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  • Fleeting Agencies: A Social History of Indian Coolie Women in British Malaya by Arunima Datta
  • Darren Wan
Fleeting Agencies: A Social History of Indian Coolie Women in British Malaya.
By Arunima Datta. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2021.

In British Southeast Asia, the term "coolie" conventionally evokes an image of a laboring Indian or Chinese man. In Fleeting Agencies, Arunima Datta critiques this trope by vividly presenting and analyzing evidence that Tamil coolie women were not just hapless victims dependent upon the migrating men they accompanied. Rather, they were active producers and reproducers of labor on British Malaya's rubber plantations from the first decade of the twentieth century onward, when planters and civil servants began encouraging the recruitment of coolie women to address plantations' skewed sex ratios that alarmed colonial administrations and Indian nationalists alike (38–41). Marshalling a wide range of material, including newspapers, census data, planters' autobiographies, government reports and transcolonial governmental correspondence, Datta uncovers coolie women's fleeting agencies by reading these predominantly elite sources against the grain and critically examining their silences. Through this method, she models for historians of colonial Southeast Asia—for whom sources in working-class persons' own voices are relatively sparse—a compelling way to write social history.

As she reads fragmentary references to Tamil coolie women's attempts "to escape victimhood, even if only temporarily, with varying degrees of success" (17–18), Datta develops her concept of "situational agency." Through this term, Datta calls attention to the fact that coolie women's actions were primarily motivated by the exigencies of ensuring one's survival under conditions of great duress. While Datta's focus is the agency of female plantation workers, one of the more understated contributions of her monograph is how her analysis of situational agency provides new insight into the broader colonial, capitalist and patriarchal structures that shaped the lives of coolie women. This point is evidenced, for example, in her analysis of legal cases involving so-called "wife-enticement," where coolie women denied legal culpability and sexual immorality by playing up the stereotype that they were merely "innocent victims of sinister manipulations of coolie men" (112). In other words, coolie women were not only aware about such stereotypes, but were also able to strategically deploy them in courts of law. Datta then tracks the development of such racialized and gendered stereotypes by demonstrating how the policies and discourses articulated by the British Indian government, Malayan colonial administrators, and elite Indian nationalists have overdetermined portrayals of coolie women (118–123), showing that all actors involved—including coolie women themselves—used such stereotypes for their own ends. In this way, Datta suggests that even if coolie women's fleeting agencies rarely transformed the structural conditions governing the exploitation of their labor, they are significant in shedding light on facets of these structures that are neglected in the historiography. Through these wife-enticement cases, Datta argues that the fixation on gender difference and the management of non-normative sexualities were cornerstones in ideologies of British colonial rule and Indian nationalism. The deep connections that she draws between structure and agency, in this example and in many others throughout her book, allows Datta to synthesize key insights from multiple bodies of literature ranging from gender history to British imperial histories of indenture and labor migration.

Each of the book's chapters reflect this interplay between colonial and nationalist treatment of coolie women on the one hand and the situational agencies they exercised on the other. The first chapter traces the policies that incentivized female labor migration from India to Malaya alongside coolie women's varied motivations for migrating, while the second chapter rejects scholars' characterizations of coolie women as dependents and secondary laborers by demonstrating their indispensability on plantations not only as weeders, rubber tappers and factory workers, but also as mothers, strikers, and advocates for labor rights. Despite the wage gap between coolie men and women, Datta provides evidence that women's work was deemed necessary for the success of the rubber industry by both planters and government officials. In the third chapter, Datta focuses on the domestic space of plantation coolie lines and critiques the tropes of the abusive...