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 coolies,
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 not only her
great-grandmother's story but also the repressed history of some
quarter of a million other coolie women, shining a light on their
Shunned by society, and sometimes in mortal danger, many coolie
women were either runaways, widows, or outcasts. Many of them left
husbands and families behind to migrate alone in epic sea
voyages--traumatic "middle passages"--only to face a life of hard
labor, dismal living conditions, and, especially, sexual
exploitation. As Bahadur explains, however, it is precisely their
sexuality that makes coolie women stand out as figures in history.
Greatly outnumbered by men, they were able to use sex with their
overseers to gain various advantages, an act that often incited
fatal retaliations from coolie men and sometimes larger uprisings
of laborers against their overlords. Complex and unpredictable, sex
was nevertheless a powerful tool.
Examining this and many other facets of these remarkable women's
lives, "Coolie Woman" is a meditation on survival, a gripping story
of a double diaspora--from India to the West Indies in one century,
Guyana to the United States in the next--that is at once a search
for one's roots and an exploration of gender and power, peril and
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