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January 31, 2010

Posted by K in Uncategorized.

I have tried twice to start a new blog. I’ve even registered the damn things, but the words simply freeze when I attempt to write there. So until I manage to inaugerate them, I shall continue with the sporadic posts in here.

I’m in Chennai, for my data collection. What an ugly, statistical word: what I am doing is in effect trying to meet people and having conversations with them, although because of my tight schedule, the conversations resemble interviews more than they do anything else.

I’ve been in Chennai for a little over a week, and I have felt linguistically disabled. The last time I was here, I managed the three weeks with English and a smattering of Tamil words (sapta, solenge, wanga…yes, that basic). This time, maybe because I actually NEED the language comprehension, I’ve been feeling left out, and strangely enough, missing Hindi. I should put this in context- I might have grown up in Delhi, but I have never been a fan of the language. Suffice to say, we were forced into a working relationship through tuitions in the 8th standard.

I was very relieved when the fruitseller I bought oranges from switched to Hindi the minute I asked him how much they cost, in English. He was the second person. The first was a sanitation worker last week.

The counter-question I have been dreading the most-how is what you are doing, going to help us-has largely not been shot my way. The one time it was addressed to me, was in an almost casual way, and my translator, who is much more at ease with words and conversation, took care of it very well. I remember the episode in Delhi, when I attempted to speak to the male workers of a garment factory, and how the second or third thing they threw my way was that.

Why have I not been asked that, actually? Is it because my visits have been by appointment through common aquaintances? Is it because they are genial women as opposed to aggressive North Indian males?

I have realised the middle class construction of my questions now. I have an extensive questionnaire that aimed to find out what women garment workers felt about their work, and if working in a moneyed economy had transformed their social and psychological selves in any way. Most of the women I have spoken to, and I have spoken to about nine now, didn’t have the time to wonder about such things. Work is simply the way of earning a living, and their waking thoughts revolve around how to earn more money.

Which is fine, I had expected that. Whatever studies I have read on garment workers, focus on their terrible working conditions, terrible wages, terribly tough lives. Yes they are indeed terrible, and yes it very important to focus on these aspects, and not get caught up in personal stories. Yes it is important to focus on the women as workers, and it is important to view and construct the female worker as a worker first and foremost. But I was a little tired of the victim stories. I wanted to see the empowerment that the work had led to, and I wanted to see the people behind the workers.

Most of the women laugh when I ask them, as one of my concluding questions, what they would choose to write about, if they were to put down the story of their lives. This is not as inane as it might sound, or atleast the idea behind it is not. In conversation with a pretty remarkable woman, and while reading an awesome compilation on literature relating to work, I realised that the working class, or even workers, don’t have literatures. There is no working class equivalent of Dalit literature. And when workers have written about themselves, they have chosen to focus on non-working aspects of their lives.

Remember Baby Haldar’s autobiography? What she achieved was remarkable. I want to read her again.

Writing is so important. It is also cathartic, but that is not the point. Written words are a powerful medium to portray experiences, sustain anger, and mobilise around ideas.

So while most of the women laughed when asked to define ‘free time’ (sorry, person with middle class hopes of empowering work), and their hobbies, I am not sorry I asked the questions. The daily concern (which continues till the time comes for the eternal horizontal, in most cases) might be about the 9-to-6 and the money it earns them, but it is important to not forget they are individuals with imaginations, desires and dreams,right? Right?

This study is, I think, more for me, than for anybody else. I doubt I will come up with earth-shattering findings. It will earn my my M.A. degree, and that will be the end of its usefullness, if I were to be utilitarian about it. But perhaps, it will play a more important part-maybe it will encourage me to dig deeper, and follow this angle of thought. I guess I imagine a world where the working class, and more specifically the female working class, will organise, and negotiate/militate for wages that are actually Decent/Living wages, and work timings that actually leave them the time to be human beings.

Industrial labour is good, people. It gets women out of their homes, and with cash in their hands. Can you think of a better way to attack the issue of gender empowerment?