The Startling Postcolonial Poetics of “Coolitude”

The Startling Postcolonial Poetics of “Coolitude”

The Startling Postcolonial Poetics of “Coolitude”

Khal Thorabully’s epic poem “re-voices” the history of Indian indentured migration, and in the process imagines a new kind of transoceanic political solidarity.


When the abolition of the slave trade finally came to pass, at least in England, the British were desperate to make amends. Parliament promptly declared that it would pay the enslavers £20 million—40 percent of Britain’s annual budget—as compensation for the abrupt loss of their “property.” Worse still, before the still-enslaved Africans and Afro-Caribbeans could muster a celebratory cheer, the colonial planters had already readied their replacements. On August 1, 1834, the very day that the Slavery Abolition Act took effect, a batch of 39 indentured laborers arrived from colonial India to work in the sugar plantations of Mauritius. They were promptly housed in barracks known as “Camp des Noirs.”

Shortly thereafter, the British Parliament formally instituted the “indenture system.” This allowed the planters to systematically import cheap labor from colonial India by using highly exploitative and deceptive contracts. In order to preempt accusations that indentured migration perpetuated slavery in a different guise, colonial laws cast the replacements as “free” laborers, who had “voluntarily” agreed to five to 10 years of indenture in exchange for nominal wages. Between 1834 and 1920, more than 3.5 million indentured laborers—racially vilified as “coolies”—were transported from the subcontinent to various British sugar plantations across the Caribbean and the Indian and Pacific oceans.

Generally kept in the dark about both the transoceanic journey and the nature of their job, the indentured migrants were shocked to discover the violence of plantation labor. Desertions were common and suppressed by a brutal regime of incarceration. Meanwhile, picket lines and protest marches were frequently fired upon by the colonial police. Desperate to find release from the perpetual violence, many migrants even resorted to death by suicide. When this history first became topical in the academy during the 1970s, scholars quickly discovered that beyond the endless proliferation of colonial stereotypes about the coolie—generally depicted as craven, diseased, and lawless malingerers—very little had been recorded about the identities of the Indian laborers and their experience of indenture and migration.

Ashutosh Kumar’s 2018 book Coolies of the Empire underscores the stark contrast between “the thickness of colonial archives of Indian peasants” and “the thinness of the archives—official and planters’ own—on actual work and beliefs on the plantations.” This difference now subsists as the mysterious trace of a tragedy endured by a people who were colonized twice: first on the subcontinent and then on the plantations. If, per conventional postcolonial wisdom, the subaltern cannot speak, then the coolie cannot speak twice.

In 1992, Khal Torabully, the Mauritian poet, essayist, and semiologist, coined the term “coolitude” in order to “re-voice” the history of indentured migration. The concept derives inspiration from Négritude, the Francophone literary and cultural movement inaugurated by African and Caribbean writers in the 1930s to resist European colonial domination and its cultures of white supremacy. But this genealogical filiation also foregrounds the lost promise of solidarity between competing segments of colonial labor. Torabully intends to redress Négritude’s unfortunate neglect of the indentured migrants, whose historical fate was intimately tied with the institution of slavery.

Compared to its political context, the formal character of Coolitude is even more striking. It is worth noting that Torabully did not theorize the concept in a literary or political manifesto. Instead, it was an epic poem, Cale d’Étoiles (Cargo Hold of Stars), which served this end. At the time of its publication, the book was widely acclaimed in France and was awarded the Prix Jean Fanchette in 1993. Shortly after, in a meeting with Torabully, Aimé Césaire, the octogenarian father of Négritude, had famously gushed, “I can now die in peace. Coolitude is the poetic force I was waiting for.”

Nearly three decades later, Torabully’s epic has been translated in English for the first time by Nancy Naomi Carlson. The translation follows on the heels of Torabully’s already growing reputation in the Anglophone world. In conjunction with his interventions, multiple poets and writers—Rajiv Mohabir, Gaiutra Bahadur, and Andre Bagoo, among others—have developed new poetics of anti-racist, feminist, and queer expression, anchored in the diverse histories of indentured migration. Carlson’s translation makes available a pivotal text of this unique transoceanic literary formation, which traces its origins in the past crises of the British Empire while navigating the twilit present of late capitalism.

Torabully’s epic tracks the global odyssey of indentured laborers across the Atlantic and the Pacific. Its characters range from enslaved Africans to indentured Dalits, lascar crews to colonial sepoys. Its spatial swirls encompass places as diverse as the Coromandel coast, the Straits of Malacca, and the Trinidadian city of Port of Spain. And yet, despite this preoccupation with the world-historical, Torabully’s work shares little with Ezra Pound’s now-classic dictate, “An epic is a poem that contains history”—not least because, for him, history is an archive that belongs to the colonizers. Torabully’s epic is a poem that recovers what history erases.

The epic is divided into three books: of metissage, of journey, of arrival. Despite thematic differences, the tripartite order is bound together by a shared thread of visual design. On every page, there are stanzas at the top and the bottom, separated by white space in the middle. When the stanzas are quite short, the white space swells dramatically. Sometimes, the stanzas at the bottom also run onto the next page. And on rare occasions, the stanzas cover the entire page and spill over, before dwindling into a sea of white. Navigating these island-like clusters of text across the oceanic undulations of white space, one realizes that the book is designed to mimic the journey of indentured migration.

Just like the jagged design of the book, the individual stanzas are also replete with diverse, even conflicting registers and vocalizations. Even a direct question, “Define me please: what is a Coolie?,” elicits a response that shocks and puzzles in equal parts. “One with a noose around his neck / denied the deck’s cool lee side?” Next to the staggering brutality of being trapped in the ship’s cargo hold, Torabully broaches a daring pun: “cool lee side.” This aching tension between the traumatic and the experimental is sustained throughout the poem. Here, for instance, the playful tug of the pun makes the abjection of the noose even more palpable. The stanza continues:

I am Lascar, Malabar,
Madras tamarind from bazaars,
Telugu with tell-tails for you.
Cruel Marathi mother or Chamar.
Whichever you like, I’m an Indian Black,
guinea pig, from Port Louis to Port-of-Spain
to replace mighty Zanzibar slaves.
For memory, my only langouti, a loincloth,
my language purloined by the sea.
If you recognize me, please
call me proxy slave,
straw-man or stand-in,
kapok from fields or ocean vertebrae.

This is one of the few instances in the book when Torabully directly engages the historic transition to post-slavery plantations, capturing both the new regime of racist violence (“Malabar,” the M-word reserved for “proxy slaves”) and the uncanny promise of solidarity between indentured laborers and emancipated slaves (“Indian Black,” a remarkable rejoinder to the “Hindu man from Calcutta” invoked by Aimé Cesairé in his classic Notebook of a Return to Native Land). In contrast to Négritude’s sometimes narrow scope, Torabully’s epic intends to recommence a lost “community of visions between the slave and the indentured laborer, shared by their descendants”:

We are molasses, we are bagasse
my African brother descended from slaves
our skin is the trace
like yours, of the same dark race.

It is difficult to overestimate the political significance of Torabully’s epic, not least because racial conflicts have long besieged nation-building efforts in post-plantation societies. For instance, in 1962, a few years before its independence, British Guiana was rocked by an explosive wave of riots and strikes by Afro-Guyanese workers. The protests erupted after a new budget bill was introduced by the Premier, Chedi Jaggan, a Marxist-Leninist descendent of Indian migrants. Desperate to raise the country’s tax revenues, Jaggan proposed to transfer public investments from urban to rural sectors, respectively dominated by the Afro-Guyanese and the Indo-Guyanese communities. Already marginalized by colonial authorities, the Black workers were bound to flare up. By the time Jaggan invited Sylvia Wynter, the celebrated Jamaican philosopher, critic, and novelist, to write radio scripts for explaining the bill to the general public, the capital city of Georgetown was already burning. Although some of these protests were later linked to CIA interventions—prompted by Jaggan’s support of Cuba—the complete collapse of Guyanese society along racial lines was unprecedented.

“What was traumatic for me,” Wynter recalled in an interview, “was the stark nature of the division between black and Indian—you had a black policeman at the gate, but you had a sharp-shooting Indian from the coast with a rifle aimed at him from the window.” Wynter herself responded to this crisis by emphasizing the need to build a culture of “common history… shared community… solidarity” between the two groups. But Jaggan, she tersely quipped, was “a very orthodox Marxist, and to even suggest that superstructure was not automatically determined by the mode of production…that would have been heresy for him.”

Although Torabully’s poetics seems to resonate startlingly well with Wynter’s diligent prescriptions, his own work is not anchored around specific historical accounts. Instead, the tone of Torabully’s epic is better conveyed by its shorter, more fragmented stanzas. These read like snatches of poetic improvisation: low on discourse and high on the anarchic dissonance of sound and rhythm. Often, the sprawling white space abruptly preempts their flow. But on the other side of the intervening silence, a raucous throng of puns, alliterations, disjunctive rhymes, and neologisms always renews the music. Shuffling through this episodic fugue, I am reminded of what Amiri Baraka had said when he first saw John Coltrane improvising a solo: “It is like watching a grown man learn how to speak.” In fact, it is in the weave of these miniature solos that the relationship between the traumatic and the experimental becomes truly legible. Consider the following stanza:

Malabar, me the spar
me mound of dirt
me of salt, me of flesh:
my worn-out lascar soul
quarter Malay, third malaise
will be fragments
broken cross-beams of sky
body broken
from setting sail.

In the colonizers’ telling, the figure of the indentured laborer is no more than a wretched welter of racist slurs and stereotypes, practically a “mound of dirt.” Caught amid the churn of colonialism, indentured migration, and plantocracy, this figure has been unmoored from all forms of historical fixity—its subjectivity lost and littered across the seas, anywhere between Malay and Maharashtra. The force of this colonial violence is so totalizing that language, too, is unable to escape it. The granular textures and vibrations of Torabully’s stanzas indicate as much. Here, for instance, the consonantal links of M, S, R, and L, skillfully joined with long and short vowels, seem to suggest that, for Torabully, language itself is a shackle, an instrument of colonial violence. “Language has coolied me,” he writes elsewhere. And the drama of his epic lies in both acknowledging the deathly grasp of colonial history and trying to escape it. Indeed, it is this imperative of escape that impels Torabully to learn to speak again, to undertake what Nancy Naomi Carlson evocatively calls “linguistic acrobatics.”

In Coolitude: An Anthology of the Indian Labour Diaspora, cowritten with Marina Carter, the leading labor historian of Mauritius, Torabully emphasizes that “coolie is not an ethnic subject,” and that Coolitude does not invoke an “authentic” Indian heritage. Rather, as he points out, “coolie” is a “juridical definition”—before the British resorted to transporting a massive number of indentured laborers from the Indian subcontinent, they also experimented with “replacements” from China, Brittany, and several African nations. Accordingly, Coolitude too is marked by a profound awareness of these braided pasts. In a prose section of Cargo Hold of Stars dedicated to L.S. Senghor, a major theoretician of Négritude, Torabully explains, “Coolitude: because I am Creole by my rigging, Indian by my mast, European by my spar, Mauritian by my quest and French by my exile.”

Reading Cargo Hold of Stars is like watching a grown man learn how to speak—in the language of his ancestors. Torabully’s French is freighted with a mind-boggling array of Bhojpuri, Mauritian Creole, Hindi, Old Scandinavian, sea speak, Urdu, and Old French, in addition to several neologisms. Even more striking is how he compounds their diverse, even disparate sonic densities and cultural contexts into ever-newer forms. At times, this metissage might resemble the pat, New Age multiculturalism of our own times (“I say OM / You say hOMbre”). But the polyphony regularly rises above the cosmopolitan humdrum and acquires truly prophetic intensities:

Aum acacia aurora
heave-ho my rickety boat.
Hallali halala
I crunch areca nuts.
I chew my only tobacco chaw.
Arrack, my betel leaf;
alalia alalia
my belly bloated with lime
to erode the legends of salt.

The Indic thrum of the Aum, the oceanic heave-ho of the laborer, the tropical crunch of the areca nuts: This is a typical sonic repertoire in Torabully’s epic. In fact, “crunch” is a constant in the poem, like a percussive beat keeping time for Torabully’s changing song: “when we speak we chew our words / like crunchy betel nuts.” But like much of the poem, it is difficult to paraphrase the prosodic aura of this “crunch.” It excites and confounds in equal measure.

Despite Torabully’s enduring concern with historical erasure, his linguistic acrobatics share little with popular forms of speech and agency. His writing refutes both the confessional epiphanies of the lyric and the orderly disclosures of the testimony. The poetics of Coolitude are best understood in terms of a desire to find a new form altogether, one that not only reinscribes the lost memory of indentured migration but, in doing so, also radically transforms our collective sense of the present. In a prose block at the end of the poem, Torabully writes, “Coolitude: not just for the memory…. For memory regained is a great plan for the future.” He continues:

My only dreamt homeland: the great brotherhood of humanity…. Once again I propose we be porters of futures, worker bees of worlds, sowers of languages, builders of bridges…. What other truth can there be that carries the weight of a word handed down from the ship’s lookout post?

These concluding imperatives and injunctions go a long way in contextualizing Coolitude’s unbounded humanism. But the declarative force of these sentences also belies the dissonant musicality of the rest of Torabully’s epic. It hardly needs pointing out that, in the end, Torabully’s “great plan” is less a political program and more a subaltern soundscape. It privileges sound over sense and prosody over syntax with exceptional diligence.

Some readers might balk at the prospect of detecting these utopian inklings in eclectic etymologies and precisely cut phonemes. But patient immersion in Torabully’s capacious polyglossia is deeply rewarding. It is precisely in Torabully’s linguistic acrobatics that one gets to viscerally experience the utopian impulse that forms the beating heart of Coolitude. If colonial violence had unmoored the indentured laborer from all forms of historical fixity, then now, in a dialectical twist—a poetics of reparation, perhaps—Torabully’s insurgent whiplash of tongues seeks to unmoor the world itself from the strictures of border and nation, commodity and capital. “Ahoy,” the speaker of his epic declares, “I will be the referent of men.”

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