Book Review: Mythri Jegathesan’s Tea & Solidarity
Tea and Solidarity is a fascinating monograph by Mythri Jegathesan that examines the lives of tea-plucking women and their families as they seek work outside the Sri Lankan plantations. It provides a powerful description of their struggle for a dignified life within and outside the plantations, what Jegathesan calls their ‘desires for dignity’. It is based on archival and ethnographic research conducted between 2008 and 2017, and it presents women’s work and struggles from a feminist and humanistic lens. The monograph is divided into nine chapters, of which six discuss various aspects of the tea workers’ lives, such as the connection between discursive practices of colonial planters and the workers’ agency (Chapter 2), meagre wage and struggles for a decent livelihood (Chapter 3), landlessness and life in the workers’ houses in the plantation (called ‘line houses’) (Chapter 4), contradictions of reproductive care (Chapter 5), migrant women, domestic labour and the labour policies (Chapter 6), and transnational activism and trade unions (Chapter 7).
Looking through archival records, Jegathesan discusses how the accounts of the colonial planters and managerial staff failed to recognize the aspirations and desires of the ‘coolie’ workers. The plantation wage was always below the minimum income needed for a decent living in the highlands. The colonial planters justified the meagre wages as an instrument of creating a productive labour force, and portraying plantations as an important site for economic growth and national unity. This analysis fits well with the recent literature on plantations in South Asia that examines various discourses that politically and morally legitimize the plantation systems (see, for example, the work of Piya Chatterjee, Sarah Besky and this author).
A major contribution of this captivating ethnography is that it focuses on the workers’ desires and aspirations outside the tea fields and factories. This leads Jegathesan to assert that the plantation was never a closed enclave. What might be overlooked here is that the enclaved nature of the plantation is not in prohibiting but in obstructing the movement of the workers outside the plantations. This obstruction needs to be understood not in absolute terms but as relative to a non-industrial village society. In my view, the way the workers organize their life in the settlements makes more sense if we understand it in a dialectical relationship with the workplace. Jegathesan makes it clear that she was not allowed to do fieldwork in the fields and factories. Perhaps fieldwork in the workplaces would have somewhat transformed how the workers’ settlement and life outside the workplace could be understood. Nevertheless, this compelling monograph unearths significant and often neglected dimensions of the tea workers, and makes a substantial contribution to feminist anthropology rooted in the postcolonial tradition.
A final point: Jegathesan opens and ends her book with the observation that the women’s desire could be understood as decolonial, i.e. as challenging the colonially rooted structures and relations of labour and life. She also argues that the decolonial approach of the book engenders new and more commensurate forms of knowledge about the Hill Country women. However, it is not entirely clear how the decolonial approach unravels the micro-life situation in the Sri Lankan tea plantations. Decolonial studies of South Asia are often dominated by the upper caste/class South Asian intellectual community in North America/Europe, more as a critical reaction to Eurocentrism and Western domination over knowledge production than as a tool that could elucidate the contemporary lives of the marginalized in the global South on their terms. To what extent do the graded hierarchies in the global South inform the development of theory in decolonial studies? Is it possible to understand the question of dignity among Dalit women without ethnographically exploring caste? What are the local discourses of emancipation that are used to challenge workers’ oppression and hegemony? Is decoloniality a concept employed by the local intellectual community or vernacular academics to understand the tea-plucking women’s contemporary situation? The decolonial turn in South Asian studies should be mindful that it may reproduce what it attempts to oppose: the reproduction of hegemonic knowledge.
Perhaps what we need is to have a theoretical orientation that primarily emerges from the local challenges of the gender-caste-class-ethnic hegemony in Sri Lanka’s contemporary plantation society. The local discourses can potentially unpack the graded dynamics of power and hierarchy. They can also speak to global academic discourses, such as the Indian Dalit and lower caste’s critique of Brahmanism and the call for de-brahmanizing scholarly discourses. This focus is especially important for anthropology that is committed to grounded theory. A postcolonial approach might underestimate the potency of the oppression and violence unleashed by the postcolonial state, majoritarian ethnic nationalism and a society based on gender-caste-ethnic hierarchies. The Sri Lankan state (mentioned as a ‘decolonized country’ in the book) often plays victimhood in international fora by citing its colonial subjugation. In a way, as used by the Sri Lankan state, a postcolonial framework becomes a tool to oppose any global intervention against the violence that the ‘decolonized’ state perpetuates.
[This is an abridged version. Read the full review here.]
Jayaseelan Raj is an Assistant Professor at the Centre for Development Studies, India.