A Time for Tea: Women, Labor, and Post/Colonial Politics on an Indian Plantation

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About the Author

Piya Chatterjee is Assistant Professor of Women's Studies at the University of California, Riverside.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“Piya Chatterjee presents an innovative ethnography of female tea plantation workers through a kaleidoscope of drama, personal narrative, labor history review, and the interrogations of her subjects. A Time for Tea addresses issues of colonial and postcolonial power structures, transnational flows, subaltern history, labor relations, and feminist ethnography. Tea does not taste the same after one has read this strikingly original book.”—Kirin Narayan, author of Storytellers, Saints, and Scoundrels: Folk Narrative in Hindu Religious Teaching

“This is a finely layered, theoretically astute and informed cultural and historical account of a tea plantation in India. The ethnography is not content to address localized politics and culture; its importance lies in the way in which it reveals the global and political dimensions of local practices of gendered labor.”—Inderpal Grewal, author of Home and Harem: Nation, Gender, Empire, and the Cultures of Travel

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780822326748
  • Publisher: Duke University Press Books
  • Publication date: 11/28/2001
  • Series: a John Hope Franklin Center Book
  • Pages: 440
  • Product dimensions: 5.90 (w) x 9.20 (h) x 1.20 (d)

Meet the Author

Piya Chatterjee is Associate Professor of Women’s Studies at the University of California, Riverside.

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Read an Excerpt

A Time for Tea

By Piya Chatterjee

Duke University Press

Copyright © 2001 Duke University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-2674-8

Chapter One


A Time for Tea: The Play

Dramatis personae: She/Narrator; Alice, of Wonderland fame, and companions; British burra sahib; British memsahib; Indian sahib; Indian memsahib; four women pluckers as a chorus; "Son of the Forest"; goddess; dancers; and other incidental characters.


The stage is horseshoe-shaped. It curves, a crescent embrace, around you. On the far stage right, suspended from the ceiling, an empty picture frame. On the stage, at an angle behind the picture frame, an ornate wooden table and chair. On the table, an oil lantern. To one side, a large oval-shaped mirror in a highly baroque bronze gilt frame. Next to the chair, a stool. Next to the stool, a pirhi (small wooden seat). The backdrop is a cream gauze cloth, stretched loosely across the back of center stage. The stage is dark. There are hints of shadows.

Slow drumming begins: dham dham dham. Then a sound of keening, "continuous like the lonely wailing of an old witch ... an unsettling, unsettling" sound. This wailing rises to acrescendo, reaches an unbearable pitch, and then stops suddenly. Absolute silence.

A woman (Narrator) steps out stage right, which curves out like a strange pier, into you (the audience). She wears a long, dark red cloak of some lustrous material. The robe has a cowl; it falls low on her forehead, shadowing her eyes. She wears gloves the same color as her cloak. Her mouth is outlined in red and black. She stands by the desk, in front of the chair. With exaggerated motions, she removes some objects from a deep pocket in the cloak, moving as if she were a magician: slowly, with flair and precision. A quill pen, a bottle of india ink, a silver sickle, a bottle of nail polish, a clutter of false fingernails, a porcelain teapot with a long pouring spout, a porcelain cup, and some tea bags. She turns to you, with an intimate and welcoming smile, as if noticing you for the first time watching her place this strange collection on the table.

SHE: Nomoshkar. Hello. May I sit? (She sits drawing the folds of cloth around her.)

I am weary. My journey here has been long and its tale most peculiar. So strange that as it is told, you may keen, you may sigh, you may not be able to tell the difference between a wail and a whisper.

So piercing its cacophony, you may twist your fingers into your ears.

So unbearably beautiful, the sorrow of a body curved into its shadow, you will forget to breathe.

(She takes a deep breath, exhaling it into a sigh, ending in a wry laugh.)

Oh, let us not be so serious, so serious. This is a jatra, a dance, a shadow play, a sitting-room drama. Such kichdi, such higgledy-piggledy, you will elbow your neighbor and whisper for a crystal ball. You will look under the chair for a flotation device. What is this, what is this? You will fasten your seat belt more tightly and look out into cerulean space. You will find the ball, you will toss it in the air; you will cover your face with your hands and shake your head. "What is this, what is this?" you will say in despair. (Pause.) Let the tale unfold as it will. Don't panic. There are some plots, some roads with milestones, a cartography of words. If it is all too much, and the path disappears into the light thrown by the headlights, and you think you are not moving-then shut your eyes. The illusion of such stillness in the rush of the road underneath your wheels offers such dissonance. (Pause.) Let yourself fall into the rabbit hole. Dream, Dream.

Imagine, within the crucible behind your eyelids, a porcelain cup. Imagine, after a breath, silence resting on its lips.

The lights dim. She leans forward and lights the lantern to a low flame. She pours liquid from the tea pot in her cup. She is barely discernible as she rests back in the chair's shadow. The cup seems to warm her fingers. For a minute, you hear the sound of rain and then again the dham dham dham of the drums, a distant wailing. It fades.


Sarah's Hope Tea Estate, West Bengal, India

There are two packets of Brooke Bond tea I have brought with me from Chicago that I show to Anjali Mirdha and Bhagirathi Mahato, two of three women in the tea plantation who have befriended me in this first month at my bungalow. The packets have on their covers two women, one a photograph /painting, another an etching. They appear "Asian," their heads are covered, the wrists braceleted. The hands are poised over a flutter of leaves. With one hand, they lift a leaf. There is precision in that stilled movement, in that carefully held and bodied point.

Puzzled at my offering of two empty tea packets, and somewhat amused by this two-dimensional rendition of their work, Anjali and Bhagirathi laugh.

It is one of many texts that I offer to them as one way to introduce my research project and uneasy presence in the plantation. My questions run pell-mell: "What do you do? Look where the tea travels. Is there a story here?" We have already had some conversations about their tea plucking: the suggestions of delicacy, their "nimble" fingers.

Their amusement is frank, welcoming, and derisive: "So what do we think about this tea box? ... Didi [older sister]," says Bhagirathi, "this woman looks like a film star. Like Madhuri." We laugh. She continues, "Who makes this box? Hath dekho [Look at(our)hands]. The bushes cut into them, and the tea juice makes them black. Feel how hard they are. Yeh kam [This work] ... yeh natak nahi he, didi [this is no theater, didi]. But what do you memsahibs know anyway? Come to the garden one day and maybe you will see."

Seven years from this initial encounter over tea, I reread our conversations in field diaries and the tea box as feminized texts: the box of tea, first, as fetishized commodity, of woman-as-tea gesturing toward a long story of empire. Women and labor made picturesque lie at the heart of tales about Chinese emperors, Japanese tea ceremonies, the East India Company, and the colonial tea plantations of a British Planter Raj. There are stories of many empires entangled in this orange landscape of pagodas and slender, poised wrists. There are narratives that meet and congeal in this image of woman, labor, and its suggestions of the exotic. A cartography of desire traces this picture of commodity and its display of feminized labor. Distance charts the lure of a consuming gaze.

Yet Anjali and Bhagarathi remind us that these are historical narratives that are corporeal, and that what I shall call a "feminization of the commodity" is made possible because of gendered and racialized practices of "the body"-fingers hard, dark, and understood within frameworks of endurance and heretical laughter. These too are the feminized texts of empire, of colony, of neocolonial plantations at the end of a millennium.

Histories, imperial and subterranean, fold into each other, and I will, in the narratives that follow, search for the strands of a longue dureé that connect corporeal memories and practices to larger global processes and the material themes they entail. An ethnography of the quotidian, privileging the pragmatic and contemporary worlds of women and men working in the tea fields of North Bengal, will constitute the narrative seedbed of the book. It will, however, be in constant play with the colonial and imperial histories that continue to imbue the structural compulsions of plantation production.

Patronage, Patriarchy, Power: Toward the Moral Economies of Rule

This plantation ethnography offers plural and thickly textured stories about the political and cultural economies of labor and village life in the tea plantations of North Bengal, India. Labor bends into the very core of an enclave economy that has dominated northeastern and southern India for over a century. While the raison d'être of labor procurement and discipline constitutes its material bases, its colonial cultures of management and political isolation chart a particular economy of rule. Indeed, the terms of indigenous feudal norms are grafted through the colonial imperative into a hybrid cultural politics. The sociocultural and political distance of plantations from townships and urban centers creates a cultural history unique to itself. The postcolonial plantation suggests a mimesis of the colonial Planter Raj (kingdom).

Yet the political cultures of this postcolonial fief are inextricably connected to regional processes through dialectical connections among labor, commoditization, and the circulation of international and domestic capital. As a primary foreign exchange earner, tea's significance for the national exchequer cannot be underestimated. Because of such fiscal imperatives, this ethnography does not settle into an analytic enclave that rests neatly on one side of the binary between the global and the local. Much like the commodity's circulation through the international and national marketplace, its narratives do not draw, or assume, impermeable borders. Rather, through ethnographic details "within," the "without" is always gestured. The "global" is not a hazy backdrop for a thickly textured "local" cultural economy. The ethnographic details of the so-called local margins are not placed as a foil to the dynamic histories of the truly "global" and its neo-imperial centers. Indeed, through a constant shuttling between different narrative registers, the multiple dialectics between "center" and "margin" will be underscored. The effects of such shuttling may be disconcerting, even violent. Their oscillation serves to displace the binary into moments of dissonance and the actuality of disjunctures.

Fathers and Families of Labor

The unit in India is the family, not the nation, as it is with us. Why, one of the rules of their religion is that the family must see one another through thick and thin. After all, what does a coolie call any of us when he wants help: mai-baap, meaning father and mother. The feminization of labor and commodity is produced through a culture of patronage in which the personhood of the planter-manager-sahib stands tall. The construction of a benevolent father figure within the organizing rubric of the laboring family draws the basic parameters of the patronage system. It blunts the coercive practices of the work regimes and creates an aura of legitimation. It cements a "moral economy," through which the plantocracy and working class consent to, legitimate, and resist the terms of wage labor.

The politics of patronage and the construction of the planter mai-baap (mother-father) is a metaphoric and pragmatic "core" that has been in place since the colonial period. The contemporary burra sahib is a hybrid figure of imperial and neocolonial lordship. He reinvents himself and the cultivated centers of his rule through ritual acts that invoke the style and symbol of the British Raj. It is a mimesis that enacts the terms of a post- and neocolonial social world. The plantation is a fiefdom, and the rule of the postcolonial and Indian mai-baap creates its coercions within masks of benevolence. It is a neofeudalism that grafts the political symbolisms of nineteenth-century British imperial and manorial lordship on to Indian upper-caste notions of zamindari (landowning) power.

Striding through his domain in safari shorts while a worker hastily alights from a bicycle, the postcolonial planter will also attend a harvest ritual taking place in the field during the beginning of the plucking season. His attendance will not be a mere gesture, for he too may believe in similar divinities of the earth. The bodily distance that he might maintain in the ritual will be tinged with ideologies of social distance that are upper-caste and colonial Victorian. These are the terms of postcolonial feudalism.

Diffusions of planter and mai-baap power cohere around social practices that are explicitly patriarchal. The planter sits astride a pyramid whose base is field labor. It is a base constituted by women who dominate the necessary site of the plantation's political and cultural economy. Simultaneously fetishized (in the commodity picturesque) and pragmatically devalued (in lower wages) women's fieldwork-tea plucking-creates the outer perimeter of the plantation field. The planter's management of work sustains this as the outer perimeter through a hierarchy of overseers and supervisors who are all men. Work disciplines through the manager's hukum (order) trickle through layers of surveillance that reenact his will in decidedly gendered terms. Because overseers are often high-status men in the plantation villages and "labor lines," the patriarchal and paternal disciplining within plucking regimes is double-pronged. Though the overlordship of the burra sahib remains distant in the villages, it resonates within the immediacy of community-rooted and customary norms of village patriarchy. Patriarchies rest within patriarchies.

Patriarchal acts of labor management, through the hukum, are the warp and woof of the plantation's political and cultural economy. They create the vivid strands of plantation patronage. Through them emerges a feminized habitus of labor that connects imperial trade, commodity fetishisms, and rituals of domesticity in Victorian, colonial, and postcolonial parlors.

The corporeal and remembered oral texts of women in their fields are situated as counterstances to these dominant discourses of fetishism. They question the compartmentalization of time and space in the stories of tea. What are the symbolic, historical and material threads that weave together commodification and rituals of labor? How can the spaces of field and factory, village and the global market, be imagined as overlapping and layered domains? When women's subordination is essential to these fields of production and consumption, the circulation of patriarchies shapes the hegemonic and counterhegemonic contours of the postcolonial plantation.


Sarah's Hope Tea Estate

Anjali Mirdha, Munnu Kujoor, Moniki Mahato, some of their children, and I hustle past the clubhouse and temple on our way to someone's house in a distant section of the Labor Lines. We are late, but we pause to buy some sweets at a small paan (betelnut) shop. I stand next to two men who are buying cigarettes. One man, nudging the other, moves away from me in an exaggerated motion.

"Ay, memsahib," he says, "don't stand too close to me. We people are jungli people. You may touch us and turn black. Be careful."

His sarcasm is palpable. Disconcerted, I pull back. Munnu glares at him and grabs my elbow to move me away. "Don't pay attention, didi," she murmurs kindly. I am immediately aware of a corporeal history in this index of gendered status: of a memsahib who might be polluted to blackness, of caste/class and race politics embedded in his response to my unwitting transgression of bodily and gendered space. His sarcasm, however, suggests that this ontology of fallen status might be illusory.

Jungli is derived from the Hindi vernacular jangal, the roots of the English "jungle." Thus, a connotation of "wildness" was inscribed upon communities searching for work during labor recruitment for colonial tea plantations. It indexes the construction of an essentialist ontology of primitiveness upon populations classified as "tribal." Within labor immigration policies, administrators created typologies through which capacities for "manual" work were measured by customary occupations, physicality, and places of origin. "Tribals" were viewed as most suited for the most physical tasks, such as the clearing of jungles and cultivation. Since nineteenth-century anthropology of colonial documents classified Indian "tribes" on the basis of an evolutionary telos, the local apellation jungli signified their place on this pragmatic telos of labor procurement and management.


Excerpted from A Time for Tea by Piya Chatterjee Copyright © 2001 by Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
1 Alap 1
2 Travels of Tea, Travels of Empire 20
3 Cultivating the Garden 51
4 The Raj Baroque 84
5 Estates of a New Raj 115
6 Discipline and Labor 168
7 Village Politics 235
8 Protest 289
9 A Last Act 325
Appendix 327
Glossary 333
Notes 335
Bibliography 383
Index 411
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