King of Coolitude

2010-10-30 00:00

THERE were whispers of turbulence on the plains of the Karoo. In the village of Richmond, roughly halfway between Cape Town and Johannesburg on the N1, people muttered: “How can someone be using that word here now?”

It’s a bad word, after all — in fact, quite a degrading one, long denounced.

It’s the word “coolie”.

And it was part of the title of this year’s book festival in Richmond: “The Coolie Odyssey”.

Some of the town’s residents were highly upset because this racist label was being linked to the book festival in their front yard.

“How can we do this? We renounced that kind of word a long time ago. What would you do if we suddenly announced that we’re going to hold a k***** party?” said one agitated resident.

Someone else asked, “How can he do this to our town?”

The “he” being referred to is Darryl David, lecturer at the University of KwaZulu-Natal and one of the directors of the festival. He suggested the theme.

David is amazed at the opposition from residents and can only shake his head. He is Indian himself and chose the theme because this year marks the 150th anniversary of the arrival of Indian indentured labourers in South Africa.

Well-known personalities like anti-apartheid activist and former political prisoner Ahmed Kathrada, and Imraan Coovadia — author of High Low In-between and winner of this year’s Sunday Times Prize, gave talks on so-called Indian topics.

Darryl David cannot understand why people kicked up such a fuss about the word “coolie”. “There is a long history of how people have tried to make the term their own and re-appropriate the abusive name ‘coolie’,” he says.

It involves taking back a space; appropriating and reversing a name that has been forced on you.

The word has, after all, already been used in the titles of books like Ashwin Desai’s Arise Ye Coolies and Dr Kesaveloo Goonam’s autobiography The Coolie Doctor.

The word can also be celebrated, says David, and used “to show that you know where you come from”.

This reminded me of “coolitude”, a word I discovered just the other day. It sounds like a kick-butt word. “Coolie” plus “attitude” — to give you “coolitude”.

But that is not quite what poet Khal Torabully, who coined the word, meant by it.

Torabully, who is of Indian descent, gives new meaning to the term. For him the word refers to coolie-ness, coolie-hood, being coolie — that which binds people of Eastern descent all over the world to one another.

David says the idea of a “coolie odyssey” refers, on one hand, to the long journey that authors and visitors had to undertake this year to attend the festival in Richmond. But it also refers to another odyssey that goes much further back in history.

This is so because there are so many South Africans whose forebears undertook the long journey to this country from the East, and there is a significant Indian footprint in South Africa, even among those who don’t realise that their roots lie in the East.

According to the writer H.F. Heese, there were many mixed marriages in the 17th and 18th centuries between white men and slave women, who were often of Indian origin, and Heese says the phenomenon continued into the 19th century.

So it would be a good thing if we celebrated the coolie odyssey — and coolitude — more frequently. Some of us can trace our ancestry to people who embarked on an odyssey from the East and arrived here directly from across the seas; others landed up here in a more roundabout way.

And in the end we are all, perhaps, “coolies” in some way.


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