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Labouring for Tea

Sumi Krishna

By Piya Chhatterjee
Zubaan, Delhi, 2001, pp. 417, Rs. 550.00


I grew up in close proximity to rolling tea plantations and the fine aroma of tea. A very early memory, from a time when I was scarcely much taller than the rows of neatly-pruned tea bushes, is a visit to a tea factory to see the green leaves being withered dry, sorted and converted into black tea; the transformation of produce to product seemed almost magical. The women who plucked the ‘two leaves and the bud’ were at the very edge of my consciousness, their bent bodies glimpsed on the hillside and ‘seen’ close-up only in the illustrations on tea packets, specks in a romantic, picturesque landscape. Many decades later, I read and learnt about the extractive economy of plantation crops, in colonial and postcolonial times, and the fraught working and living conditions of plantation labour. Yet, women plantation labourers have continued to be at the edge of that picture, their exploitation and resistance rarely sketched. For this reason alone Piya Chatterjee’s book would be valuable. But it does much more than foregrounding the politics of women’s labour in a north Bengal plantation in the 1990s. Piya Chatterjee is a feminist anthropologist, based in a US university; her work reflects and skillfully negotiates contemporary concerns both in ethnography (the quest for a de-colonized new narrativity) and in gender studies (gender as performed through everyday bodily practices).   A Time for Tea oscillates between the diasporic author’s imaginative reclamation of a ‘dot’ on the Indian map and the lived realities of that ‘dot’, the Sarah’s Hope tea estate, just a few hours drive by bus from Naxalbari, the epicentre of revolutionary left politics in the 1960s (whose stories still reverberate through the plantations). The book is structured almost cinematically, scripted scene-by-scene, the oral and dialogical nature of the anthropological experience of ‘field work’ producing different narrative registers. The main text is interspersed with excerpts from a fictional play that runs from start to finish like a musical background score, rhymically echoing and repeating the theme. Inspired by the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, this is intended to dislocate the narrative thread: ‘The play can be staged separately’, Piya Chatterjee says, ‘but I have written it as an integral part of the ethnography because it forces the writing voice into imagining itself as working with bodies, gestures, dance, sound, light, shadows and silence’ (...

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