Tag Archives: #lopabasu

Rajaram’s Book On the Reality of the Dutch East India Company

Samantha Rajaram’s debut novel The Company Daughters transports readers to the Dutch Renaissance with the rise in its national power as a seafaring nation, the growth of a new urban bourgeoisie with its patronage for visual arts like portraiture, new styles of urban architecture, gardening, flower arrangement, and cuisine, but beneath this façade of beauty and refinement lurks the seamier underbelly of mercantile capitalism: colonization, slave trade and overt and covert forms of human trafficking. Rajaram, a California Bay Area native, a former lawyer, and an English professor plumbs this rich material for her accomplished fictional debut.

The novel is narrated from the first-person perspective of the protagonist Jana Beil. It follows a tripartite structure with the first part opening in Amsterdam where a hungry and desperate Jana is seeking work as a servant in the prosperous sections of Amsterdam as a house servant after, we will be told later, having escaped a childhood of parental neglect and violence and a horrific period of sexual slavery in Amsterdam’s newly emerging brothels. A wealthy young woman Sontje Reynst hires her, and this marks the beginning of a life-long relationship between these two women from very disparate social strata.

For Jana, employment in the Reynst household provides a modicum of stability and comfort, which is quickly lost when Master Reynst’s fortune is lost in a shipwreck. Jana is quite resilient and secures employment in another rich household, the De Graf family. Sontje’s life is more dramatically overturned by her father’s financial losses and her coveted engagement is called off by her suitor Hans. She cannot find a way out of her mounting debts to creditors and the potential loss of her home. It is at this juncture that she comes across the Dutch East India Company’s advertisement for single women to make the voyage to Batavia, present-day Indonesia, to become wives of Dutch settlers there. She signs up for her arduous year-long voyage and Jana decides to accompany her.

Amsterdam Dutch East India Company Trader

The second part of the novel is set on the ship, Leyden, and captures the hardships and dangers of this arduous voyage. Jana and Sontje, along with the other Company daughters face diseases like scurvy which affects many sailors and eventually kills one of the daughters. As the voyage reaches its final stages there is a shortage of food and drinking water. Sontje is also subjected to sexual violence in this journey, and it is Jana’s loving care that brings her back from the brink of death. It is in the Leyden that the girls establish a romantic intimacy, proclaiming their hearts and bodies as autonomous of the cogs of the capitalist patriarchal Company that is trading them as wives to settlers.

When they reach Batavia, Sontje is married off to Willhelm, a settler of ill repute, who is abusive towards her. Jana is married to Mattheus, an older, though kinder man. Jana feels no attraction for her husband and spends her days waiting for some sporadic contact with Sontje. After the hiatus of their marriages and Sontje giving birth to a son, the two girls renew their intimacy. Both are acutely uncomfortable with the operations of the settler society which relies on various kinds of slave labor. Jana’s tenuous autonomy and marital harmony are again disrupted by Mattheus’s death in an accident. Somehow, when all seems lost until two of her native slaves come to her rescue by offering to sell their native dyed fabrics. The novel closes with the prospect of renewal.

Samantha Rajaram deserves kudos for her historical research in uncovering this material: the Dutch East India Company procuring wives for settlers. She presents a very accurate picture of Renaissance Amsterdam with its class and religious disparities. The depiction of the long sea voyage is powerful in its harrowing detail. The lesbian love story is also presented with great tenderness and serves as a space of feminist defiance against multiple gendered oppressions.

However, the presentation of feminist solidarity between Jana, the Dutch protagonist, and her native Indonesian slaves, Aini and Candra, does not seem to be historically accurate. It is perhaps more of a utopian aspiration of the author. But it feels like Dues Ex Machina in a novel, which is otherwise unsentimental in its representation of colonial history and seductive in its ability to capture and preserve the reader’s interest in this violent and inhumane era.


Lopamudra Basu is a professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Stout. She grew up in Calcutta and currently lives in Eau Claire, Wisconsin.

The Company Daughters by Samantha Rajaram. Bookouture, October 2000

Former IC Intern Releases Anticipated Book

Shruti Swamy’s debut collection of stories A House is a Body is a highly anticipated volume, after the potential displayed in the publication of her stories in journals like the Paris Review, Prairie Schooner, Kenyon Review Online among others. She is also a two-time winner of the O’ Henry Prize. It might interest our readers to know that Shruti worked as an intern at India Currents long before her fiction became widely known.

Short stories as a genre are more difficult to market than long fiction forms like the novel or even the non-fictional genre of the memoir. In the South Asian American literary archive, short story collections that have had a profound effect on audiences and changed our expectations forever include Bharati MukherjeeThe Middleman and Other Stories and Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Interpreter of Maladies. More recently Neel Patel’s If You See Me, Don’t Say Hi also earned the distinction of becoming New York Times Book Review’s Editor’s Choice and NPR Best Book of the year. Swamy’s collection although firmly rooted in the tradition of diasporic South Asian American writing is charting new and unexplored territory.

What distinguishes Swamy’s collection is the persistent presence of trauma, loss, female vulnerability, and fulfillment in a transnational and transhistorical contexts.

While some stories like the last one in the collection “Night Garden,” invoke a very specific geographic landscape, others like “The Siege” and “Earthly Pleasures” seem to flow effortlessly between the genres of realism, mythology, and magical realism.

In “Earthly Pleasures” Swamy plays with the theme of unrequited love of a lonely female artist for a celebrity named Krishna, invoking the myth structuring the Bhakti tradition of India: Radha’s love for her divine and unattainable lover, Krishna. This unrequited love gets replayed in the medieval poet/ devotee Mira’s longing for Krishna which produces a flowering of her poetry. Similarly, Krishna is an earthly pleasure for Swamy’s protagonist Radhika and also her creative muse and obsession.

In “The Seige” Swamy weaves a story that resembles an Indian fable where an old queen is abandoned by her husband and loses her sons in battle.  This story may be read entirely as a fable, a throwback to an earlier pre-modern, feudal world of female victimhood, but it connects thematically to several other stories of spousal abandonment in contemporary North America. For example, “The Laughter Artist” and the title story “The House is a Body” as well as the final story “Night Garden” dwell on themes of husbands leaving their wives, sometimes on the abyss of despair and destruction. In both these stories, the husband or male partner who has left is a shadowy, indeterminate presence, but the effects of this abandonment are registered on the traumatized family.

In “The House is a Body,” the abandoned wife goes through the distracted motions of caring for a sick daughter whose skin is burning with fever, even as a wild California forest fire forces her to pack the detritus of her broken life and memories as she waits to get rescued, while almost succumbing to a desire to be destroyed by the fire.

In “Night Garden,” we witness a woman’s bond with her dog who protects her home from the attack of a cobra, holding steadfast to his task of guarding the home over the course of a night. The implicit comparison is evoked between the loyalty of the woman’s animal companion juxtaposed with the fickleness of her human partner who has abandoned her.

Swamy’s exploration of loss is not limited only to the loss of romantic love. In some stories, she touches on the loss of children or the loss of parents. In “Mourners,” a young infant is barely aware of the trauma of the loss of her mother which is being processed by her father and aunt. In “Didi,” in a rare moment of grasping his daughter’s fears, a father reveals to her the loss of her older brother in gestation. Even more unfathomable is the loss of a brother in “My Brother at the Station,” where a sister stalks her brother’s ghostly presence from the station to an apartment, only to realize that she could not cross the threshold and do her parents’ bidding and “beg him to return home.”  Sometimes, the elegiac quality of loss changes to the more jagged depiction of domestic violence registered on the bodies of women, in “Neighbors,” hidden by sense of shame and not acknowledged by other women even when revealed.

The most joyful story in this collection is “Wedding Season.” which is an unabashed celebration of a lesbian relationship between a South Asian woman and her white female partner who are attending a heterosexual wedding in India. Even though they have not come out to their families, they revel in their surreptitious intimacy interspersed among the wedding rituals.

Swamy is masterful in her use of spare prose to evoke the most harrowing psychological experiences. Her stories span a variety of styles and genres from realism to mythic representations. Reading her stories is akin to reading poetry or entering into a dream state. Her characters seem sometimes to be indistinguishable from story to story.  They are not sufficiently varied and sometimes seem unidimensional in their experiences as survivors of trauma. Swamy is skillful in depicting characters on the brink of psychological collapse, but she rarely provides any experiences that offset their abjectness. Perhaps in the future, we will see more of her satiric commentary and sly humor which is offered fleetingly in “Wedding Season.”

The India Currents team is filled with pride to see Shruti Swamy’s burgeoning career after her time with IC and is here to cultivate the next generation of writers. Reach out to editor@indiacurrents.com if you’d like to work or intern with India Currents!


Lopamudra Basu is a professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Stout. She grew up in Calcutta and currently lives in Eau Claire, Wisconsin.

A Union of Sikh, Japanese, and Mexican Americans

Mainstream South Asian American diasporic fiction focuses mostly on the post-1965 generation of immigrants, beneficiaries of the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965, which abolished national origins quota and facilitated the arrival of highly skilled workers from India and other Asian countries to help the U.S.

Yet the history of immigration from India, China, and Japan to the U.S goes back much further to the early years of the twentieth century, at least, when many Indians, particularly Sikhs from the state of Punjab arrived in California to work in the logging and farming industries. Although historians like Karen Leonard and Ronald Takaki among others have documented this early history of Asian immigration, very few fiction writers have tapped into this rich history for their fictional explorations. Rishi Reddi breaks new ground by undertaking this ambitious project in Passage West.

The novel follows a group of Sikh men, particularly two friends Ram and Karak from 1914 to 1974. The novel begins with the death of Karak and Ram’s preparation of a eulogy which provides a narrative flashback into the life of his friend. The early part of the novel sets up the geographical landscape of Imperial Valley, California, where the two friends find themselves after stints in the British army, time in Hong Kong, and a brief experience in the logging industry in Oregon, for Ram.

Readers are gradually introduced to tumultuous events sweeping through the world, the growing farming community in the Imperial Valley consisting of Sikh and Japanese farmers, the restrictions to land ownership and citizenship rights, the inability for Sikh farmworkers to bring their families with them leading to the growth of bachelor communities, the growing racial hostility, and violence against Asians in the U.S, expressing itself in infamous incidents like Komagata Maru, a Japanese ship that carried passengers who were British subjects from India and who were denied landing rights in Vancouver, Canada, which was also a British colony and were forced to return to India.

Sikhs on board the “Komogata Maru” in English Bay, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. 1914

We also notice the growth of revolutionary politics with the rising influence of the Ghadhar Party, which consisted of expatriate Indians who raised funds to support armed anti-colonial resistance against the British, going so far as to support Germany during World War 1. 

The emotional core of the novel resides in the compelling description of two forbidden love stories. Both Karak and Ram develop relationships with Mexican women who they meet in the farming community. In spite of the anti-miscegenation laws, religious and linguistic differences, Karak marries Rosa and starts a new family and life with her. Ram, on the other hand, is attracted to Rosa’s cousin Adela but feels torn by his loyalty to his wife, Padma, and the son born out of their brief union. Ram and Padma at the beginning of the novel are deeply in love with each other, but as vagaries of their lives and the cruel immigration laws unfold, their ties gradually attenuate.

The racist immigration system is rendered most visible in their harrowing separation. At a more public level, we see the passage of Alien Land laws that restrict land ownership by non-white races, forcing many farmers to become internal refugees looking for land in other states or underpaid employees of farming corporations.  Even more poignant is the depiction of Sikh and Japanese soldiers joining the U.S. Army in the First World War, being lured to this task by the promise of citizenship. Yet, in spite of their service, they are denied recognition and dignity for their brave service.  Reddi provides us glimpses of the losses faced in the trench warfare as well as the deadly attack of the Spanish influenza of 1918 which claims the life of Amarjeet’s best friend, the Japanese American Harry Moriyama.

The most brutal rendition of racism is offered in Reddi’s depiction of the sustained attempts by agricultural corporations to exploit the Sikh farmers, not having the right of land ownership, by cheating them of their harvests. This results in the climactic episode in the novel which leads to a murder, the near lynching of a Sikh man, and the long-term effects of this traumatic event in Ram’s ability to return to India.

Reddi’s novel is the product of sustained archival research. She has conducted interviews with descendants of Sikh Mexican families, as well as historical research on the harassment, racism, and violence that these early immigrants were subjected to. She seamlessly weaves historical characters and events in the rich tapestry of her novel. This novel dispels the monolithic model minority myth of South Asian Americans. It celebrates the working-class roots of early immigrants from India, the multiplicity of religions and faith traditions that these immigrants came from and united to fight against common injustices.

In addition, the novel highlights solidarities between various minority groups, not only the marriages between Mexicans and Sikhs, which is very different from the mostly endogamous marriage traditions of South Asian marriages but also the solidarities between Japanese Americans and Indian Americans. This is a novel that deserves serious scholarly attention and should be embraced by more courses in South Asian American literature and history. However, even though this novel is the product of intense scholarship, the research does not burden the writing. The novel flows effortlessly. It is deceptive in its elegance and simplicity and powerful in its empathetic portrayal of early South Asian Americans.

Lopamudra Basu is a professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Stout. She grew up in Calcutta and currently lives in Eau Claire, Wisconsin.