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Of Despair and Hope

Faiz Ullah

By Jeremy Seabrook
Navayana, New Delhi, 2014, pp. 288, Rs. 495.00


In The Song of the Shirt: Cheap Clothes Across Continents and Centuries Jeremy Seabrook makes the despair of the garment workers of Bangladesh convincing. In searing prose he stitches together a coarse yet sobering portrait of the lives of an increasingly dispossessed lot of workers making use of archival sources, contemporary media accounts, and interviews with workers, activists and scholars. Seabrook discusses, in 52 short, angry chapters, vagaries of nature, immiserating rural life, powerful employers’ lobby, industrial terrorism and culture of fast fashion—forces that, in various measure, shape the lives of the workers who earn less than Rs.4500 INR a month toiling in dehumanizing, life-threatening conditions. He brings to his material a historical consciousness that affords the reader to see how though capitalism seems to have traded, over the years, its imperial robes and military fatigues for business suits, it pretty much continues to be animated by the violent impulses of its previous avatars. He also imaginatively draws linkages between the global finance imperium and its colonies and highlights their fragile and easily reproducible nature. The Song of the Shirt, at the risk of stating the obvious, is a good book. It is written well and it comes across as well put together, though parts of it were conceptualized as stand-alone pieces. It adds to the small but growing body of work that takes interest in the lifeworlds of the poor and the marginalized and represents them with sensitivity. One is thinking here of books like Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America by Barbara Ehrenreich and, the more recent, A Free Man by Aman Sethi. But it also left this reviewer with a nagging sense of disquiet and powerlessness, encountering page after page, as it were, of damnation. One wonders what a worker in Dhaka, likes of whom Seabrook has written about, will get to know from the book that she already does not know? In what ways would it inspire, energize, or provoke her? Will it comfort her? If accessible, would she even want to read it herself, tired and exhausted after a day of debilitating work? What would the following lines, characteristic of the general dampening tone of the book, from the chapter titled ‘Unrest’ mean to her? So although workers may be ‘volatile’, they are pressed by family urgencies that make whole villages dependent upon remittances from Dhaka or Chittagong; they are afraid of ...

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