“We have some good news and some bad news."
December 12, 2019

"Sindhi Coolie" by Sabeen Sidiki

II - Kalamazoo

My second nausea was a creature born in the New World and the offspring of a more tangible etiology. 

On August 14, 2010, my family and I migrated to the United States. That day is ironically also Pakistan’s Independence Day. In my uncle’s basement, my mother, sister and I started a new life in Kalamazoo, Michigan. I was enrolled in Portage Central High and the Kalamazoo Area Math and Science Center (KAMSC, pronounced kamzee) to complete my senior year (spending half the day at the former and the other half at the latter), while my sister learned to drive and my uncle found her a job at his medical clinic. We both began applying to colleges. My mother was there for emotional support. After a couple of months, my father and brother went back to Pakistan, having received their green cards. I think she knew that even though I was now able to keep my breakfast down, my nausea hadn’t completely left me — that she needed to be there to massage my back like in the old days by the foyer sink. 

Graced by Mom’s scarf-clad face whispering Quranic remembrances, the mornings of Kalamazoo were in some sense similar to the ones in Karachi, By this time I had eased into eating cereal for breakfast, after which I would walk out into the frigid and gloomy morning to catch the school bus that picked up kids from the wealthy suburb and then stopped  at an intersection a five minute walk from the house. I found a kindred spirit in Flora, an exchange student from Italy with whom I often shared the ride, exchanging interesting facts about life in our respective countries. The bus ride to Central lasted about 15 minutes, after which Flora and I went our separate ways.  

At Portage Central, my schedule comprised of three class periods: IB History, IB English and an online U.S. government class in that order. Afterward I rode another bus to KAMSC, a math and science magnet school for talented kids, ensconced on the fourth floor of a red-bricked complex downtown. (It was near Bronson Methodist Hospital, which would become, unbeknownst to me, a key setting for my second nausea.) My aunt had been very eager for me to join KAMSC because every other South Asian child in the community was a student there — was expected to be a student there. I rode the bus with usually just one other student, a tall afro-headed Indian American junior named Gautam who pronounced his name like “Gout-hum.” At the red-bricked complex, we were expected to climb 84 steps up to Suite 400 where KAMSC was housed. 

My favorite classes were the first two at Central, but I don’t think this was just because of my rising interest in the humanities at the time. The “IB” or “International Baccalaureate” structure was very similar to the British “A Levels” of my Pakistani education, so the familiarity helped. But more so, I found that my energy steadily declined as the day progressed, so that by the time I reached KAMSC, climbing the 84 steps with my heavy backpack was a debilitating chore. I simply blamed myself for being lazy compared to my American peers who not only did KAMSC but a host of other afterschool activities. 

The IB History teacher was Ms. Patricia “Pat” Johnson, a plump, no-nonsense lady with a degree in German. Her classroom was arranged with two rows of desks facing each other while she presided magisterially in front of the whiteboard. I now forget the name of the girl who used to sit next to me — she was also plump and had short pinkish hair. She was friendly for the most part, interested in my experience of moving to a new country and surprised at my command of the English language. During the first days she asked me if I had experienced any racist incidents, and when I replied in the negative, she was visibly flummoxed. “I expected someone would have called you a terrorist by now,” she said, sounding disappointed to hear of my good luck. 

But Ms. Johnson’s class stands out in my memory for another reason. One day I hastily excused myself from the class. Swiftly grabbing the hall pass from Ms. Johnson, I ran out into the glistening corridor toward the bathroom. The Frosted Flakes® of that morning, like the fish pilaf that long preceded it, noisily embellished the hallway’s linoleum. I wondered if all the classrooms on the floor heard it. There was a teacher walking the hall who looked at me with some sympathy and told me not to worry about it. She’d have someone clean it up.  


Graduate school in Ann Arbor, just two hours from my original migratory destination of Kalamazoo, introduced me to an aspect of the Indian subcontinent’s history that was never broached in my Pakistan Studies classes back home: the establishment of indentured servitude for cheap labor after the abolition of slavery in the British Empire in 1833. 

Plantation owners and other capitalists suddenly needed to replace the now freed slaves and looked toward Asia to fill this deficit. These Asian workers, mainly Indian and Chinese, were derogatively called “coolies.” I have been speculating about the nauseas of my own coolie ancestors, if they embarked on ships from the Kurrachee Harbor toward destinations in the Caribbean, forging my path toward the New World. I wonder if they got sick on these ships. I wonder if they died on the way there. 

Edward Jenkins, author of The Coolie: His Rights and Wrongs (1871), an account of the condition of coolies in British Guiana, writes about his journey across the Atlantic: “They call this one a smooth passage; but it was the cruellest [sic] hyperbole of compliment to Neptune. Nausea getting up, nausea lying down, nausea on deck, nausea in the cabin, nausea for breakfast, dinner, tea, — nauseas multiplied, aggravated, unceasing.”  Of course, no attention is paid to the nauseas of the titular coolie aboard the ship, but there is an entire chapter entitled “Medical Inspector, Doctor, and Hospitals,” dedicated to the medical management of the coolies in Guiana’s sugar estates. The author at one point pithily writes: “No proper medical provisions, no immigrants.” 

Coolies from the three main British “presidencies” of India — Calcutta, Bombay and Madras — abound in the archival record, but not from Karachi, the westernmost port of British India. This is surprising, given Karachi’s immense strategic significance due to its proximity to British possessions in the Middle East such as Aden and the Suez Canal. Perhaps it was because the port lagged behind its eastern counterparts in development. Perhaps not many Karachiites or Sindhis signed indenture contracts with the British. But what did emerge from my research is another kind of indenture: the recruitment of servants or shopkeepers for employment in the worldwide offices of Hindu merchants selling traditional Sindhi products called “Sindwork.”

The enormous “Sindworkie” trading network operated out of Hyderabad — the city where my parents married and where my brother was born, before we moved to Karachi — and held offices in such distant places as Cairo, Honolulu, Panama, Hong Kong, Sydney, Gibraltar and Cape Town. Claude Markovits’s book The Global World of Indian Merchants, 1750-1947: Traders of Sind from Bukhara to Panama (2000), where I found this wealth of information, even includes in its appendix the employment contracts of a shopkeeper and a servant indentured in Cairo at the beginning of the 20th century. 

These early precursors of Sindhi diaspora excited me to no end, and at the time of this writing I shared my research with my mother who was visiting Karachi at the time. She had no idea that the Sindhi Hindus’ entrepreneurial acumen was so immense. But she said it made sense; that before the partition of 1947 there lived in Hyderabad Sindhi Hindus with majestic palaces, and nothing less than an international trading empire could have maintained them. 

Thus, empire emerged in another — indigenous — form, and I wondered about the nauseas of the Sindworkies. I found a newspaper column from 1939 in the South China Morning Post in which a concerned citizen of Hong Kong responds to a previous column written under the pen name “Sindwork.” 

“Sir — “Sindwork” has hit the nail right on the head by voicing his antipathy against too long hours of work, more especially on Sundays, while the more fortunate ones are frolicking and romping about carefree and gay. Employees are also human beings, and as such need some recreation and relaxation in order to better fit them for the week’s arduous work. Amongst the Sindhi community there are lots of workers who seem to need some fresh air and relaxation so that they can enjoy the fruits of their labour instead of finding the daily grind nothing but wearisome uninteresting drudgery.” – October 9, 1939

The author ends with a plea to “give the working Sindhi people a chance to enjoy a healthy life while out here, far away from home.” 


By late December 2011, my mother, sister and I had left my uncle’s basement because his wife wanted us out. (The circumstances leading to our unceremonious expulsion would require an essay of its own.) We rented a depressing two-bedroom apartment in a nearby complex aptly christened “Greenspire” as the numerous three-story buildings were nestled in a veritable forest. We moved to the apartment on a particularly nasty snow day, so it wasn’t so much green as a glaring sea of white. My uncle helped us carry the meager furniture from the car up two flights of stairs, the four of us together braving the icy wind and snow.

Again the breathlessness, the one I experienced every day on KAMSC’s 84 steps, reappeared, except more virulent. I was 18, but I had no energy. I slept most days, dozing off in class or while doing homework, often running out of breath while doing the simplest of chores. I once told my mother that I felt as if my brain wasn’t receiving enough oxygen. 

I eventually developed severe flu-like symptoms, with my nasal passages almost completely blocked, and ran a fever. One day, my uncle noticed that I was growing paler and paler, and he asked my mother and sister to bring me to an emergency room in Plainwell, about 20 miles north of our home in Portage. The day was February 26, 2011. We drove slowly and in silence. The snow was coming down heavily, the flakes swooping down in large strides until they splotched against the windscreen. 


“We have some good news and some bad news. Your brain MRI came back fine. However, your white blood cell count is around 200,000, which is suggestive of a certain type of leukemia. We need to admit you now.” 


To collect the many nauseas that followed under the monolithic umbrella of “my second nausea” is misleading.

It was in fact a syndrome of nauseas: most were caused by chemotherapy, some by radiation sickness. The latter of these I remember most viscerally because it too, like my first nausea, came like clockwork. The procedure involved, firstly, the fashioning of a plastic mask that matched the contours of my face exactly: the doctor had me lie down on the bench and covered my face with a warm and moist semi-solid that I can only describe as spaghetti. In time, the substance solidified and netlike fissures appeared, allowing some light to peek through. This mask, with larger holes cut around the eyes, was fastened tightly around my face so that the back of my head was one with the bench — a kind of bondage, an indenture in service of a cure. Then a white futuristic machine like a sentient alien pod whirled around my plastic head, zapping lasers through the many crevices of the mask into my cranium.

On each radiation treatment day, at exactly 7:00 pm, I curl into myself on the hospital bed to resist the nothingness that inevitably emerges from my poisoned belly. The bedpan is brought dutifully and kept by the bedside, like the foyer sink from decades ago. Mom is the same: dupatta around her head; one hand clicking prayer beads; the other massaging my back, riddled with bedsores. If nausea is the price of belonging, I am paying it. I am home.


Bassam Sidiki

Bassam Sidiki is a Doctoral Candidate in English at the University of Michigan and the Nonfiction Editor at Michigan Quarterly Review. His creative work, reviews, and public-facing scholarship have appeared in Papercuts, Jaggery, The Missing Slate, the Iowa Review (online), Synapsis, and the 2018 Anthology of the Hippocrates Prize for Poetry and Medicine, judged by Mark Doty.