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The Overseer of British Guiana

December 19, 2013

By Gaiutra Bahadur | Published in History Today Volume: 64 Issue: 1 2014

ILL25 Overseers, Guiana, 1897

Overseers, British Guiana, 1897. Courtesy of Dennis Driscoll.

On March 22nd, 1869 a young plantation manager in the West Indies wrote an expansive letter to his sister in Essex. Often Henry Bullock only managed to scribble perfunctory notes to his family, but this letter probably satisfied their hunger for details about his life, running a sugar estate far from home on the remote coast of British Guiana (now Guyana). He reported what he had done that day: as part of a jury in a capital murder trial, he had reluctantly sent a man to the gallows. He described his regular companions, a married couple who lived nearby and their baby daughter. Although he generally had little patience for children, he was fond of this little girl. The toddler liked to put a hat on Henry’s head and a pipe in his mouth and pretend she was hurrying him out the door. His sisters often had to coax from him such scenes, sketching his everyday, domestic existence. In that letter he must have made them still happier by providing an inventory of his desires from England: socks, music, a copy of Tennyson’s ‘Idylls of the King’ in green cloth binding.

What the clergyman’s eldest son did not give his family, at the rectory in sleepy Radwinter, was any sense of the agitation afoot in Guiana, Britain’s sole colony in South America. That year marked the first period of mass uprisings by Indian plantation workers there, who for three decades, ever since the emancipation of Africans, had been imported through a system of indentured labour denounced by some as a ‘new slavery’. No other letter written by Henry in 1869 survives in the bundle spanning his tenure in the colony from 1861 to 1893. It may be that he wrote nothing else or that whatever he did write has been lost, or withheld from the sheaf donated to the Essex Record Office. There are many reasons for gaps in archives: the flooding or immolation of repositories, the exposure of ageing documents to light and oxygen. And then there are other cataclysms, the quiet, structural kind that keep documents from ever existing, because of the way power wielded or withheld mutes certain people, born into the wrong class, race, gender. Silences in the historical record have many explanations. Certainly there are some things a well-bred Victorian gentleman does not divulge to his sisters or his mother.

Continue reading in the January 2014 issue of History Today.

Writers Retreat

October 1, 2013

Imagine an 18th-century London town house, once a fashionable address but recently home to successive huddled masses: Jewish refugees, Irish then Bangladeshi then Somali immigrants. Now fill that house with 30 foreign writers who have fled oppression and violence, all asylum seekers specially chosen for favored treatment. Call them “fellows.” Hang identity cards, with their mug shots petrified in plastic, around their necks. Appoint a chairman whose paranoia and megalomania recall, in madcap picayune, the dictators who tortured and imprisoned many of them. Outfit the house with security cameras that scan the corridors, the surveillance tapes complemented by the human watchfulness of ever-­solicitous volunteers. What you have is the premise for “The House of Journalists,” the former BBC reporter Tim Finch’s clever debut novel.

In an outburst toward the novel’s end, when one fellow disappears along with all traces that he existed, the power-­obsessed chairman name-drops Orwell, an unsubtle clue to Finch’s ambitions as a political satirist and his interest in language as a political tool. But aspects of his novel bear more resemblance to the “Big Brother” of global reality television than to “1984.”

Continue reading my review in The New York Times Book Review.

Mirror, Mirror

September 26, 2013

at-night-we-walk-in-circlesDaniel Alarcón’s first novel, Lost City Radio, focuses on a radio show that reunites the disappeared with their families in a country recovering from civil war. In At Night We Walk in Circles, regimes don’t steal people, but other things do: mundane death, rival lovers, America. The village where Henry’s late lover spent his childhood is eerily empty of men, except for adolescents and the elderly. It’s a world that García Márquez might have dreamed up, but in fact it’s real. Immigration has drained many villages of men across Latin America. It is easy for an infirm old woman to believe her son undocumented in Los Angeles rather than dead, and Alarcón evokes this simply, movingly, hauntingly. Continue reading my review in the Fall issue of Columbia Magazine.


Pink Sari Revolution

August 14, 2013


pink sari

Pink Sari Revolution, by Amana Fontanella-Khan, tells the story of the Gulabi Gang.

The gang’s story—of poverty-stricken, unlettered women standing up for themselves, struggling against centuries-old misogyny—inspires. “Hope is a very big thing,” one elderly member says. “Sampat gave it to us every time she came to the village.” Still, it needs to be asked how truly revolutionary the Gulabi Gang is—or can be—and the author doesn’t step back from storytelling to do so. In her account of a widow horrifically mistreated, then evicted, by her in-laws, she misses opportunities to explore the gang’s limits and thus risks overstating their impact. Read my  review in the Summer 2013 Ms. Magazine

The Cooked Seed

July 6, 2013
The Cooked Seed

 The Cooked Seed traces Anchee Min’s evolution from a woman with shattered self-esteem to one with brass enough to have a child when she wanted, although her Chinese-immigrant partner didn’t, and then to divorce him and find love with an American, a Vietnam veteran. Like him, Min suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, and her prose bears the marks. Her book reads like the testimony of a woman who, in coping with haunting memories she’d rather suppress, swings between remembering too…

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Coolie Woman

December 1, 2012
Coolie Woman

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…

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I Am Your Mirror

November 15, 2012
I Am Your Mirror

Chinese-born artist O Zhang traveled across the United States, photographing thousands of blank and neglected billboards, a trek that echoes Dorothea Lange’s own documentary expedition during the Great Depression. Zhang has taken an object that has long been a canvas—with pop art icons such as Andy Warhol designing billboards for the Sunset Strip—and made it the subject instead. In capturing the formal elegance of the bare billboard, Zhang has, in some sense, flipped the script. It’s…

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