Monday, September 22, 2008

Dancing With Shiva, Part 16

Our cars entered the small factory village just after noon, running a slalom course through granite pillars used by the villagers for the manufacture of saris. We crept slowly through the back streets of stone and dust, barely wider than our vehicles, while pedestrians flattened themselves against the walls of houses and ducked into convenient doorways to allow us to pass. We stopped in front of what appeared to be an ordinary residence, no different than any other house on the street, a kolam design still visible before the threshold.

We walked into a room packed with machinery roaring and clattering at such a loud level that our guide had to shout in our faces to be heard.
"MACHINE-WOVEN COTTON!" he screamed. When our eyes adjusted to the dimness, we saw scores of spools spinning like tops, their thread sucked down into the rapid and violent machinery. The room was hot, the air thick with lint and the odor of sweat and lubricating oil. We drifted through the room and into a courtyard, onto which opened several other buildings with clattering machinery. From this place we were able to watch the factory workers who fed the machines, who breathed the lint and secreted the perspiration. Most of them were children, some as young as 8 or 9 years old.

We had heard about child labor in India, of course; everybody had. Hollywood celebrities had been leading protests against companies that purchased clothing made in just this sort of factory. Here it was. I was dumbfounded but snapped photos rapidly, automatically. I expected the factory manager to object or become defensive, but instead he seemed honored that we showed so much interest. I kneeled on the concrete floor to photograph a child who was gathering empty and nearly empty spools from the ground and placing them in a basket. She squatted barefoot in a threadbare dress, her tiny hands snatching, moving as fast as sparrows. She chattered in Tamil to a boy of about 11 who tended a machine a few feet away. She ignored us. This was a Saturday afternoon, the end of a 48-hour workweek, and this little girl's mind was occupied with other thoughts. Her hair was loose and wild, brown and matted with the dirt of a childhood wasted in this hellish existence. Her arms were as thin as Cuban cigars.

In another room, three girls pretended to work diligently, all the while stealing glances at us, whispering and poking each other with their bony elbows. A boy of about 9 had wandered away from his post to stare at us. Presently, the boy's supervisor – a kid just a few years older – came up behind the child and slapped him on the side of the head and ordered him back to work, which did not even rate a pause in the factory manager's screamed explanations of the workings of the mill.

Agitated by all I had seen, I wandered out of the building and toward a square in the center of the village where the cars had been parked. I sat by a fountain, tucking under my thighs my hands, shaking with rage from this Dickensian experience. All around were children – the ones still not working in the village's factories – laughing and playing. The adults who crossed the square seemed as happy as the kids. Clearly, the town was in a party mood. As I looked around more carefully, I became more confused. How could people so impoverished, exploited and doomed to lives of hopeless struggle behave like families at Disney World, like chipper salesmen at a golf outing?

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