Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Me nah look like me wan coolie from hey?

U a coolie? asked one of the persons commenting on this blog, and it is a question I have been considering for some time, since I was called a stupid coolie fool in High School.

Growing up in Guyana, I am conscious of two things.. since my ancestors (or most of them) came from Inda and my family and I are Hindu, then we could fit into a nice 'East Indian' box.

All of that went out the window though when I went to Birmingham , UK to study and I realised that I was completely out of sync with the 'Asian' population - could not speak the language, did not have the hangups, and did not feel the need to party or to take time out from the boxed identities.. which ended up with me being Vice President of the African and Caribbean Students Society. I was called Paki a few times there, even as a lot of people told me I sounded ' black'.

In 2002 at the height of the mayhem against "Indian" people, there was a lot of assertion about coolie and Indian identity. Interestingly one organisation's last venture into locking the coolie identity (sari, raga's , morality, public decency, decorum, hard work)  was when they bought a boxer named "Coolie Bully' from Trinidad to celebrate Arrival Day (or Indian Arrival Day depending who you talking to).

When I told a friend I was going to gaff on this blog about this coolie thing, he said "Not you too, falling trap to the binary race thing that holding Guyana back" . This binary race thing he meant was coolie and black.. but I want to think of the binary as "coolie" and "not coolie" if I could. Two articles appeared in Stabroek News recently about Identity, one by Dave Martins talking about what he terms Guyanity and then Nalini Mohabir wrote about being "Familiar and yet foreign"

Coolie I heard in Jamaica too, said to people who we would consider 'black' in Guyana or even 'dougla' maybe. Indian is the more respectable thing it seems.
Coolie men drink rum and beat their wives, coolie people are sheep and backward, probably poor, dont know to eat with knife and fork, and eat with their fingers. India coolie we use to refer to those who recently came from India and who do not mix with the coolie. I get referred to as one of the business people.. people start speaking slowly so I could understand and then turn up their noses since I appear miserly, and even though I try to lapse into creolese, they look at me with suspicion.

Indian people apparently are family oriented, decent, law abiding, successful, have moral values and are probably Hindu (it is funny how some people mix up Hindu and Muslim). Indian people wear Indian wear to functions - a relative actually suggests on his wedding website that people attending the wedding wear Indian wear (and I laughed when I read of the cinema in India banning people in lungis) I cannot go since I dont have any Indian wear apart from the tee shirts, jeans , short pants and so on which I think some Indian men wear in India.

Coolie people have the art of eating dhal , rice and curry with their fingers and also , you should not get the food above the second knuckles. I dont do too badly with eating with my hands. Problem is ,  a doctor said you eat more food when you eat with your hands .. think shovel. Is back to fork now with my dhal and rice.
Family is a big thing with coolie people, no matter what happens and what the story, always have family. Oppressive, supportive, mad, is no secret that  most coolie violence seems to happen within families .

Coolie people have a way to dance.. curling, an art of moving hands, shoulders, waist, knees, ankles in smooth rythmn and waves. i am still perfecting the art of curling.. and the older the filmi music, the better.. 

Coolie people apparently do not have sex outside of marriage, and those who do.. well, we pretend to ignore these fallacies, even if they wear Indian wear and are prominent in the society.
Coolie people cuss up Government, but they apparently vote PPP uniformly and they say Jagdeo is a good man but he have fools around him , and they say this quietly to other people they perceive as coolie.

Indian people have money, coolie people are poor and coolie poverty is often hidden and ignored. This thing about wealth is something else, I sat on a plane next to an India coolie once who talked to me about spirituality and how Guyana has no soul, and then proceeded to talk about how much money he making.. and he could make.

So coolie is about stereotypes, from time to time I apparently fit into the stereotype, and then I do not when I might hold views on domestic violence and sit down in church concerts to hear choirs sing or stay far from rum shops. Familiar yet Foreign as Nalini wrote. I have been asked if I am Christian now and then, or if I lived outside for a long time, so sometimes I find myself trying to fit into coolie stereotypes if only to show that coolies do exist and are part of Guyana.

I dont plan on wearing Indian wear though, whatever that is.


  1. I enjoyed this, i am a Jamaican "coolie" lol.

  2. coolie to me is the term used to describe indians that are stupid, be they rich or poor. they all have at least 4 of these characteristics that i will list:
    1. drunkard
    2. wife/man beater
    3. ppp voter
    4. illiterate
    5. foul mouth
    6. 4 + children they can't take care of.
    7. children beater

  3. used to be that i resented being labelled coolie - not that it happened often, and when it did was most times followed by gyal - because it was 'derogatory' and associated w/ all the above negative-ness...but now... i hate it even more when men call me 'indian' on the road here in barbados - mostly because of how utterly ignorant it is to call somebody by an ethnicity as a "compliment"; i doubt cat-calling a man "african" would be perceived as complimentary - but also because i hate to be associated with Indians. From India. Unlike you V, i have nothing in common with these people. growing up, i had a very multicultural experience; never been to a jhandi onto this day (i know!) and never worn any article of 'indian' clothing yet... so once the level of venom-ity is low, i prefer coolie gyal to indian, cos the latter is at least in some way, guyanese...

  4. V, I loved this identity introspection thing. When I think of coolie vs Indian I usually think of it mostly as a class division...but when coolie is used I still cringe slightly even if it's used harmlessly, I suppose it's cause of my primary school days when "coolie" or "black man" said with a certain tone had a powerful bite. By the way the other day I had dinner with some forward Sri Lankan Catholic coolie people who ate with their fingers...the meal required it.
    Is Jay Sean coolie, Indian, South Asian? I understand lots of Americans have trouble deciding. More from me later.

  5. I have been called "coolie", "Indian" and "brown" ... which do you think is the most appropiate? Provided that I am mixed, I am not a slave, my skin is not brown nor am I from India.

    With reference to the three:

    Coolie is a derogatory term stemming from the caste systems used in India. I hate coolie the most, within friends and family it does not bother me, although it should. To hear it being spit out from someone else's mouth along with such phrases as "worthless coolie" and "dirty coolie", there are too many negative attributes that are carried with it from the past, many of which people are ignorant of.

    Indian seems the most politically correct and although I don't think of myself as Indian and have never been to India, I can accept half of my ancestors were from there so it is partially on track but far from perfect.

    I am not sure what to do with "brown" since it certainly does not describe my skin colour. I guess it is thought to be the politically correct way of indicating I am mixed with something from the south asian gene pool?

    What do you call me?
    I happen to like mix-up Guyanese.

  6. Dear Vidya,

    As I write to you, Jep Sting Naina playin in the background, but I don’t know if that makes me a coolie. Thanks for linking me, and “engaging” with me (I thought you didn’t do that! ;-) Don’t worry, I wasn’t asking for a book, just your unique perspective.

    For me, you raise 5 points:

    1) The scorn behind “coolie”

    Do you know Vijay Prashad? He wrote “The Karma of Brown Folk” (awesome book), and he’s interviewed in the film “ when the coolie becomes cool” (on youtube). He breaks it down, but basically coolie with its connotations of cheap, replaceable, servile and subordinate labour -- good for nothing but hard labour in the tropics – has a long and painful history behind it. When I was in India, “cyber coolie” was the popular term for people who work in call centres, answering the overseas inquiries of Americans. Indian labour (or for that matter any labour from the global South) is still worth less than the Euro-American body.

    2) the distinction between Indo-Caribbean and Asian

    As an Indo-Caribbean-Canadian overseas student in Britain I often get asked: “do you have family in India?” It’s usually in direct contrast to my explanation of my roots and research interests in indentured Indian labour in the Caribbean. Innocent? No. This pervasive question underlines a perceived primordial tether on the present, like I’m supposed to have a direct line to India, even though for Indo-Caribbeans, India is a land beyond memory. Asians and Indo-Caribbeans, in my mind, are lumped together not only on the basis of appearance, but because the “origin” is always supposed to be Asia (no matter how many generations ago).

    3) Creole complexity

    I didn’t know you were the VP of the African and Caribbean Students Society; I think that point reinforces what you’re saying about the cross-cutting, overlapping, vibrant culture of the Caribbean. Personally, I think this is what makes Indo-Caribbean culture the most dynamic of all indentured diasporas!

    4) binary/polarizing opposites

    I understand your friend’s concern about reproducing polarizing/oppositional stereotypes, but on the other hand, race is still an issue in the Caribbean. Political structures are superimposed on the social, and divisions harden around election time. I don’t think it makes sense to simply ignore the binary or wish it away. We need to talk about it.

    5) authenticity.

    “India is for me a difficult country. It isn’t my home and cannot be my home; and yet I cannot reject it or be indifferent to it; I cannot travel only for the sights. I am at once too close and too far. […] It has taken me much time to come to terms with the strangeness of India, to define what separates me from the country and to understand how far the Indian community in the New World diverged from the attitudes of people to whom India is still whole […] increasingly I understand that my Indian memories, the memories of that India which lived on into my childhood in Trinidad are like trapdoors into a bottomless past.” (Naipaul, Wounded Civilization 8)
    Nonetheless, the revivalist project will continue among some, with I suspect, ties to a scary right-wing Hindu nationalist politics.

    Enjoying your blog.

  7. coolie a famous name in India. Amitabh bachan famous Hindi film star acted a film title coolie.Coolie means hard worker.He can lift the heavy weights,runs bullock carts,does the agricultural work.They keep themselves fit.no Blood pressure, no diabetes.Their children only survive with good health record.they walk ,run a lot.So one should feel pride to be a coolie.Now in the modern technology people become so lazy.So coolie you can see in the Indian RAilway station, they carry all your luggage.they are strong.In the west people raise their children giving exposure to hard work. Here in India the parents give lot of comfort and care to the children, so they usually subjected soft life,and then it leads to lot of worry when to face the troubles in life.The generations who are rich and enjoyed smooth life, those families vanished though they are rich.The families of hard work, those who raised to face the life as a challenge ,those families survived still thought they are not rich.So if any Indians called Coolie in India are out of India, one need not worry ,at the same time, they can feel proud.It is not a bad word at all.

  8. I hate that word and will not use it. Sorry Vid, but to me it is culturally (in the Guyanese context I admit) a very degrading and offensive word. Sounds like some are trying to reclaim it and vest it with its own power much as some American claim to be doing to the "N-word", but I can't go there at all.

  9. Interesting stuff. I've been thinking about this same dilemma(?). The 1st time I realised my distinction as a different race was in primary school when a Afro-Guyanese/black girl sang ''coolie water rice wash yuh batii wid dhal and rice''.
    So I decided to grow my hair instead of the spikes and mohawk. Into my second month of not cutting my hair. I combed it back and went to work, and my colleagues remarked ''how I look suh, like a coolie...a traditional coolie''. I said I thought I was always a coolie boy. They said I used to look like a refined Indian guy, and now my hair look like it got coconut oil. By the way, a few minutes before I just put some coconut oil in my hair.
    I guess I'm breaking my own stereotype because when I was younger I used to loathe the smell of coconut oil and associate it with country coolie people; and used to say that I'm not a coolie but ann Indian.
    Still trying to get around this coolie/Indian tag. I guess I can do the same thing persons of African descent did with the whole Black movement and re-define blackness and elevate their worth as a proud people who have been defined and downpressed by the entire colonial masters/enterprise.
    So, I'm proud to be coolie, Indian, brown whichever people call me by.

  10. LOl.. yeah man, reclaim the coconut oil.. it is good for you.. i am rubbing on my feet now.. thanks

  11. It's interesting that not other race on earth would inter-marry with another race who is opporessive to them. Yet in the Caribbean we see this happen.

    It seems the prejudice is always directed at coolie men in particular...probably is why coolie gyals are more receptive to the other race...because they don't face, emphatize or relate to the prejudice coolie people collectively face.

  12. Vidya thanks for this article...I am black/African/Afro-Guyanese I am never sure which of those is closer to the truth but I liked reading this and many of the comments which follow (from mostly East Indian people). We have got a lot of work to do on race relations here in Guyana....conversations are good ways to start.