Archive for October 1st, 2011

‘Coolitude’ and Khal Torabully

Amitav Ghosh | October 1, 2011 in Uncategorized | Comments (17)



I came across Khal Torabully’s work while I was writing Sea of Poppies. He is a prominent literary figure in Mauritius and along with Marina Carter, who is perhaps that country’s most eminent historian, he has edited a remarkable collection entitled: Coolitude: An Anthology of the Indian Labour Diaspora (Anthem Press, London, 2002).

A poet and scholar, Khal is perhaps best known for coining the concept of ‘coolitude’ (which he explains below). Having read and admired the anthology (but never having met Khal in person) I was very glad when he wrote to express his appreciation of Sea of Poppies. I wrote back to thank him and he responded with another message, which I am posting below, with his permission.

Over the last couple of weeks I have had several inquiries from descendants of Indian migrants asking for suggestions for further reading. Coolitude is a very good place to start, and I would urge anyone who is interested in girmitiyas to seek out other works by Khal Torabully (and of course Marina Carter too).


Dear Amitav Ghosh,

Thank you ever so much for your kind response.

And please accept my regrets in delaying to reply to you. I have been so active and tired these last weeks in a big project on an indentured village in Mauritius. I also wanted to devote the necessary time and energy to writing to the writer I admire, you Mr Ghosh. I hope you will be so kind as to be lenient with me, thank you for your understanding.

Forgive me for my shaky English, as I have lived for more than 32 years in France and have basically written in French language, and of course in Kreol, my native tongue.

Allow me to tell you it is such a pleasure for me  to read your words and be able to exchange with the magnificent writer you are and who have been immersed in the “sea of memories” of coolitude, an aesthetics so dear to me. Yes, I started your beautiful poetic and forceful novel (I am presently in Mauritius, and unfortunately, I left it back in Lyon, and will soon go back to it by the end of October…). I need may be to leave the island to be able to take time to read again…

I confess that I have been moved while writing this email, as much as I have been impressed by the craftmanship you reveal in your books, mixing so many fields of knowledge, but more than this, you are a poet and novelist traversed by this rare gift of “la parole”, to quote Lacan, this dimension of language which entails truth, often said “unknowlingly”, breaking through the most sophisticated levels of discourse. This would not surprise any one, given the ideas and visions you pursue and defend with the greatest integrity, whether on the moral, intellectual and artistic levels.

I am a poet, basically, and have a profound respect for your art blending both narrative and poetry, in a very unique rendering of style (whichever “school” one would say it belongs to) and talent. You are a great soul and writer Mr Ghosh! As we say in French : “Respect”!

Allow me to say I particulary feel very close to the way you encapsulate History, so close to mine (allow me this parallel, as your work is infinitely of the excellence I would in vain ever toil for), specially when it comes to the “bricolage mythique” presiding over its enunciation, with the use of the “archives”, just in the way you would rewrite them, revisit them with poetic power and also through the voices of the muffled and silenced ones. In this respect, our poetics are nearly twins. This paradigm, which I deemed the coral imaginary, was at the forefront of my aesthetics of coolitude. I read about you on internet and discovered we were born in 1956, which friends say, is an excellent vintage. I do not know if this common year of birth means something, but I am really impressed by the commonalities we share in putting in words the worlds we explore, and specially, our particular standpoint, namely, our voices from the peripheries.

When I wrote Cale d’étoiles-coolitude, the founding book of the oceanic voyage of the coolies in 1989 (published in 1992), I wanted to pay homage to the “forgotten voices of the voyage”, the coolies’. At that time the word coolie was thought as base and derogatory, and it was a pleasure and duty for me, as a poet of plural visions and of the peripheries, to reclaim the coolie, and from this derelict history and identity, I used the term coolie to coin coolitude, very much as Aimé Césaire did for négritude (though I took my distances with any essentialist view from the outset). I carved it as the basis of a humanism of diversity born from the mosaic India migrating through indenture. I played with languages and archives, moved to silences of archives, sketched the centrality of the voyage of the coolie as a space of construction/deconstruction of identities, giving a primordial role to the ocean so as to move away from the “kala pani petrification”. In that sense, I also write about the sea and the Indian Ocean, just like you, with my own modest voice. This ocean, I am convinced, should be explored again and again, as it is a space where diversities meet, clash and emerge in new configurations of humanities. I believe time has come to gather interest on this ocean, I believe the Atlantic has had its fair share of narratives and studies, and we have to come back to Sinbad’s ocean, to re-discover it and allow articulation of other imaginaries in this matrix of globalization (with a different tinge!)..

I am sorry to say that I write mainly in French, specially my two poetry books which developed the poetics of coolitude. And I don’t know if you read/speak Molière’s language.

In any case, I would very much like you to read some of my poetry. I would like to suggest to your attention some recent poems in English I have written in a kind of mock post-structural/post-modern style springing from the Aapravasi Ghat and indenture memories here, and the “non-coercive History” paradigm you encapsulate so forcefully in your books. This triptych is quite different from my previous poetry books in French.

I am hereby attaching attaching the first part to this present email, if you can spare some time… Thank you for your kind attention and perusal.

I would very much like to exchange with you, specially on the themes of revoicing History in the Indian ocean, of indenture and coolitude.

I wish you the very best energy for your masterly work.

Be assured of my profound esteem and admiration master Ghosh!

Sincerely yours,

Khal Torabully

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