“Coolie Women Are in Demand Here”

The Virginia Quarterly Review, Spring 2011 – Our journey took us past endless fields of flowering yellow along the northern banks of the Ganges. When we pulled into towns, we asked for directions, from children balancing loads three times their size on their heads, from crouching women tending baskets of cauliflower and eggplant by the roadside, from men in the stores that stared open-faced onto the street, framing a tailor at his sewing machine or a man pumping air into bicycle tires. We sought the guidance of random people on the route, turning to them as to a massive human compass. And they obliged. They pointed us along bumpy roads bracketed by tiny pastel altars made to worship the sun, until one man finally indicated a rocky path. “That way,” he said.

We had traveled five hours over shell-shocked roads and narrow dirt lanes to arrive here, at the threshold of a place I wasn’t even sure still existed. It did a century ago. That’s what a document that I had discovered two years earlier, in Guyana’s national archives, indicated. It was the emigration pass issued to my great-grandmother on July 29, 1903, the day she sailed from Calcutta to the Caribbean.

Catalogued on this brittle artifact, yellow and crumbling with age, was everything about Immigrant #96153 that the imperial bureaucracy had considered worth recording: “Name: Sheojari. Age: 27. Height: five-feet, four-and-a-half inches. Caste: Brahman.” Here was colonial officialdom’s cold summary of an indentured laborer’s life. Yet, it included strokes of unsettling intimacy. The emigration pass told me that my great-grandmother had a scar on her left foot, a burn mark. Someone had scribbled “Pregnant 4 mos” in pencil at the document’s edge. On the line for husband’s name, there was only a dash.

Continue reading in the Spring 2011 issue of VQR. The excerpt was reprinted in India in the Sept. 2011 issue of The Caravan. You can read the excerpt in full here, at the Caravan’s Web site.