Urban anthropologist presents book about mill workers in Mumbai

By JAKE LEFKOVITZ | September 19, 2019

On Tuesday, Professor Maura Finkelstein of Muhlenberg College presented her recently published book, an ethnographic study of the workers operating the last privately owned commercial textile mill in Mumbai, India, as part of the Department of Anthropology’s fall colloquium series.

An urban anthropologist by practice, Finkelstein said she began researching what would become her book, Stories from the Archive of Loss: Lively Ruination in Mill Land Mumbai, in 2006. However, it was not until 2008, she said, that she began actually conducting the ethnography.

This involved her spending two years immersed in the world of the workers whose experiences she was seeking to understand. 

“I spent a majority of my days on the mill’s factory floor watching the workers, chatting with them during their tea breaks, being hot and bored and riveted and sleepy and all the other glorious emotions and sensations invoked by ethnographic work,” Finkelstein said.

These workers, she explained, find themselves and their jobs in a precarious position. As recently as the 1950s, the textile industry of Mumbai dominated the global market. She explained that half of the city’s population had been economically dependent on that industry for their means. 

Finkelstein said that the conventional belief in Mumbai these days is that the industry had completely collapsed all the way back in the 1980s.

Finkelstein mentioned that before she first encountered the Dhanraj Mill, she had been convinced that the conventional wisdom was accurate.

When Mumbai residents took her throug the city to show her the material remains of that industry, all she was shown were ruins. 

That is why she was so surprised to discover the workers at Dhanraj, who, as she explained, resist this narrative through their very existence.

Finkelstein stated that the shock of this contradiction and the tension between the group’s existence in contrast with the popular narrative of extinction is what led her to formulate the research questions that guided her through the process of drafting the book.

“Why were the remaining mills excluded from the many discussions and accounts of the city? What does it mean to be an active worker in an industry that is understood to be defunct? And how do Dhanraj workers understand their identities as industrial workers in a post-industrial landscape?” Finkelstein questioned. 

In answering this last question, Finkelstein said she discovered that the shared experience of pain knit many of the Dhanraj workers together.

Finklestein said she discovered a common pattern when she was sitting with many of the workers. Very often, the topic of conversation would turn to the latest injury or pain a worker had experienced. 

This would spur another worker to offer their own story of a similar injury or pain.

From these conversations around illness and bodily dysfunction, Finklestein said she found a frequent rhetorical move that the workers would employ with each other.

Through locating the source of their pain in the machines they worked on and with, the workers actually began identifying their pains with the pains of the machines, Finkelstein said. 

She explained the connection between the machines and the workers. The machines were the causes of the workers’ pains, but at the same time, the workers felt that the machines were also in pain.

“There seemed to be this constant sociality in which people’s relationships were built on conversations about pain, pain caused from work and also the pain of the machines and all the things that were broken,” she said.

One potential reason Finkelstein offered for why the workers identified so much with their machines was the extent to which they felt the hostility some of their fellow city residents harbored for the industry.

Finkelstein suggests that these sentiments made it difficult for the workers to identify with the larger community, causing them to identify with the machines in place of their peers.

“I encountered a lot of people who did not want there to be industry or workers there that they would be displacing. They needed to have moved in the [1980s] so that we can feel better about the new city now,” she said.

Finkelstein explained that consequently these other city residents passed their gaze over the Dhanraj textile workers when they looked out at the city, believing it to be more convenient for their legitimizing narrative to ignore the workers and their trade.

This leaves the workers isolated in their mills, Finkelstein explained, with no reasonable expectation of help in getting out nor offering them any reason to stop working. 

Because of this prolonged isolation, the workers are compelled to just continue operating on the mill, as they have been for the last 40 years.

With the publication of her book, Finkelstein endeavored to restore a small piece of the narrative of their city to these intentionally forgotten workers. 

“I wanted to create space for workers who believed that their work was of value, even if nobody else did, and who believe that through working in their industry they built the city in many ways,” she said.

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