A British man gets a pedicure from an Indian servant

Public Domain Photo

Oh Poor Coolie! — The Poem that Rattled the Lit Community

Pramod Subbaraman

“Oh Poor Coolie!” The first poem which I wrote on my return to poetry in 2020 during the dark days of the COVID-19 lockdown in the UK was inspired by Elizabeth Kolsky’s book, Colonial Justice in British India: White Violence and the Rule of Law, published by Cambridge University Press as part of their “Cambridge Studies in Indian History and Society” series.

In the book Dr Elizabeth Kolsky, currently an Associate Professor of History at Villanova University in the USA, related several incidents of violence against Indians and their treatment by the colonial justice system administered by the British Indian Administration.

One of the stories which stuck in my mind was the plight of the Tea estate workers in Assam, India, who were routinely assaulted and murdered by their white plantation owners and managers. The workers (coolies) worst affected were from the Cacharee communities (spelling as used in those days; modern spelling tends to be Kachari)

My poem was written in the voice of a White British Tea Plantation Owner who saw their plight as his inconvenience, his cost of doing business, his loss when “a Cacharee died because of his big bleeding spleen when all I did was to merely touch him. Now I have to find another!”

The poem was first published in India in 2022. It was also the first poem of mine to be accepted and published in India — a significant moment for me, a migrant from India and now a citizen of the United Kingdom. With all those firsts for me, I was devastated when the publishers emailed to inform me that the “poem has been rescinded due to complaints from other contributors and readers who find it to be pro-colonial and elitist.” Were they reading too much into my British Citizenship? Did they see me as a colonial enabler? Did they wish to deny history and its lessons? Or did they just like to hate a lapsed holder of an Indian passport? Who knows?

It did hurt but it also marked another first, and then it marked my entry into a select club of writers whose work has been censored/banned/erased/you name it! I now see that as a distinction and a badge of honour which I shall cherish and wear with pride. If your work can cause such extreme emotions, even if misplaced, then surely your writing is worth reading?

You, the reader, can make up your own mind, and if it stirs your emotions, then the poem has won its place.

I wish to thank the Hooghly Review for bringing the poem back to life.

Oh Poor Coolie!

A coolie in Calcutta in the 1920s

Public Domain Photo

Oh Poor Coolie! Cacharee


Oh Poor Coolie!

Come to me


Oh Poor Coolie!

Dream the dream

Of a single rupee


Oh Poor Coolie!

One in three

Sleep the sleep

Of eternity


Oh Poor Coolie!

Must I see

Your still body     

While I sip

My Assam tea?


Oh Poor Coolie!

My feather touch

Your bleeding spleen

Now I must pick

Another leaf

Off the Cacharee tree

Pramod Subbaraman is a poet from India who has settled in the United Kingdom. He returned to poetry in 2020 during the dark days of the COVID-19 lockdowns when he was forced into a temporary break from his day job as a dentist and has since been published in many countries around the world.