When used in India, the term Kala pani refers to the cellular jail in Port Blair, where the British colonisers sent a select category of freedom fighters. In the diaspora it refers to the transoceanic migration of indentured labour from India to plantation colonies across the globe from the mid-19th century onwards.
This volume discusses the legacies of indenture in the Caribbean, Reunion, Mauritius, and Fiji, and how they still imbue our present. More importantly, it draws attention to India and raises new questions: doesn’t one need, at some stage, to wonder why this forgotten chapter of Indian history needs to be retrieved? How is it that this history is better known outside India than in India itself? What are the advantages of shining a torch onto a history that was made invisible? Why have the tribulations of the old diaspora been swept under the carpet at a time when the successes of the new diaspora have been foregrounded? What do we stand to gain from resurrecting these histories in the early 21st century and from shifting our perspectives?
A key volume on Indian diaspora, modern history, indentured labour, and the legacy of indentureship, this co-edited collection of essays examines these questions largely through the frame of important works of literature and cinema, folk songs, and oral tales, making it an artistic enquiry of the past and of the present. It will be of great interest to scholars and researchers of world history, especially labour history, literature, postcolonial studies, cultural studies, diaspora studies, sociology and social anthropology, Indian Ocean studies, and South Asian studies.
Introduction: Kala Pani Crossings: India in Conversation
Ashutosh Bhardwaj and Judith Misrahi-Barak
PART I: Shifting the Gaze
1. Theorizing the Troubled Black Waters
2. Moving Beyond the Memory Question: Narratives of South Asian Indenture, Global Memory Capitalism and Its Discontents
3. Connected Literatures and Histories across Kala pani: Perspectives from India
4. Escaped or Tricked? Why Indian Women Crossed
5. The ‘Terror’ of Kala pani: A Colonial Myth?
PART II: Across the Oceans
6. Caste Travelling across the Kala Pani: the Case of the Unborn V. S. Naipaul
Joshil K. Abraham
7. The Cult of Draupadi and its Propagation through Indentured Labour in Reunion Island
8. ‘I Will Survive on A Seer of Saag the Full Year’: Uncovering Women’s Work, Belonging and ‘Kala Pani’ in ‘Bidesia’ Songs
9. A Passage to Mauritius: The Ebb and Flow of Kala Pani in Hindustani Cinema
PART III: Re-imagining the Kala Pani Narrative
10. Coolie Life-Writing and its Shifting Locations - Narrativizing Kala Pani within the Nation and in the Diaspora
11. Pioneers across Kala Pani: Reading Girmitiyas in Ramabai Espinet's The Swinging Bridge, Gaiutra Bahadur's Coolie Woman and Totaram Sanadya's Twenty-One Years in the Fiji Islands
12. Exilic Trajectories of Crossing the Kala Pani: Locating Female Subjectivity in the Writings of Ramabai Espinet and Gaiutra Bahadur
13. Retrieving the History of Coolie Women: Historiography, Research and the Role of Agencies in Ramabai Espinet’s The Swinging Bridge and Peggy Mohan’s Jahajin
Arnab Kumar Sinha
14. The Politics of Representation and the Interface of Sycorax and the Snake Woman: A Study of Olive Senior’s Arrival of the Snake-Woman
“How exciting and unusual to come across a multi-disciplinary approach to the understanding of Indentureship, and the Kala Pani crossings in particular, giving space to historical and literary analyses as well as to musicology and the study of Cinema. What is especially superb is the involvement of Indian scholars from India, given that Indentureship and its legacies are hardly remembered in academia there. The highly ambitious and praiseworthy attempt of this book is to give Kala Pani Studies significance, thus enabling a rich relationship with Middle Passage/Atlantic Studies.”
— David Dabydeen, Director, Ameena Gafoor Institute; formerly, University of Warwick, 1984–2019); Guyana's Ambassador to China (2010–2015); Guyana's Ambassador to UNESCO (1997–2010)
“The Kala pani paradigm has been central to me for the past 30 years. It enabled me to elaborate a matrix of new cultural visions and social relations. It fostered an archipelagic humanism of diversity to emerge in the Global South, enhancing a creative praxis in post-indentureship. In keeping with the Kala pani episteme, this collection deftly explores the dark waters aesthetics. In the wake of a growing interest for indenture in academia, it constitutes a remarkable chapter of present-day transdisciplinary scholarship, making representations, memories and histories of the ‘coolie’ trade more fluid.”
— Khal Torabully, poet, film-maker and author of the ‘Coolitude: An Anthology of the Indian Labour Diaspora’
"This volume is an essential read for anyone interested in the Indian diasporas formed in the wake of the indentured labour system. It is a pioneering analysis, crucial to the mapping of the recently formed 'Kala Pani studies'. The importance of those 'Kala Pani Crossings', though much-ignored in India, is weighed and explored, highlighting the centrality of the moment for the writing of a new national narrative for India."
— Françoise Le Jeune, British Imperial history, Nantes University; co-convenor of DIASCOM
“The essays in this collection provide a rich and nuanced account and analysis – from literature to cinema and from narratives to songs – of the histories of crossing the Kala Pani. ‘Kalapani crossing' certainly enhances India's understanding of the nineteenth-century Indian labour migration overseas under the indenture system.”
— Ashutosh Kumar, author of the ‘Coolies of the Empire’