailed from India to Guiana as a “coolie”— the British name for indentured laborers who replaced the newly emancipated slaves on sugar plantations all around the world. Pregnant and traveling alone, this woman, like so many of the indentured, disappeared into history. Now, in Coolie Woman, her great-granddaughter Gaiutra Bahadur embarks on a journey into the past to find her. Traversing three continents and trawling through countless colonial archives, Bahadur excavates not only her great-grandmother’s story but also the repressed history of some quarter of a million other coolie women, shining a light on their complex lives.
Many of these women were widows, runaways, or outcasts. Many fled mistreatment, even mortal danger, to migrate alone in epic sea voyages–traumatic “middle passages”–only to face a life of hard labor, dismal living conditions, and sexual exploitation. In a borderland between freedom and slavery–and because these women were so greatly outnumbered by men–sex made them victims at the same time that it gave them sway. And it was a source, at times, of tremendous conflict, from machete murders to entire uprisings. Examining this and many other facets of these courageous women’s lives, Coolie Woman is a meditation on survival, a gripping story of a double diaspora–from India to the West Indies in one century, Guyana to the United States in the next–that is at once a search for one’s roots and an exploration of gender and power, peril and opportunity.
The book was published in 2013 to critical acclaim in the U.S., U.K., India, the Caribbean and South Africa. It was shortlisted for the UK’s Orwell Book Prize, for political writing that is artful, and won the 2014 Gordon K. and Sybil Lewis Prize, awarded by scholars of the Caribbean to the best book about the Caribbean published in the previous three years. Coolie Woman was also one of three nonfiction finalists for the Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature and a finalist for Duke University’s Documentary Writing Prize.
Critics and readers have embraced it as both a document and a work of the imagination – in the words of Junot Diaz, “both a historical rescue mission and a profound meditation on family and womanhood.” Teju Cole described it as “a narrative both scholarly and soulful,” and Pankaj Mishra praised it as “pathbreaking.” The Library Journal recommended it as “a spellbinding account of a story that needed to be told,” and The Women’s Review of Books, as “a moving, foundational book.” In England, The Guardian called it “a genealogical page-turner interwoven with a compelling, radical history of empire.” South Africa’s Sunday Times read it as “an ode” achieved through “exceptional detective work.” And the blog Mumbai Boss named it the best nonfiction book published in 2013 in India, where The Business Standard’s critic concluded that it “will permanently change our view of the past.”