Early-career researchers from the Society for the Anthropology of Work respond to Mythri Jegathesan's award-winning book Tea and Solidarity.
Mythri Jegathesan tells us early on in Tea and Solidarity that structural inequalities—caste, ethnicity, and gender-based—have led to representations of women working on tea plantations as “puppets on a string,” passive victims of structures of violence, or “bearers of cultural compliance” (p. 33). Such analyses can reinforce inequalities, like the process of dispossession itself, and recreate a nostalgia and desire for tea in the global marketplace.
In wanting to disentangle self-perpetuating ideas of victimhood and to work against what she calls “killer stories” (p. 33), Jegathesan pivots to a focus on desire. In doing so, she not only engages in a decolonial feminist politics, which thinks through the significance of how researched subjects may actually want to be researched, understood, and written about. She also argues that a focus on Hill Country Tamil women’s desires—including what they do not desire; for example, “to live on this wage” (p. 10)—can allow for new ways of understanding what plantation life actually entails.
Jegathesan’s framework, rooted as it is in a poiēsis of desire, does not steer clear of structural accounts of the historical and social conditions that allow for undesirable working conditions to become normalized. But her method makes room for challenging the plantation space as one of coherence. Throughout the book Jegathesan manages to acknowledge this pull toward coherence on the part of writers, academics, the Sri Lankan state, human rights discourse, and other forms of knowledge production, even as she unravels it through a poiēsis of desire.
For example, in Chapter 5, Jegathesan takes the words of a onetime superintendent, which are meant to express how women are taken care of on the tea plantation, and turns them on their head. Rather than casting tea plantations as sites of hegemony, Jegathesan positions them as places where debt is built into the wage structure and the condition of life is tied to reproductive capacity within and beyond an individual body. As she addresses women’s histories of forcible sterilization, Jegathesan argues that these women keep their wounds open by sharing their stories, undoing a narrative of singular victimization so often reiterated in Western accounts.
This portrayal does not square neatly with human rights discourse or with versions of liberal feminism that focus on a woman’s individual bodily rights. But once these killer stories take root, it becomes difficult for Tamil women to “locate the freedom in their ‘choice’ and [it] renders the concept of ‘informed consent’ unviable outside the community in which it must be situated in order to thrive as a right to exercise” (p. 138).
While Jegathesan makes it clear that exchange values of having children or not are in many ways set, she also critiques the limits of a liberal Western feminism that would focus squarely on the right of choice. It is through this and other poiēses of desire that Jegathesan pushes back against killer stories about Hill Country Tamil women. In doing so, she asserts the potential of a decolonial feminist methodology to reframe and contest such stories elsewhere.
Hannah Borenstein is a PhD candidate in the Department of Cultural Anthropology at Duke University. Her dissertation is about women long-distance runners in Ethiopia. She also does freelance writing on sports, gender, race, labor, East Africa, and more.