On a brisk Monday afternoon at the end of the fall term, journalist and author Gaiutra Bahadur visited LaGuardia Community College to speak about her award-winning book Coolie Women: The Odyssey of Indenture, published by University of Chicago Press in 2014. Bahadur’s book is a brilliant study of an overlooked annal of diaspora: the migration of indentured Indian laborers to work sugar plantations in the West Indies at the turn of the 20th century. The event was co-sponsored by the Center for Teaching and Learning, and participants of the CTL’s Global Learning Seminar were among the many faculty, staff, and students who filled E-500 to hear Bahadur speak.
Bahadur’s talk addressed the broad history of this migration, as well as her own personal connection to it. Bahadur embarked on the writing of the book when she began digging into her own past as an Indo-Guyanese immigrant to the US. Bahadur discovered that her great-grandmother Sujaria had migrated from India to Guyana in 1903, on one of the many ships that took “coolies”—the controversial term for Indian workers that Bahadur defiantly retained in her title of her book—to the New World.
Bahadur’s research took her to three different continents, and in the process, she uncovered the fascinating and often horrifying aspects of indenture: cultures of rape, prostitution, and murder, in both India and Guyana. Bahadur was not able to explain every aspect of her great-grandmother’s migration—why was a pregnant woman crossing the ocean to another continent with no husband? But she uses these questions to imagine the many difficult choices her great-grandmother must have faced. In the course of her research, Bahadur uncovered photographs of her own family members in official archives, the existence of which had been unknown to her family. Bahadur ended her discussion with a slideshow of these photographs, contrasting them with the tourist photographs that exoticized the “coolie woman.”
Bahadur’s talk was followed by an extensive question-and-answer period. In addition to comments and questions from faculty and staff, many LaGuardia students were excited to share their experiences as Indo-Guyanese immigrants. One student encouraged Bahadur to visit Guyana to share her research. (Bahadur responded that she had previously visited Guyana on a book tour.) Another student shared a similar experience to Bahadur’s. Both the journalist and the student reported that their own families were quite reticent about their family histories, perhaps out of a sense of propriety and a desire for some of the most difficult passages of their migration to remain unspoken.
After visiting LaGuardia, Bahadur went on to deliver the talk at Harvard University later in the week. Bahadur’s talk was videotaped and recorded for a podcast that we be made available online via the CUNY Lecture Series. Bahadur is currently a fellow at MacDowell Colony, where she writing a book on post-World War II Guyanese politics.