Coolitude: Towards an understanding of the Indian indenture experience

Baytoram Ramharack (Nassau Community College, New York) writes for Stabroek News about ongoing research on the Indian indenture experience. [Many thanks to Peter Jordens for bringing this item to our attention.]

Since its conceptual evolution some three decades ago, COOLITUDE, a neologism advanced by Mauritian cultural theorist Khaleel Torabully, has grown into an intellectual framework that led to the production of a number of studies on the global Indian indenture experience. It has paved the way for an increasing body of literature that captures the experience of Indian labourers who were taken across the kala pani from ancestral India in the 1800s to diasporic colonial plantations including Mauritius, Fiji, South Africa, British Guiana and other Caribbean islands. Initially applied to the poetics of the indenture experience, Coolitude has been associated with multiple narrative forms depicting the Indian experience, including films, songs, visual arts, literature on ancestral root search and recordings of oral history.

Indentureship and the impact of Indian immigration on Guyana were addressed by Gaiutra Bahadur in her book, Coolie Woman: The Odyssey of Indenture (2013). The Berbice-born author utilized archival documents located in Britain, Guyana and India, and her investigative journalistic skills to produce a comprehensive biography of her great grandmother, Sujaria, who migrated to British Guiana in July 1903. Aside from Bahadur, the poetry of Rajkumari Singh and Mahadai Das also reflect the Coolitude tradition. Both women were members of the Guyana Messenger Group which published a short-lived journal called Heritage, dedicated to the promotion of Indian art forms.  Unfortunately, their work was given short shrift, particularly by Indians, due to their association with the Cultural Division of the Guyana National Service. Rajkumari’s collection of poems in Days of the Sahib Are Over (1971) speaks resolutely to what Jeremy Poynting referred to as “her commitment to restore the invisible Indo-Caribbean woman to the stage of history”. Her dedication to the preservation of Indian culture, as she revealed in her play The Sound of Her Bells (1974), was complemented by an equally aggressive opposition to “gender oppression”. Rajkumari s poem, dedicated to the first Indian immigrant woman who arrived in British Guiana, was expressed in “Per Ajie” (1971). [. . .]

Despite the rise of contemporary writers who have made a significant contribution to Indian historiography in the Caribbean, historical studies have relied extensively on what Professor Lomarsh Roopnarine refers to as “the records of the colonizers to write the history, narrative, and memory of colonized indentured.”  Not surprisingly, early historical narratives on the Indian subalterns reflected an enduring European influence that shaped the image of Indians. The writings of “liberal” Europeans like John Edward Jenkins, HVP Bronkhurst (a “half-Indian” originally from Sri Lanka), Joseph Beaumont, and Charles Freer Andrews, were steeped in stereotypical views, often revealing profound contempt for Indians. For example, C.F. Andrews, Mahatma Gandhi’s confidante who visited Fiji thirteen years before coming to British Guiana in 1929 referred to Indian women as prostitutes who “passes from one man to another”. No less, Bronkhurst, the Wesleyan missionary in British Guiana, keen on aggressively converting the Hindu and Muslim “pagans” to Christianity, proposed “catting” (public whipping), and “decapitation” of the “Indian coolie” as a deterrent to criminality.

[. . .] Coolitude literature posits that the transoceanic voyage (Indian and Atlantic oceans) was the initial step toward construction of an Indian identity characterized by physical separation from India, cultural isolation, social alienation and psychological distress.  The late Arnold Itwaru described the kala pani crossing as Shiva’s unending dance in a culturally diverse society, implying that diasporic Indians found themselves in a liminal world and had to “construct new identities” in their adopted communities. Ancestral India, Coolitude contends, lacked an original monolithic unity, paving the way for the transformation of the cultural heterogeneity of Indians in their settled diasporic communities. The “new” Indian social and cultural identity is inextricably linked to interactions with native and creolized communities. However, as Mariam Pirbhai has observed, Indians have maintained a distinct cultural identity in spite of the processes of “colonization, assimilation, and creolization.” Lingering caste distinctions, a distinct culture, plantation segregation, marginal language retention and geographical separation have all combined to mitigate against the creolization of Indians and racial/ethnic integration in Guyana.

An important critique of Coolitude which cannot be overlooked is its derivative from the “coolie” neologism. The word invokes memories of manual plantation labourers, conjecturing up an image of the Indian as primitive, unsophisticated, filthy and disease-ridden. Henry G. Dalton, a medical doctor associated with the London Royal College of Surgeons in his book The History of British Guiana (1855), referred to “coolies” as “indolent, dirty, and vagrant in their habits, … the scavengers of society.” Recognizing the racial stereotypes invoked by its pejorative use, the Jamaican government, following concerns raised by Indians through the East India Progressive Society (EIPS), was encouraged to ban the use of the term. Like the “N-word” and its evolutionary pejorative reference to African-Americans, the use of the “C-word”, surprisingly, has not invoked similar widespread denunciation. Shanaaz Mohammed observed that, “…reframing of the term coolie is not devoid of its oversights and inherent contradictions. … It also does not take into consideration the colonial power dynamic at play in the emergence and sustained usage of this term.” Researchers who insist on using the term, a large number of whom are Indians affiliated with Western universities, have not seen it fit to initiate a movement against its use. Instead, their research actively seek to humanize the concept. Ironically, the origin of Coolitude can be traced to Négritude, an early 20th century literary and ideological movement which promoted pride in African culture, led primarily by French-speaking African and Caribbean writers. 

Coolitude contends that Indian immigrants were culturally divorced from ancestral India after they crossed the kala pani, paving the way for a new cultural identity. Mahadai Das expressed this contradiction with the phrase “If I come to India …will I find myself?” However, the assumption that Indians were culturally “cut off” from India is problematic. For one, it is impossible to argue that the Indian identity that developed after the oceanic crossing was devoid of any sustained cultural influence dating back to ancestral India, or that a tabula rasa of cultural values and practices ensued once the girmitiyas crossed the kala pani. As Clem Seecharan observed, “…indentureship went on for over seventy years; new immigrants were constantly coming from India, bringing aspects of their culture, and renewing the cultural pool. There was no terminal break with the homeland” as the flow of immigrants continued from eastern Uttar Pradesh and western Bihar.

Secondly, the hybrid identity that developed in Indian diasporic communities is not necessarily peculiar to the one that shaped the original girmityas, many of whom can be said to have developed an “otherness away from multiple India.” The dynamics in Guyana’s plural society, also worked towards reinforcing the notion of “oneness” by preserving whatever cultural values were retained by first generation and embraced by successive girmitiya generations. This reality has led Shanaaz Mohammed to conclude that Coolitude “romanticizes ancestral links and overplays the indentured laborers’ social and political authority in the system of indenture.” While Coolitude argues for a dynamic process that reshapes cultural identity in diasporic communities, it downplays the continuing dynamics of cultural recovery and identity transformations attributed to contemporary interactions between the diasporic communities and modern India.

Despite its controversial use, the narrative of Coolitude attributes great ontological significance to the lost history of the Indian labourer, which it seeks to recapture. A large body of literature has now contributed to the establishment of a legitimate Indian historiography in the Caribbean. [. . .]

Read full article at

One thought on “Coolitude: Towards an understanding of the Indian indenture experience

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s