In Fiji, the racial divide between Indians and Fijians, the suspicion, fear and hostility, led to the military coup of 1987 which prompted many Indians to emigrate. They, like their parents and grandparents, had been born in Fiji; had believed and felt it to be home, but suddenly home was no longer home. This imperial legacy is similar to that experienced by descendants of indentured labour in Sri Lanka and Malaysia. In Satendra Nandan’s The Wounded Sea (1991), Fijian Indians are like Rama in the Indian epic The Ramayana who, on the eve of his coronation, in an abrupt reversal, is sent into exile. But to Rama and his wife there was a triumphant return; to the Indians, a dispersal, insecurity and unease. By law, most of the land is reserved for Fijians, and though the first batch of indentured workers reached Fiji in 1879, their children cannot own land; cannot have the claims and the feelings which flow from such rights. “Coolies” do not make history: they merely suffer it. As Nandan shows, suffering without hope, many degenerate into alcoholism, crudity and violence (77). Satendra Nandan is a contemporary writer (born 1939), and for an account of the earlier experience of indenture in Fiji, one must turn to Totaram Sanadhya’s My Twenty-One Years in the Fiji Islands and The Story of the Haunted Line, both now in one volume. Sanadhya arrived in Fiji in 1893, at the age of seventeen, returned to India in 1914, and published these works which were subsequently translated into several Indian languages. Even as an adult, the remembrance of the poverty his parents endured in India brought “clouds of sorrow” (32) to him. He ran away from his widowed mother (because he was unable to be of help, and didn’t want to be an additional burden on her) and met up with an arkati or recruiter. The arkati trained their victims to answer “Yes” to all questions, and the latter found they had “voluntarily” bound themselves to go to Fiji, a land whose very name they had not heard before. Those recruited were known as grimitiyas because they had signed a grimit, an Indianisation of “agreement.” The trapped grimitiyas, prior to embarkation (Sanadhya’s voyage took three months and twelve days) were forbidden to speak to each other, in case information was exchanged and the true nature of things discovered. The food given was so hard it first had to be soaked in water. On arrival, they were immediately surrounded by police, indicating their captive status. They woke at four in the morning, and were working by five. An impossible amount of work was set, and failure to fulfil the quota meant a fine. This last reduced the grimitya’s pay and set him down the road into inextricable debt. The government inspectors who came round were “White”; they stayed with the planters, were their guests and wrote positive reports. Women suffered the most, getting up at three-thirty in the morning to prepare food for the day; working ten hours, and retuning home to cook for the night and to clean. There was “a corpse-like shading to their faces” (61). A woman desired by a man with power was assigned work in a lonely place so that she could be raped. One woman, forced back to work only three days after giving birth and being unable to cope, was so badly beaten that she ended up mentally deranged. Brij Lal records cases such as an English overseer pouring acid on the penis of a grimitya; of a woman who just after giving birth was put to work breaking stones, and when unable to complete the task, being beaten senseless (41). Since the ratio of women was about thirty to every hundred men, prostitution, infidelity, suspicion and violence were rife. In The Story of the Haunted Line, women lament their fate, comfort each other and resume work (119): work was both destroyer and distraction. The author himself was tempted to commit suicide but was stopped by thoughts of his mother’s love for him, and of his love for, and duty towards, her.
Caribbean. If the ancestors are texts waiting to be written (Dabydeen 1988, 12) then it is the children of those who went West, to the Caribbean and to Guyana – who have done the most to commemorate, to indict, to celebrate: I have already referred to several works from this region. The “coolie” mother in Dabydeen’s work, Coolie Odyssey, has incredible courage; is iron-like in her determination that her son will have a better life, and so, though her feet and hands are cracked, though she’s coughing blood, she continues to labour.
The “discovery” (sic) of the Caribbean was an unmitigated disaster for the Amerindians, the autochthonous inhabitants, for it marked their extinction. This was followed by the importation of Africans as slaves and, with abolition, there began the new form of slavery, indenture. Between 1838 and 1917, about over half a million Indians were shipped out to the Caribbean and to the northern coasts of the South American continent (Dabydeen 1996, 1). Yet this region is generally thought of as being African, the Indians and their contribution being overlooked (Mangru, vii). Similar to Maniam’s description of the voyage to Malaya, Mangru cites evidence that, on board ship, the “coolies” received but one meal a day. The absence of toilets for the exclusive use of women resulted in extreme embarrassment to them, not to mention vulnerability to sexual assault (26). The spirit of slavery but newly abolished, governed employer-employee relations, and it was convenient for the former – as with ruling classes all over – to believe that the workers were contented, even happy, with their degraded status and miserable lives. The “coolies” were restricted to the plantation, their movement curtailed by law. Generally, the aim was to create a sense of helplessness, despair and dependence. Laws, rights and entitlements were not explained to the “coolies”: the planter, the overseer and others with power were the law, and what they said was the law. Civil contracts were enforced by criminal proceedings. Mangru concludes that indenture (particularly in the early years) was slavery in a disguised form. He cites the rate of suicide for 1902-1912 as averaging 400 per every million in Trinidad and 926 in Fiji, while for the whole of British India, it was a mere 51 (Mangru, 114) The wealth created by the “coolie” went into British coffers; into the pockets of plantation owners and their managers: very little was given back to the actual producers of wealth. Those who opted out of indenture and remained in the colony, found life difficult because it was not in the interests of the colonial government, of plantation owners and managers: a thriving peasantry would make cheap, exploitable labour hard to come by. Further, as in Fiji and Sri Lanka, the numbers imported, the expropriation of land in the latter, the separation between groups (encouraged, if not enforced) led to racial tension (see, for example, Shewcharan).
Clem Seecharan confirms much of the above in his study. For example, he writes that where the “coolies” lived, the “logies” (in Sri Lanka, the “coolie lines”) were known as “the nigger yard” (67): cramped, unhygienic places breeding ill health and strife. These were the “homes” to which the exhausted “coolie” returned. They were cowed into silence by the fear of being dismissed, evicted or being assigned more arduous and unpleasant work. The “coolie lines” or “logies” are the most enduring symbol of plantation life (74). However, Seecharan also points out that oppression, degradation and despair, though axiomatic, are not the complete picture: “The elaborate rituals, the lavish preparation, and the informal, joyful participation in festivals, like Holi and Diwali, fed a sense of community…. The Indians were irrepressible, their wit was spontaneous, they were alive. To paint a picture of darkness, of a pervasive melancholy, is a distortion” (73). This is true of the “coolie” experience in general as, for example, some of the songs Velupillai has recorded attest. RoopIall Monar’s Backdarn People (1985), rather like Velupillai’s work, describes the daily life of the “coolie” but is different in that the focus is on escapades, mischief and infidelities. Despite the strong picaresque element, there is the unmistakable presence of the plantation, and of the reality of plantation (or estate) life: “backdam” itself refers to the distant part of the estate. Those assigned to work there had to walk four or five miles in the darkness, getting up extra early to begin work on time. The village teacher must accept that, however intelligent, his pupils will end up working as “coolies”.
Two significant fictional works from this region are Harold Ladoo’s No Pain Like This Body (1972) and David Dabydeen’s The Counting House (1996). The former is set in Trinidad and told through the perspective of a child. It is August, the rainy season, and the family live in a hut with a leaking roof and muddy floors. With the rain, the ants and scorpions come out of hiding, and outside, in the rice fields and forests, there are snakes. The father has given up altogether and turned alcoholic. His despair finds vent in gross crudity and appalling brutality meted out to his wife and children. The emaciated woman endures and struggles, determined that her children will, one day, “come man and woman” (1972, 41). But a desperate poverty and unhygienic conditions; ill health, constant beatings and the lack of care; sorrow and grief, drive her to insanity and death. The father may rant and rampage; be foul, lie, brutalise, but it is the mother and grandmother, their courage born of love, that one remembers. There is nothing shy and timid in them (Espinet, 81). When on the verge of despair, the grandmother beats her drum: it is a call to God; a warding off of evil; defiance and celebration. Repeatedly, the two women ask, “Where you is God?” (Ladoo 49); “Which part in dat sky you is God?” (Ladoo 71) but God calmly continues to watch the sorry soap-opera of human lives. It is a searing novel, one that makes the reader flinch and, once read, is difficult to forget. (In 1973, while on a visit to Trinidad, Harold Ladoo was attacked and killed. He was twenty-eight.)
Dabydeen’s novel covers two phases of the indenture experience – recruitment and servitude – and briefly mentions the third – the return. Rohini, aged seventeen, and Vidia, twenty, marry and, a year later (1857) sail to Guiana. Clem Seecharan writes (xxiii) that the infamous recruiter still excites the imagination of local Indians, and in Dabydeen’s novel, the recruiter slinks at the edges of the village; he entices, traps and transports. Of the two, it is Rohini, the wife, who persuades her husband to emigrate. She is the one with enterprise and determination. On arrival, they find that they have sold themselves into virtual slavery. As I suggested in a brief review of the novel (1997), Vidia’s inability to father a child points to a wider impotency, given the context of indenture and “cooliehood”. Disappointed, Rohini begins to admire imperial power, purpose and achievement. She is made pregnant by Gladstone (Glad-stone) and steals the money Vidia had collected (tiny sum by tiny sum, through arduous toil) to pay for the abortion. Rohini ends deranged and Vidia drowns on the return voyage to India: ironically, his intention was to become a recruiter. Often, the victims of cruelty turn cruel.
Both these novels end in defeat; both confirm what Lucille, in Janice Shineboume’s The Last English Plantation tells her daughter of “coolie” life and marriage: “they drink rum … and beat their wives, and fight…. Their wives cook from three o’clock in the morning to late at night! You want to be a coolie woman? …. Coolie women have to carry all the burdens for the men, the burden of the sick, the old, the children … and get no thanks for it, only [beatings]” (128). But with the passage of time, things have changed and improved. The descendants of those “coolies” who went to Mauritius have fared the best, while the situation of the so-called “Indian” Tamils in Sri Lanka remains the most unfortunate. The authors mentioned in this article are themselves evidence that at least some escaped “cooliehood”. Through intelligence and resolve, they got into various lifeboats and escaped the long-lingering effects of “coolieness” – helped by those for whom escape was too late in life, and too early in history.
Coolie is “the name of our hard-working, economy-building forefathers… All this they gave to us and more. In return… what greater tribute can we pay to them than to keep alive the name by which they were called? COOLIE is a beautiful word that conjures up poignancy, tears defeats, achievements.” (Singh 353)
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