*Clothing the World:  Poetics, Poverty, and Politics

 

 

Jeremy Seabrook, an independent writer, journalist, and chronicler of the human condition who has long had an interest in South Asia, probing especially the lives of those who inhabit India’s slums and Muslim ghettos, turns his attention in his most recent book to the workers of Bangladesh’s garment industries who clothe the world but, like the weavers of Bengal in colonial India, barely have enough to cover their own nakedness. The book takes its title from Thomas Hood’s elegy on the women workers in Lancashire’s textile mills, “The Song of the Shirt” (1843):  working “in poverty, hunger, and dirt,” moving their fingers to the command of “Stich! Stich! Stich!”, they sowed at once, “with a double thread, A Shroud as well as a Shirt.”

 

If Bangladesh has emerged at all in the news in recent years, it is on account of the disasters that have befallen its garment industry, none as calamitous as the collapse of the Rana Plaza commercial building under whose debris over 1,100 people were left dead.  Seabrook’s book is a searing indictment of the callousness of factory owners and others in the global system of the circulation of capital who are complicit in creating miserable working conditions for those employed in Bangladesh’s largest and most profitable industrial venture.  Yet it is also an extraordinary tribute to the workers who pile into Dhaka and other centers of the garment industry from all corners of the country.  Their lives are sketched not so much in detail as in poignantly suggestive prose.  Do people flee to that “washed out concrete jungle” that is called Dhaka, which Seabrook unflinchingly describes as one of the world’s ugliest cities, to escape the narrowing of human possibilities that Marx sought to capture in his brutal condemnation of the “idiocy of the rural countryside”?  One might suppose that it is the aspiration to become something in life, or merely to earn a livelihood, that brings people to the city from the interior, but what would then make the story of Bangladesh so distinct?

 

Rana Plaza Building Collapse, Dhaka

Rana Plaza Building Collapse, Dhaka

The recent migrants coming into Dhaka “bring the sincerity and artlessness of rural life—qualities ripe for transformation into exploitable labour” (37); yet the city where they arrive with such hope becomes another prison, reduced as they are to 12-hour working days in window-less rooms and under the watchful eyes of cruel taskmasters.  But the specificity of their stories is to be derived from the particular conditions which push them to the city—the loss of ancestral land, the inability to feed too many mouths, the need for money to secure a dowry for a sister, and so on.  Perhaps more than anything else, Bangladesh is a land dense with rivers and scarred by cyclones.  The rivers are teeming with fish but the river is also “thieving” and “hungry”; when the Meghna overflows, its ravenous maw swallows up whole houses, agricultural land, and people (105-9).

 

Garment Factory in the Mohakhali area of Dhaka, Bangladesh, March 2010.  Credit:  Clean Clothes Campaign.

Garment Factory in the Mohakhali area of Dhaka, Bangladesh, March 2010. Credit: Clean Clothes Campaign.

In this short yet compelling book, Seabrook skillfully weaves together tales of peasants with stories of weavers, moving back and forth between the village and the city, water and land, lush green fields and the ramshackle appearance of South Asia’s urban patches, even the poetic and the idioms of history.  He is versed in historical sources but not burdened by them; and only someone with the sensibility of a poet can ruminate on the strange interplay of fire and water that has shaped the contours of the lives of his subjects.  Water, in the form of “tidal surges, cyclones and floods”, has “always been the most usual element that brings death to Bangladesh” (29); the villagers flee this menace to arrive as laborers in the city’s garment factories, often to be consumed by the fires that have time and again struck the garment industry’s ill-regulated factories and warehouses.  One might have thought that water fights fire, but in Bangladesh the two often collude—as if the poor did not have enough wretchedness in their lives.  There are other desultory facts, almost poetic bits, that take the breath away:  who would have thought that Murshidabad, once the world centre of silk weaving and now a haunted culture, perhaps once accounted for “5 percent” of the world’s total product (176-77)?

 

The Song of the Shirt, writes Seabrook, “is a reflection on the mutability of progress.”  The dominant narrative of human progress presupposes “a deterministic and linear process,” but Seabrook insistently reminds us that “experience in the clothing and fabric industry suggests certain areas of the world are liable to periods of industrialization, but equally to de-industrialization” (17).  The most ambitious aspect of Seabrook’s intellectual enterprise, and not surprisingly the one that is most fraught with hazards of interpretation, is his attempt to suggest the various ways in which Bengal and Lancashire offer a mirror image of each other.  The demise of the weaving industry in Bengal under colonial rule “coincided with the rise of the mechanized production of cotton goods” in the greater Manchester area; even as Dhaka became a ghost town, “Manchester became the centre of intense economic dynamism”.  Lancashire is now utterly denuded of its textile mills, and Manchester has lost population; but, in “a ghostly replay of traffic in the other direction” of “the machine-made clothing” that wiped out Bengal’s famed spinners and weavers (17), Dhaka with its 2500 garment factories has become nearly the epicentre of the world’s manufactured clothing.  Seabrook invests much in this comparison, constantly suggesting similarities between 19th century Britain and contemporary Bangladesh with respect to the lives of the workers, the nexus between the state and manufacturers, working conditions, and much else.

 

One might be moved, by Seabrook’s comparisons, to accept that widely quoted French expression, “the more things change, the more they remain the same”.  But this temptation must be resisted, if only because a sensitivity to the politics of knowledge should introduce some caution in comparisons between Europe’s past and the global South’s present.  Nevertheless, in Song of the Shirt, Seabrook has accomplished the enviable task of rendering naked the social processes which have helped to clothe the world and disguise some unpalatable truths about the treacherousness of what is usually celebrated as entrepreneurial capitalism.

 

[Review of Jeremy Seabrook, The Song of the SpiritCheap Clothes Across Continents and Centuries (New Delhi:  Navayana, 2014;  ISBN:  9788189059644; 288 pp.  Rs 495), first published as “The Textile Jungle”, The Indian Express (18 October 2014).

*Modi and the Post-Industrial Vedic Civilization

 

In his recently concluded visit to the United States, where he addressed a jubilant crowd of around 19,000 people, Narendra Modi all but dedicated his government to the Non-resident Indians gathered to celebrate his triumph.  “You have given me a lot of love”, he told his admirers:  “This kind of love has never been given to any Indian leader, ever.  I’m very grateful to you.  And I will repay that loan by forming the India of your dreams.”  This was music to the ears of his devoted listeners, whose achievements Modi has promised to teach his countrymen and women to emulate:  “I want to duplicate your success.  What do we do to duplicate that success?”

Prime Minister Narendra Modi at Madison Square Garden, 28 September 2014.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi at Madison Square Garden, 28 September 2014.

 

The members of the Indian Civil Service who governed India after it became a Crown Colony were described as, and believed themselves to be, “heaven-born”.  Many Indian Americans similarly believe themselves to be not merely fortunate and hard-working but as the vanguard of what may be described as a post-industrial Vedic civilization.  To understand what it is that enables Indian Americans, and mainly the Hindus among them, to think of themselves both as immensely spiritually gifted, as the true inheritors of a Vedic civilization, and as the ideal representatives of the world’s most advanced material culture, certain aspects of the history of Indian Americans must be revisited.  Though they are today the most educated and affluent of any ethnic group in the United States, they have long bemoaned their fate as an ‘invisible minority’.  Five decades ago, the Punjabi American farmer Dilip Singh Saund served three terms (1957-63) in the House of Representatives.   Until very recently, however, Indian Americans have scarcely made any other dent in politics.  But it is other forms of invisibility that touch a raw nerve:  as the savvy and yet aggressive young professionals who form part of the comparatively new Hindu American Foundation often point out, Hinduism is barely understood in the US and is, from their standpoint, unjustly maligned as a bizarre religion of false gods, demi-gods, demons, and such strange figures as Hanuman and Kali.

 

Hindus everywhere are inclined to believe that their religion, characterized by the notion of Vasudhaiva kutumbakam (‘the earth is one family’), uniquely fosters tolerance, but Hindus in the United States see themselves as especially blessed and charged with the dual mission of rejuvenating India and helping America fulfill its destiny as the mecca of multicultural democracy.  The formal dedication of many Hindu temples in the US, such as the Rama Shrine of the Hindu Temple of Greater Chicago, has taken place on July 4th, which marks the anniversary of American independence.  Hindus thus signify their acceptance of the idea that they share in the blessings of American “freedom”, while at the same time conveying to Americans that Hinduism permits a richer and more spiritual conception of freedom centered on the notion of self-realization.  The secular American formula, E Pluribus Unum, ‘From Many, One’, is countered by, and complemented with, the Vedic affirmation of idea that ‘Truth is One; Sages Name It Variously’ (‘Ekam Sat Vipra Bahudha Vadanti’; Rig Veda 1.164.46).

 

Now A Rock Star:  The New York Times was one among many newspapers that described the reception Narendra Modi received at Madison Square Garden as befitting a rock star

Now A Rock Star: The New York Times was one among many newspapers that described the reception Narendra Modi received at Madison Square Garden as befitting a rock star

Indian American Hindus are exceedingly astute in their understanding of how discourses of multiculturalism might be deployed in the US to their advantage.  Several years ago, a number of Hindu organizations rallied together in a concerted attempt to force alterations in history textbooks used in California schools.  They objected, for example, to the fact that such textbooks characterized Hinduism as a polytheistic rather than monotheistic faith, or that women in ancient India were described as having fewer rights than men.  American Hindus Against Defamation (AHAD) almost serves as a vigilante group, observing a hawk-like look-out for those who offend against Hindu sentiments.   However, their support of “multiculturalism” in India, where the religious, linguistic, and cultural diversity dwarfs anything seen in the US, is remarkably muted.  Apparently, on their world view, multiculturalism is much to be admired in the US even as it may safely be ignored in India.  Indeed, many Hindus in the US adhere to the view that the practice of their faith is not hobbled by the constraints that a pseudo-secular Indian state has imposed upon Hindus in their homeland.

 

There is a remarkable convergence in the worldview of the NRI—and the model of the successful NRI is the Indian American—and Narendra Modi.  The political ascendancy of a former tea vendor reminds Indian Americans of the opportunities made available to them in the supposed land of milk and honey, though such a narrative obscures the fact that many of the immigrant Indians who have done exceedingly well in the US already came from advantaged backgrounds.   NRIs and Modi alike crave to see a new, resplendent India that can take its place as a great power, but India in its present state is an embarrassment to them.  Its faults—the appalling poverty, the ramshackle appearance of every town, the indescribable filth in public spaces, widespread evidence of malnutrition and open defecation, and much else—need not be rehearsed at length, and Modi has signaled his attempt to meet such objections by launching the Swachch Bharat Mission.  But there are more compelling parts of the story and the anxiety of influence extends much further.  The Indian middle classes and the non-resident Indians have long agonized over the fact that India, as a friend once remarked to me, is ‘the largest most unimportant country in the world’, and that the same Indians who flounder in their homeland yet make something significant of themselves outside India.

 

Modi at Madison Square Garden:  A Who's Who of Indian American corporate types

Modi at Madison Square Garden: A Who’s Who of Indian American corporate types

It is under these circumstances that Modi has appeared, to the Indian middle classes and to NRIs, as the appointed one.  The well-to-do physicians, software engineers, scientists, Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, and other professionals in the Indian American community have long hankered for an Indian leader who would be imposing and decisive, and they are convinced that India requires a strong dose of authoritarian leadership if it is to prosper.  They are much more hospitable to the idea of a prosperous authoritarian state than they are to the idea of an India that is flaunted as a democracy but registers poor growth and continues to be an insignificant player in world politics.  Modi’s concentration of power is calculated to furnish, from their standpoint, some of the advantages found in the Presidential system of government.  Yet Modi also stands for what they view as ‘spiritual India’, a land synonymous with great yogis, teachers of spiritual renown, and sacred rivers that are personified as goddesses.  Thus, in the figure of Narendra Modi, Indian Americans see the possibilities of a prosperous yet spiritual India which they believe is already embodied in their own life histories.

 

(First published in OUTLOOK [Print and Web editions], 20 October 2014, as ‘The Prophet of Boom Times’].