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The voices of the mill workers of Mumbai

By Sanjay Iyer

'One Hundred Years One Hundred Voices' is a strong and sprawling history of Mumbai's textile mill district and its 1.3 million people, now displaced by the consumer civilisation

One Hundred Years, One Hundred Voices: The Millworkers of Girangaon, An Oral History
By Meena Menon and Neera Adarkar
Published by Seagull Books, 2004
Pages: 430. Price: Rs 695 (Hardback)

 I have a friend in Mumbai who lives on the 11 th floor of Lady Ratan Towers, a posh apartment block, on Dainik Shivner Marg, in what is optimistically being called Upper Worli these days. Almost directly below the eastern window is the dramatically transformed chunk of Phoenix Mills. Dominated by Big Bazaar, the complex contains a bowling alley (The Bowling Company), a snazzy discothèque (Fire and Ice), Noodle Bar, Provogue Lounge, a Wills Lifestyle Store ... you get the picture; the obligatory McDonald's is very much installed in the premises. Around the complex compound one sees a frenzied panorama of Mumbai's myriad trades and its legendary hard-working labour class. Old fridges being attended to, tyres being re-treaded, metal being tinkered with, small electrical stores ... and the constant crisscrossing of haathgadis(handcarts).

At night, the trades cease and the area goes quiet. But the big lights of the Phoenix complex blaze on and the neon signs become ten times brighter. All around is darkness and in the glow from Phoenix one can discern the decaying and decrepit remains of some of Mumbai's textile mills and the chawls that housed their workers. Barely a tiny light can be seen in the hundreds of mill and chawl windows. In the brightly lit Phoenix parking lot, on the other hand, there are dozens of cars even at 3 in the morning. The mill's cheerily painted chimney looms over the complex like an obelisk marking the triumph of Mumbai's consumer civilisation.

I begin with this because it is an image etched in my mind. It is also the way Meena Menon and Neera Adarkar's magnificent book One Hundred Years One Hundred Voices begins. After Menon and Adarkar's Preface, the book's extensive introduction, by Rajnarayan Chandavarkar, sets up a historical overview of the century or so during which industrial Mumbai was literally built on the backs of the mill workers. The introduction begins with a description of the aerial view of the mill area from a fancy new apartment building. The effect of the view, in Chandavarkar's estimation, is nothing short of 'allegorical'. One Hundred Years One Hundred Voices is subtitled 'The Millworkers of Girangaon: An Oral History'. It is a modest subtitle, in keeping with the book's dedication "to Mumbai's cotton millworkers ... past and present".

The book is a sprawling people's history - of Girangaon (the central Mumbai location of the mills and its peoples), of Mumbai and, by inference, of India itself - covering a period of 100-odd years. The triumph of the book is that a near-comprehensive history is achieved through direct oral testimonials from the constituents of the textile mill economy and way of life - the 'hundred voices' of the book's subtitle.

Meena Menon is a long-standing trade union activist. She is Vice President of the Girni Kamgar Sangharsh Samiti (Mill Workers' Action Committee). Neera Adarkar is an architect and women's movement activist, a founding member of Majlis and a Convenor of the Girangaon Bachao Andolan (Save Girangaon Movement). They have been battling the displacement and dispossession of the mill workers and the destruction of Girangaon for 13 years. Remarkably for activists who are embroiled in a murky struggle for so many years, Menon and Adarkar have kept their questions simple and focused. Many questions, as all Mumbaikars know, are painfully alive, like sore wounds. Six hundred-odd acres of land in the very heart of Mumbai are at stake. Its value is simply immeasurable. The fact is that the owners of capital -- the mill-owners and property developers - are very keen on exchanging vast amounts of money in the process of gentrifying Central Mumbai. So far, some of the land has been sold under dubious circumstances. Other mill properties, like the Phoenix Mills, have been given over to commercial use, again under dubious legal circumstances. Activists like Menon and Adarkar ask that the erstwhile mill workers and their families receive a just share of the economic benefits and the social fallout of any new dispensation. The fate of this swathe of land continues to hang fire, 22 years after things came to a head.

The key event in One Hundred Years is the terminal mill workers' strike of 1982. The last in a long series of strikes over 100 years, the industrial action of '82 signaled the demise of the entire industry. Numerous economic and political explanations have been given for the strange denouement that took place. This is the first time we hear from the people at the picket lines themselves. The voices are clear and articulate, personal and analytical, and, most of all, intensely lived. The interviewees are primarily communists, some leaders, others union members, all of them ex-mill workers, with the single exception of a mill owner. The lens through which events are remembered is decidedly leftist. Yet, the multiplicity of the voices, and the anecdotal nature of the testimonials create a robust and well-rounded account, one that a strictly academic Marxist analysis could not yield. The oral approach allows us to understand an ambiguous figure like Dr Datta Samant with all his contradictions. We are also privileged to get a working class perspective on the rise of an opportunistic and eventually sectarian force like the Shiv Sena.

Adarkar and Menon's questions take us back to history. Indeed, there are still 1.3 million working class residents of the area, many of them former mill workers. Indeed, a majority of the mills have shut down permanently. And indeed, greedy eyes covet the area. How did we get here, Adarkar and Menon ask. The authors have resurrected the name Girangaon, something that encompasses a way of life. This is the core of the book. Using the experiences of Girangaon's citizenry, the authors provide the reader with an account of the political, economic, social and cultural history of the area. The dominant trajectory is the history of the left movement in the 20 th century development of the mill industry. The transcribed testimonials provide us with memories going back to the 1930s, the years when the communist movement found a natural constituency in Girangaon.

The community of Girangaon is given a complete treatment. The picture emerges of an exploited working class developing social relations in natural as well as contingent ways. A wonderfully vibrant cultural scene also emerged, centred around theatre and music. Communism played a major part in raising class consciousness, but despite ideological dogma, we get a glimpse of an organically whole community in perpetual conflict with the government and the capitalists. The struggles literally began at home, where sometimes 30 people were expected to live in a single room according to their work shifts. We read moving accounts of the struggle that pervaded every aspect of daily existence. Through many voices we hear of the historical progression of events: the colonial period, the communist heyday, independence, communal riots, the decline of the communists in the late-'50s, the rise of Congress unions, the Shiv Sena, and the eventual capitulation of the mill labour movement into the disastrous hands of Datta Samant.

Ultimately, the value of One Hundred Years lies in its oral historical approach. It allows the reader to trace different trajectories through the wealth of material. The starting point is simplicity itself: "... if one believes that people are the motive force of history, then this is a history that needs to be told," write the authors in the Preface. It may be appropriate to describe the methodology as a post-modern historiographical approach in that it simultaneously requires the reader to create the fabric from the various strands, even while it resists, and even denies, the possibility of any monolithic institutional hold on the history of Mumbai's textile mills and that of its people.

(Sanjay Iyer is an independent writer and teacher based in Pune)

InfoChange News & Features, September 2004