An essay for The Virginia Quarterly Review: “For both artist and migrant, ships are symbols of the universal. A slave, an indentured servant, a tourist, a seaman, a refugee obviously each inhabit a ship distinctly, but aboard, each is ultimately at the mercy of the sea. I share Locke’s instinct for seeking comrades in the hull’s curve.”
With support from the Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting, I produced a package of stories on the long-lasting effects of U.S. Cold War intervention on politics in Guyana, a former British colony on the northeastern shoulder of South America.
The spring issue of Dissent Magazine, devoted to migration, carries my essay “Postcards from Empire.” The piece dissects Victorian-era photographs of Indian women used on postcards to sell images of the Caribbean as a tourist paradise:
“Several of the ‘coolie belles,’ for instance, appear to be wearing the same flowered orhni or veil draped over their heads and across their waists. Western photographs of geishas in late nineteenth-century Yokohama possess similar telltale signs of staging: a recurring kimono, suggestively falling off one shoulder, sometimes revealing a breast. The reappearing item of clothing hints at manipulation by photographers who were perhaps creating images not for their subjects, but for others: tourists or seekers of soft porn.”
It contrasts the postcard images to family portraits of Indian women in the Caribbean:
“Instead of opulently dressed ‘coolie’ women posing by themselves, these portraits show women wearing modest clothes with sparse jewelry. Their adornments are the grandchildren on their laps, their husbands and sons, their mothers and sisters by their sides. … With these family portraits, women weren’t simply sexualized objects but individuals with relationships, revealed through the cradling of a toddler, a hand touching a shoulder, or a bridal bouquet grasped.”
And it ends with an ode to the poet Mahadai Das, a beauty queen and a paramilitary volunteer who studied philosophy at Columbia and the University of Chicago before tragedy struck and sent her back home to Guyana in the 1980s:
“Her poetry serves as an alternative imaginarium, a rival source like the family portraits, illuminating a hidden chapter of colonial history from the perspective of those who suffered its wounds.”
A review essay for the July 7-14, 2014 issue of The Nation: The way women navigated the boundary between the home and the world was a question with great resonance and imaginative significance for India’s anti-colonial struggle during the first half of the twentieth century. (The title that Rabindranath Tagore gave his 1916 novel about a progressive landowner who nudges his reluctant wife out of purdah, only to be cuckolded, was The Home and the World—Ghare Baire in Bengali.) As India wrestles with what is frequently cast by parties across the political spectrum as a new foreign onslaught, through the influence of global capital and Western culture, the free movement of women between the private and public spheres continues to be central to the nation’s reckoning with itself. Does the growing visibility of women in public explain the increased sexual violence against them? Or, to the contrary, does their relative ongoing invisibility continue to make them vulnerable? Two and a half decades ago, just as India was opening itself up to free-market capitalism, Sen coined the phrase “missing women” to describe the acute gender imbalance rooted in bias against females that existed across much of Asia. But the term can be applied as much to the women missing from India’s streets as to those missing from its population.
Read more here.
By Gaiutra Bahadur | Published in History Today Volume: 64 Issue: 1 2014
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.
Continue reading in the January 2014 issue of History Today.