In March 2020, with little notice, the Indian government initiated a twenty-one-day lockdown to halt the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic. Millions of migrant workers found themselves stranded without public transport or clarity on relief measures. Unsure of their economic survival, they took to the highways, walking or cycling to homes that were hundreds of miles away. As citizen groups and some state governments coordinated relief efforts for those trying to get home from the cities, urban elites wondered: what, after all, was the hurry to get home in the midst of a pandemic?
Mythri Jegathesan’s Tea and Solidarity, an ethnographic study of desire and dignity amongst Hill Country Tamil workers in Sri Lanka, shows what home can mean to the dispossessed. In its pages, activists refer to workers’ rooms on the tea plantation as “backward” and “like a prison” (p. 100). But the book is driven by a discomfort with this sort of reduction, in which workers’ homes and lives are assumed to be “inhuman” (p. 101), devoid of investment and desire. Across seven chapters, Jegathesan instead examines modes of what she calls livability and the costs required to sustain it. Her analysis differs from prior scholarship on belonging in industrial plantations in that the workers she encounters make “nonreciprocal” (p. 115) efforts toward securing livability: that is, they do not credit politicians or the estate management for improving life. It takes hard labor and creative risk-taking, especially by women, to continue making life livable.
In this, the concept of livability is oppositional. It denotes the reclaiming of life from a range of extractive practices on tea plantations. Estate wages are unlivable and debt cycles are perpetual, but in the act of shaping a minimal living space by hand, a room can be an ūr, a place that one “terraforms” (p. 115) to find comfort and community. The affective compass of ūr also extends to knowledge of land and soil in the area—and to mobile futures beyond the plantation.
Even so, the work on a plantation is precarious, “incommensurate with the worker’s own aspirations” (p. 172). Jegathesan reminds us that her attention to ūr “does not seek to downplay or displace concrete forms of labor and civic dispossession” (p. 125). Livability is an outcome of histories of structural neglect, caste discrimination, and uneven belonging within the ethnically charged imaginary of postwar Sri Lanka, which has been content to appropriate the fruits of Hill Country Tamil labor while rendering their belonging incidental.
Jegathesan’s commitments to decolonial and feminist methods help us see how desire and livability are inseparable in what workers “want to share about their lives” (p. 37). Her active mode of presenting tender moments of speech, silence, and gesture nudges us to be attentive to the fullness of lived worlds. In colonial “cooly” dictionaries that “remained anxious about [workers’] very humanness” (p. 76), in the continuous modifications that Ramayi makes to the home she doesn’t own and can never sell, in the prestige attached to the exhausting restaurant job that separates Manivannan from his wife and kin, and in the way his mother massages her son’s tired feet with oil, home is a place, a feeling, and a vantage point. It is livable because workers infuse it with desire and dignity. A cramped quarters can be home—and, as for migrant workers in India last year, worth an impossible journey.
Pooja Nayak is a Ph.D. candidate in Anthropology and South Asia Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. Her research examines value-making in zones of biodiversity, state-work, and industrial closure in South India.