“She took lovers as a ship takes rough sea” : Jahaji-bhain belonging and coolie-gal sexuality in Rahul Bhattacharya’s The sly company of people who care
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Indo-Caribbean feminist scholarship and novels are largely invested in recuperating the figure of the Indo-Caribbean woman—the female Indian indentured labourer, or “coolie” woman, or her descendant—who has been simultaneously invisible in Caribbean nation-building narratives, and hypervisible as morally depraved in colonial discourse for her sexual transgressions. Such scholarship that highlights the subjectivity of a particular ethnic group becomes tricky in light of broader Caribbean studies, which tends to privilege a discourse of creolisation, or the interculturation of ethnic groups. Indo-Caribbean feminist discourse also frequently posits itself as a “minor literature” in opposition to Afro-Caribbean scholarship, which it identifies as the “dominant”; by attending exclusively to the Indo-Caribbean woman, the field often simply inverts the vertical relationship between the two, thereby preserving the structure that it aspires to dismantle. This project uses Rahul Bhattacharya’s 2011 The Sly Company of People Who Care, and specifically the character of Jan, a Guyanese woman of mostly Indian descent, to argue for new ways of understanding coolie women’s subjectivities and sexualities that do not perpetuate a vertical relationship between ethnicities. I primarily investigate how the gap between the male Indian national narrator’s understanding of Jan—as his love interest who he believes to share Indianness with—and Jan’s understanding of herself as someone of mixed descent who disavows a pure Indian ethnic identity, enables us to find alternative models of belonging. Drawing on Indo-Caribbean feminist tools, this paper demonstrates how Jan embodies Shalini Puri’s “dougla poetics,” a poetics that calls for interculturation and an enrichment of Caribbean feminism through the inclusion of Indo-Caribbean women’s experiences. I argue that by easily changing potential sexual partners, who offer her the possibility of making new crossings, Jan creates belonging that does not rely on ethnic purity, but through others who have made or will make crossings, performing Mariam Pirbhai’s idea of “jahaji-bhain” or ship-sisters. This project demonstrates how Jan’s simultaneous channeling of the coolie woman, through her sexual transgressions, as well as her enactment of non-ethnic solidarities, provide Indo-Caribbean scholarship new ways of rescuing the Indo-Caribbean woman.