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ALL Essays

The Overseer of British Guiana

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.

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Essays

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 not the printed images and text on them that matter, but the structures themselves. Read more about her work and about billboards as an American cultural signifer in my essay for The Margins, a magazine of the Asian American Writers Workshop. 

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ALL Essays Migration Nieman Reports

Writing a Life, Living a Writer’s Life

The Winter 2011 issue of Nieman Reports, a publication of the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University, focuses on books and the book industry. It features an essay by me on discovering that, as the German critic Theodor Adorno put it, “in exile, the only house is that of writing.”

 

Categories
ALL Essays The Virginia Quarterly Review

“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.

Categories
ALL Essays Migration The National

Plantation Road

Read how Scots gave their names to misbegotten places while on youthful adventures abroad: my dispatch from Scotland for Abu Dhabi’s The National.

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