Thursday, 22 December 2016

गौ राशि की कन्या

हमारी लड़की गाय है
आप इसे जननी, भगिनी, भार्या . .  . 
किसी भी किरदार में डाल सकते हैं
बासी रोटी, घास-फूस, प्लास्टिक
कुछ भी खाकर एक कोने में पड़ी रहेगी.  

और खासकर उपयोगी सिद्ध होगी तब,
जब इसके नाम पर, इसके मान के लिए
आप अपने गौरव की लड़ाई लड़ेंगे.  


First published in Indian Cultural Forum, 9 Dec 2016.





Wednesday, 21 December 2016

एक पत्रकार की मौत

एक पत्रकार की मौत 
तुम्हारे लिए ज़रूरी हो गई 
क्योंकि तुम्हारे हिसाब से 
वो अपने क़द से ऊपर उठने की कोशिश कर रहा था। 

पर अगर वो इतना ही गौण होता 
तो तुम्हें ना दिखता
ना तुम्हारी नज़र में चुभता

और अगर तुम इतने ही ऊँचे होते,
तो उसी की लाश पर अपने डगमगाते  क़दम रख 
तुम्हें उचक कर नज़र में आने की 
मशक़्क़त ना करनी पड़ती। 






First published in Indian Cultural Forum, 9 Dec 2016.



Incomprehension exercise

With Twitter and Facebook
And useless alleys and Jantar Mantar,
Which were benevolently left out of Section 144,
Allowing people the small mercies
Of boasting, roasting, masticating,
Everyone has developed the bad habit
Of having an opinion.

The evening smoke
Rising from the corn on the cob
Wraps your heads in a sensuous aura
And you think you are the bosses-
The bosses on everything
From malnutrition to the moon.

Well, I hate to be the one to break it to you
But you are not experts.

It takes a certain level of expertise
To understand why there is no alternative
Why people must be killed
Why children must be maimed
Why rapes must be committed
Why lawmakers must flout the law.

It takes hard work, blood and sweat,
Erasure of histories and creation of fresh ones under tight deadlines
To develop the nuanced understanding
That with great power comes great arbitrariness.

If those in positions of responsibility
Don't abort the questions brewing in others
They'd be reminded in a flash of their own,
And of memories of others in similar positions

Who tried to be careful custodians of power
And started wondering
Who they were
Responsible for
Accountable to
Whose purpose they were fulfilling
Whose they had pledged to.

They then faced
Sleepless nights, arrests, enquiries,
And the feel of a bullet injected inside their temple with their own hand.

A wise man learns from others' mistakes.
The wise men of today know
That to peer too deep into the sockets of the skull in your hand
Invites the risk of your skull soon being in another hand
They know the only way to keep their head is to bury it in the sand.
But you, all of you worthy of such men's contempt and disgust, you just don't understand.


First published in Indian Cultural Forum, 9 Dec 2016.



Saturday, 17 December 2016

पुराना मुर्गा, नया चोर


पास जब खिलौने नहीं थे,
हम चोर-सिपाही खेलते। 
झूठमूठ की बंदूक से 
कभी तुम मरते, कभी मैं। 

अब सचमुच के हैं तमंचे,
हम अब भी होते दो हिस्से। 
पकड़म-पकड़ाई का अब भी दौर,
बस खेल रहा कोई और। 

First published in Indian Cultural Forum, 9 Dec 2016.





Flawless

Uniforms do not err;
To err is human.

Does superhuman at times include inhuman?

First published in Indian Cultural Forum, 9 Dec 2016.



Thursday, 15 December 2016

Gladiator


On the steps leading to the Betwa river
The boy was selling yesterday's flowers.

My friend had a question for him,
"What do you want to do when you grow up?"

"I'll join the army," was his response.
My friend smiled: "So you want to serve your country."

He continued to hold the water's gaze
At the point where the sun had plopped down and broken into splinters.

"They give you shoes. And clothes.
They take care of everything."


He was planning to live
Unaware that the arena tickets had already been sold.

First published in Indian Cultural Forum, 9 Dec 2016.


द्रोण-दृष्टिकोण दोष

एकलव्य ने चरणों में रखा अंगूठा काट,
तब पर भी नहीं हुई क्षुधा समाप्त।
सदियों तक निरंतर होते रहे आघात,
कभी अंगूठा रहित, कभी बनाया अंगूठा छाप। 
द्रोण, यूँ कब तक माँग-माँग कर छोटे होते रहोगे,
अबकी एकलव्य ने अंगूठा दिखा दिया, तो कहाँ मुँह छिपाते फिरोगे?
 First published in Indian Cultural Forum, 9 Dec 2016.

Tuesday, 9 August 2016

Metamorphosis

Politicians double up as salons
Offering makeovers.

If today you ask a city its name,
It will look into your eyes seductively 
And ask, "What do you want it to be?
I could be Shanghai, 
Or are you in the mood for Singapore?"

And though you know 
That while the grass on your side is burnt or stunted,
None grows on the other side,
You'll allow yourself to be coiled up and swallowed.

You'll want to take this one decision,
To end the pretence that you're the one taking the decisions;
You'll wish to do away with the stressful delusion of being in control,
Knowing you were the one being kept in control.

You'll give in gratefully
In that most vulnerable moment in the day,
When you're shivering, 
"Anywhere but here, anywhere but here."

First published in Singapore Poetry, 15 Jul 2016.

Sunday, 24 July 2016

No bargaining please

At Dilli Haat
I know it’s no use bargaining at the Kashmir stall;
They have their prices fixed.
What a thing it is to feel so sure
About what you deserve,
About what you want,
And what you surely don’t—
What an inconvenience
For others.


First published in Indian Cultural Forum, July 2016.


Saturday, 23 July 2016

Cartographers

Such a pretty map we have
Some want to change that
Irritants.
But it’s ok, it’s all under control now
We have foiled the attempts at redrawing
Some collateral happened.
They get really dark lead from somewhere, bonded too
2B or not, who knows?
The pencil marks have to be rubbed off hard
Here and there, the paper tore a bit.
But it’s ok, it’s all under control now.

First published in Indian Cultural Forum, July 2016.





Just Checking

Probably for the fifth time during the night I check my phone. I haven’t got up to check. I steal a look only because I’ve got up.
When I am between sleep and wakefulness, it is especially magical to receive an email. A gift delivered in your dream. A gift you had tried hard to dream up. The bold letters, in their assertiveness, could bring you an apology you had longed for, a peace that did not passeth but came from an all-comprehensive understanding. It could be a missive congratulating you upon your work, declaring you – yes, you – to be one of the chosen elect, an offspring of the moment in which an editor’s tired eyes lit up when they came to rest on your work. Or it could be rejection. Sad, regretful, but certain, decisive. Not vague, not shifting shapes like your dreams.
I look with derision at the promotional emails. Where what I get is just one of the many facsimiles. Where I am an ID, not a name. What sort of a presumptuous sender believes that this nameless faceless mass at the receiving end would be roused by the sender’s personal cause, which they insist on making public? The worst part is that they do not know you but even when sending a mass email, use your name to address you. Must be the kind of shit they teach you in MBA programs. ‘“Dear so-and so”, make it personal, make them feel you are looking at them with kindness and holding their hand with compassion . . .’ Like somebody would be pathetic enough to fall for it. A cheap attempt to trap the lonely.
Then I see the other messages, the ones that conspire to shame me. This time the sender is actually addressing collective concerns. An invite to participate in a protest, a signature petition. The fight matters to all of us. The win would benefit all of us. But I remain on the periphery. Not afraid to fight but unable to fight my own ennui that comes from sameness. Same enemy, same battle, same results. Same, same, same.
Then a eureka ping momentarily attracts me with news of the new. It works for a few moments. While I am reading the first and last sentences of the article’s paragraphs, my cousin messages me and because I cannot bear to see that red flag on the message box I stop reading the piece and quick-type a reply. Then I erase it and start again with a capital letter because I don’t want him to get his grammar and spelling all wrong and abbreviated. I write full sentences and correct him again when in his reply he uses ‘its’ for ‘it’s’.
By now there are word clots everywhere inside me. I breathe heavily and cough at times. I need to flow. I start typing an email to my partner about our last fight which had not got resolved completely when we spoke about it. A few months back, I would never have allowed it to go unresolved. ‘Never go to bed angry’, etc.
But lately it has been taxing. Speaking, emoting, veering off the curb just when you’re about to be hugely misunderstood. Writing is better, calmer, more articulate. I cannot concentrate enough to write an essay but venting is better. I keep typing, trying to ignore the red underlined words. When they get too many, I take a break and correct all their spellings. It’s a little bit of effort to get back into flow but I manage and resume. I try that the words should not represent the chaos within. I erase and edit. I can deceive one into believing that this is the calculated hypothesis of a detached mind. I can cleverly sheathe my vulnerability with sharp sarcasm. No handwriting here to reveal my crests and troughs.
I reply to another friend, in the form of a more honest sharing, a reaching out for support, rather than a defensive venting. What I am sending out is several months too late. What I want is immediate response. I cannot bear the sight of the waiting screen any more.
I step out to meet a friend. I carry a book to read on the train. The battery is low and I need to contact her when I reach the meeting place; that too prevents me from checking again. The phone slides into my bag. I keep feeling its compact slenderness from time to time to reassure myself it has not been stolen. I read for twenty minutes. At the back of my mind I can imagine the closed white envelope on the home screen showing the number 5, then 6, and then 7-… I am also glad that I have been able to finish so many pages of the book. I stall my fantasy a bit longer trying to focus back on the book. Maybe if I am a good girl the phone would reward me with a surprise email at the end of the ride. The phone rings so the fantasy is interrupted and now I have to look at it. The friend has reached the place. I am late.
I get off the train and put the book and the phone back in the bag. I don’t want to look preoccupied and get groped. In the auto, the phone comes out once again and it is held tight in my hand so no biker can snatch it away. Three of the six flags on the mailbox unfurl to reveal themselves as mocking advertisements. In my red hot rage I do not even look at the others till I report spam or phishing, or unsubscribe. One is a mass invite to some event. Two monosyllabic replies from my partner. He doesn’t like to see those yellow stars in his Inbox so in order to finish the job quickly and to indicate he is engaged in the dialogue I have initiated he throws a question back at me.
The phone has died. So had God long back. And I tell myself I am better off without each of them. False hope givers, kiddies’ toys both. Now the days would be peaceful and the nights uneventful.
. . .
Of course, one has to admit that the machine has its uses. Even if I were to leave it un-fixed, it would be an encumbrance to others who rely on me, for conversation, links, assistance. It would be selfish of me to relinquish it completely. I go to the repair shop. It would take three hours, I am told, which is fine by me but I had been expecting my partner to call around the time he left office. The shopkeeper lends me a rudimentary set as a temporary replacement. It has no Internet but I can make and receive calls. That was all I was looking for anyway.
After all these years this version seems amazingly small in the palm of my hand but it delivers its promise of making and receiving calls. Thankfully because of the SIM card I have all my numbers. Otherwise I only remember my sister’s. (It’s one of those easy ones, with a couple of digits repeated in a pattern.)
When the original comes back I am grateful for it, for all the colours and the flags and the pings and the buzzes. There’s something to be said about the company of old friends.

First published in Litbreak, 19 July 2016.




Monday, 11 July 2016

The Way of Some Flesh

Some kinds of meat are quickly consumed, more easily
digested.
Others, not to everyone's taste, are more rubbery,
Chewed on by the eater 
Till all of the juices 
Nourish every drop of blood in his body, 
Till he bleeds every piece white.

In response to the constant raking up of the beef ban controversy as part of political opportunism, specifically in the context of Dadri and UP elections.

First published in Muse India, July 2016.



Tuesday, 28 June 2016

Strumming

Do not make him your only love
'Cause then it could be lonely love
Now don't you look so forlornly, love
Ain't the world's end, it's only love.

First published in Quatrain Fish, 28 June 2016.




Suction

Dear capitalism,
The children of my village
Are not waiting for liquid gold
To trickle down your cup that runneth over
And reach their tongues.

Neither do their parched lips await
The watery residue of your crammed plates.

They only want to know
What happened,
What was made to happen,
To their river you had put a straw to,
And what became of the turtle in it
That the straw reminds them of. 

First published in Dear Capitalism, June 2016.

Friday, 17 June 2016

Discontinued

There is a due process to someone’s leaving.
There is a farewell,
An expectation of return,
Or a recognition of the finality of going.

Even in a farce, you see,
Or any kind of act, for that matter,
Exits for characters are marked as clearly
As their entry.

But when they are lifted out of scenes by aerialists,
Transported through false ceilings
And kept behind cage doors no one knows about,

The act, the actors and the audience are frozen
In perpetuity.

First published in The Kashmir Walla, June 2016.


Tuesday, 14 June 2016

Vaccination

'Let some torment happen,'
A friend prescribes,
A cure to my writer's block.
He's new to the metropolis,
Still with back-of-beyond small town hangovers,
And I am sympathetic that he doesn't understand.
This is not the age of three-day fevers
When you were left to feel breathless delirium,
When your grandmother served you your steel plate (your name reassuringly etched on it) of food and went back to the kitchen
And you treated her with the silence of the betrayed upon returning, for having left you in the first place
At which she frowned and said she had other chores, other people to attend to
Leaving you sheepish about her impatience with the nobility of your tragedy.
(When work relented a bit she would come back to run calloused hands over you and cook something you liked.)
This is a now with no relation to the then
When you waited for your grandfather to come and speak gently while he touched your forehead and announced your temperature without the tedium of a thermometer
(In a manner distinct from when he asked you to translate long Hindi sentences into English)
And you left your head hanging at the end of your bed, inviting a blood rush and a dance of all the stain demons on the walls
As you picked the first song in your head and sang it in a tone that was also a letting out, of a little agony and a lot of ennui
So it hung about in the room long after you had stopped, an awkward guest unsure of its place or the way out
Like the watery dal trail that started from the kitchen and ended in your room
Because of the steel plate of food carried by wobbly hands and knobbly knees.
 
This is not the age of three-day fevers.
This is the age of instant, disease-proof vaccination.
This is not the time for ‘those days’ and ‘those times’, 
To wallow in glorified nostalgia for a not-completely-uncontested-past. 
 
This, today, my friend, I intend to tell him, is the day of 'no matter what; get up, dress up and show up' status messages.
This is when you get vaccines for all the fevers of the season,
Not a three-day leave to watch a fever die of boredom.
That privilege has to be saved for a resort holiday or an 'emergency'.
So pill-popping readies you, dusts the limp pillow that you've become and starches you
For your desk where you sit proud of your victory,
With a stiff approving nod for the figure in the chair that sips coffee but keeps her eyes trained on the screen, alert not to waste a lazy moment.

So, no, I can't just let the torment happen
When there are senior citizens to look after,
When freelancing cannot be allowed to crumble into indiscipline,
When neighbours have to be tackled over parking lot tug-of-wars,
When the gaze has to be returned to leery eyes.

At the first sign of it, torment has to be tackled head on, demolished through immunized determination.
One doesn't just let it happen.
One readies against it,
Prevention being better than cure.
The cure for writer's block
Can be sought through a creative-writing workshop or what have you,
Not through inviting another malady called torment.
 
This is the vaccinated age
Where the pill wins over the will.

First published in 40 under 40: an anthology of Post-Globalisation Poetry, June 2016.

 

Thursday, 9 June 2016

Men have a future, women have a past

A couple of years ago, three of my girlfriends had come over to my place for a sleepover. After chatting late into the night, we were looking forward to waking up leisurely. But around 6 in the morning, I was rudely woken up by the sound of someone banging at the door and shouting. When I came out of my room, my grandmother told me that earlier that morning when she had gone to keep the trash out, she saw someone sleeping with his shirt off outside the door. She took him to be some drunkard who would wake up and walk away in some time.

Apart from what she told me, I knew nothing about this man who was violently banging at my door and shouting loud enough for the entire neighbourhood to hear. I did not know who he was, what he wanted, or whether he was armed. I called the police immediately, along with my driving trainer who lived not too far off. After over an hour of this high drama when all of us in the house were extremely tense, the banging stopped. I opened my wooden door (beyond which was a grilled, iron one) and there was nobody outside. I also contacted my neighbours to ask if they knew anything. Some smirked and said they thought he might have been a "friend" of mine. Another said he had seen him get into an auto, and went to follow him.

By the time the police arrived, having taken their own sweet time as usual, the neighbour had found the guy. Two of my friends stayed with my grandmother at home, and I and another friend went to the police station. We found out that the guy was someone on the run after having crashed his car into an auto in his inebriated state. The meaning of being "wasted" had never struck me so literally; he was so drunk that he had come to my house, taking it to be his own, and was banging to be let in. Even when he became conscious he remained impervious to his surroundings. When he finally came to his senses, he took an auto and ran again.

At the police station, looking at the sunk-in front of his tall and shiny, now squashed car, the police started tch-tching about what a pity it was that such a thing should happen to an "achche ghar ka ladka", "a 'boy' (who was really a full grown man and not a juvenile delinquent) from a good home". Upon seeing me there, the culprit sarcastically said, "Here comes the harassed lady." And his friend started explaining why the guy was deserving of my sympathy, immediately resorting to his friend's sarcasm when I refused to indulge him. My neighbour, who had found the guy, called up my sister saying she should ask me not to file a complaint (my sister said I should go ahead and do whatever I wanted), and the police started asking if I really wanted to get into the "chakkar", the hassle of it all. At this, I lost it and told the police that this was exactly the kind of response that tells men they can get away with anything and discourages women from complaining. They finally registered my complaint, though nothing came of it eventually, and of course no thoughts were spared for the auto driver whose vehicle had been badly hit in the accident.

I was reminded of this incident when reading about the Standford rape case because in a case of sexual harassment, it is easy for people to completely deflect attention from the crime to questions that put the survivor in the dock. But the truth is that impunity to men is not restricted to sexual offences. The "boys will be boys" culture extends to condoning each crime they commit (unless, maybe, they come from an underprivileged background) and anyone who dares to condemn it is seen as cruelly destroying the golden future these "boys" were born to have.

In my case, while the man's glaring action in the present was getting him everyone's sympathies, my "history" of a woman living alone in a neighbourhood of "family people" was the cause of muffled laughter, which assumed that a man who sounded like he was ready to break down my door could be my "friend". (Not too long before this incident, a male colleague had told me that when he asked someone the way to my house, a neighbour had pointed to my place saying it must be the one because "men keep going there".) When it comes to taking a stand on crimes against women, we are reminded each time that women have pasts that would be used and twisted to damn them, while men have a future waiting anxiously to roll out the red carpet for them, under which can be brushed all the wrongs they commit.

First published in DailyO, 9 June 2016.


Monday, 6 June 2016

Tangled Threads: The Uncertain Future of Sualkuchi Silk Weaving

A mekhela chador being tested for authenticity.
North of the Brahmaputra, about 35 kilometres from the capital city of Guwahati, in Assam’s Kamrup district is Sualkuchi. With narrow lanes that open onto built roads, this place between village and town has been known and admired for its silk weaving, especially for the eri, muga and pat silk varieties.
Looms are a common feature in homes here. Mekhela chadors, saris, gamusas – all are produced on the town’s handlooms, using cardboard cards punched with intricate designs that remind one of Braille. Assam has many silk weaving centres. But the reputation Sualkuchi has earned over the years – it was famously visited and appreciated by Gandhi once – for its quality, design and technique sets it apart. Its proximity to the state capital is an advantage, as it adds to its accessibility.
But like other artisan communities in the country, Sualkuchi too has not been able to remain indifferent to the strong winds of free market economics. Customers who value authenticity and tradition still exist, but overall sales have inevitably been affected by cheap substitutes. This trend in turn affects wages while the cost of the raw material, the silk that is woven, continues to rise.
My visit to Sualkuchi in November 2015 aimed to understand how its workers have coped with this difficult transition.
In my prior experiences documenting labour conditions in different sectors, workers would pour forth torrents of information on issues they wanted to share and on which they wanted to be heard. Whether they were hopeful that my documentary efforts would help spread the word about their concerns or whether they remained cynical about the usefulness of the documentation of their lives, they spoke freely and passionately.
Sualkuchi proved to be different from those other places I had studied in that it mostly refused to indulge me, a phenomenon that underlined the limits of my experience. The workers I interviewed were patient and cooperative but did not seem overly interested in sharing information beyond answering the questions I asked. Their answers were also measured and to the point.
Earlier during my trip to Assam, in Guwahati, I met Sriparna Baruah, head of the Indian Institute of Entrepreneurship (IIE), an autonomous organisation under the Ministry of Skill Development and Entrepreneurship. “The weavers are not so aware of market realities. When they do participate in the market tie-ups and training sessions we provide, they are simply grateful,” she said, with concern in her voice. The IIE’s work involves credit linkages, capacity building of weavers, development of value-added products and providing a market for the woven goods. The institute recognises that while elsewhere in Assam weaving may be a part-time occupation alongside other occupations like agriculture, in Sualkuchi it is mostly a full-time vocation and therefore, the needs and struggles of the practitioners have to be understood and evaluated accordingly. Baruah continued, “Our endeavour is that the weavers realise the true worth, the market value of their products. We connect them to entrepreneurs, help them participate in international fairs and introduce start-up funds, for instance, 15,000 rupees for a loom.”
The first place I entered in Sualkuchi was a weaving centre. It was a big hall with a mud floor housed in an ordinary building and had around eight looms. It was called a ‘factory’ by the weavers and the owner, but it looked nothing like the factories I have seen in cities, in which signs of constant, cardiac arrest-inducing anxiety abound. It was around lunch-time and a couple weavers, both women, were chopping vegetables for their meal. The owner told me that the workers enjoy the benefit of flexible schedules and take breaks when they need it, sometimes leaving for a little while during the day, at other times working late into the evening. He added that factory owners have their own problems, when workers ask for a part of their salary or the whole of it as an “advance,” take leave and sometimes never come back, because of which some of them, the smaller business owners, lose all their money. Since I did not know of advance payments as a common practice in employer-worker relations, I asked him more. He explained that since people are poor and regular wages often do not allow them to make ends meet, it is difficult for the employer to refuse when an employee asks for an advance.
A worker in a weaving "factory"
A weaver in her mid-thirties who has been working there for several years slowed her weaving down so I could understand the process. But the coordination of the multiple levels of interconnected threads, the hand and foot movement and the punched patterns on the cardboard sheets was far too complex for me. Each time a pattern emerged on the cloth I couldn’t help but marvel at the result.
Next on my itinerary were some household centres, where often all the adult members of the household take turns at a single loom or work simultaneously at multiple looms.
I asked them about how business was going and they shrugged, saying that it was all right, that one had to make do. In one of the homes, a small, makeshift hut in which the walls, corners and the floor beneath the bed were being used to store possessions, the sole resident was a woman in her seventies. She told me that because she is no longer able to bend over the loom for hours at a stretch, she does not weave elaborate silk mekhelas but only simple cotton products like gamusas. When I asked her if she had any I could buy, she told me that she makes them only on order; after a few are ready a middleman buys them from her and sells them elsewhere.
For an elderly worker, weaving gamusas is the least strenuous option.
In order to resolve some of the issues the handloom industry faces, the government initiated the Weavers’ Service Centre, back in 1978. Its office in Guwahati has a signboard that greets visitors with the message, ‘Hindi bhasha, sabki bhasha’ (literally, “the Hindi language, everyone’s language”).
Somewhat surprised to find such a message in Assam, where Hindi is not the first language, I headed to director Sunder Lal Singh’s office. Inviting me to sit down, he wondered aloud if he should call a technical officer to answer my questions. Sensing his wariness, I clarified that my questions were not particularly technical and proceeded to ask him about the centre’s work. The director said that the number of handloom weavers has been steadily decreasing; the younger generation especially did not want to practice this craft because other jobs generate better incomes. This reminded me of my conversation with a junior government officer in Sualkuchi who spoke with pain and bitterness about how the previous generation in his family, who all wove or did associated work, had struggled to survive and raise their children, and how he would never want to go back to weaving himself.
The government has several schemes, said Singh, implemented through block-level handloom clusters. The service centre imparts training (in designing, weaving, dyeing) and skill upgradation. The trainers are often skilled weavers from the same block. This training is given in accordance with new design trends and demands emerging in the market.
Singh also said that workers could be supported financially through government loans.
While he patiently entertained my questions, I got a sense of vagueness about and distance from the issues being discussed. The forthrightness that ensues from a passionate involvement in the issues being discussed was missing here.
I also tried to contact other government officers, but many of them were unavailable because of impending state holidays, while others referred me to certain books and papers on the subject.
Everyone knows that schemes exist on paper, but when it comes to implementation there is many a slip between the cup and the lip. Mahua Bhattacharjee talks about these failings in her paper Gender in the Silk Industry. She points out that these schemes are often not advertised widely enough for weavers to become aware of them. Then there are malpractices, like the raw silk yarn being bought in the name of weavers and sold instead to the market.
An assortment of popular mekhela designs.
When I returned to Delhi and visited the Assam Emporium, one of the sales assistants there, Dipali Sharma, said that a weaver easily deserves to earn 1000 rupees per day rather than the standard 200-500 rupees per day. This discrepancy happens, she said, because weavers are unable to market their own products. “I am from Assam and I can tell you about this material. But can I really describe it better than the weavers who made it? No. The workers need to be brought to the cities by the government through exhibitions and also get training and experience in salesmanship.” She added that in her opinion, if there had been greater freedom and mobility in terms of marrying people from outside the weaver community in Sualkuchi, the art would probably have spread to other places and grown much more, commercially.
But this appearance of all being quiet on the eastern front, of Sualkuchi weavers having resigned themselves to fate and accepting whatever came their way, was badly shaken in April 2013.
Banarasi silk products, complete with the traditional motifs of Assam, had entered the Assamese market and were being sold locally, at much lower prices than their Assamese counterparts. This was a push-comes-to-shove moment for the already struggling indigenous weaving community. There were massive protests against this imitation and infiltration, and the foreign silk was forcibly taken out of many shops and burnt. At one point the agitation grew violent; the army came in, a curfew was imposed and there were arrests. One of the main demands from the state government was to put a ban on the sale of the Banarasi products.
In one of the factories I visited in Sualkuchi, where all the weavers are men, the memory of the betrayal by fellow weavers and business owners who sold the Assamese designs to Banarasi markets was still fresh. The weavers’ stand was unequivocal, as was their unapologetic assertion of their association with the protests. “What was happening was a death blow to our work and lives,” was what several of them said. Their conviction probably also came from being part of a collective, the Tat Silpa Unnayan Samiti, which fights against imitations entering the market and for the stamping of all authentic silk with the government-approved silk mark.
The silk mark laboratory in Sualkuchi was small, but well-equipped and organised. It is an initiative of the Silk Mark Organisation of India, which operates under the Central Silk Board, Ministry of Textiles. Customers of silk can get their buys vetted here, too. Samples of different varieties of silk, both cocoon and yarn, are displayed. The trained personnel in the lab do not want to divulge the minutiae of the testing process but broadly explain how samples are checked either through microscopic examination of cross sections or by burning and then testing the resultant fibres and odour. The challenge is to spread awareness among the general public so they do not buy products that have not been duly certified through this process.

When Sualkuchi was established in the 17th century by the Ahom kings, it enjoyed the patronage of the rulers, who especially favoured muga, the most expensive variety of silk. Sualkuchi today will no doubt have to come up with options that suit a more mixed market, and to cater to customers who value and are willing to pay for the more expensive varieties both in India and outside, the traditional material will probably have to take new avatars.
Nihar Ranjan Kalita, who teaches at SBMS College, Sualkuchi, and is associated with the Unnayan Samiti, feels that this can be done with government interest and participation. To ensure the weavers get a fair price for their handmade goods, Sriparna Baruah said: “The ultimate answer is cooperatives or producer companies.”
E-commerce is another area that has not been explored enough. Kalita explained to me how many of the schemes that exist do not work so well for Sualkuchi because they are designed generally for the entire state of Assam. It must be recognised, he said, that many Sualkuchi weavers are still weaving because that is their traditional familial occupation, and also that they may not have the necessary modern techniques and market acumen to make it a sustainable profession. The government’s focus is more on self-help groups and individual entrepreneurs. “It may be possible for an individual to get a loan for a loom. But what if a person wants to establish his own workshop with twenty looms?” Kalita pointed out. Apart from training in skills, workers need to know more about marketing, accountancy and distribution. Kalita added that for the migrant workers in Sualkuchi, there should be guidelines to ensure they are not deprived of their social security rights as below-poverty-line or food distribution beneficiaries.
Issues faced by the weaversPossible solutions
Lack of awareness about government schemesAds in multiple media, local languages and remote areas
Sale of cheap imitations in marketUse of silk mark by sellers and verification by buyers
Limited information about rightsFormation of workers’ collectives to understand rights and demand implementation
Lack of market acumenTraining in marketing and distribution
Access only to local markets or middlemenParticipation in national/international exhibitions with governmental help
Low or minimum profit marginsProducer companies/cooperatives facilitating direct sale without middlemen
Sualkuchi weavers have been the subject of many research papers and surveys by textile and design students. Apart from reports of the agitation against Banarasi imitations, however, there has not been much documentation that captures the voices of the weavers themselves. One hopes that both governments and non-profit organisations will work more in this direction, by putting their ear to the ground, and that in the coming years there will be multiple workers’ collectives who will be able to make themselves heard. If this old and valuable part of Assamese heritage is to be preserved, its creators and guardians – the weavers – will have to be given their due.
First published in Eclectic Northeast, April 2016. Subsequently published in The Wire, 4 June 2016. Photos: Uddipta Sankar Pathak.

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