Mutability cantos

At the end of a thoughtful, disturbing day—you will be left thoughtful and disturbed by this book—The Song Of The Shirt is a story about clothes: how globalization seeks the lowest cost, much like water seeks a downhill path, and the wide-ranging consequences of that imperative.

But the global trade in garments is no more than a backdrop to a deep, searching story about the people who make them now and the people who made them once, of the richest and the poorest, of the West and the East, of profit, power and penury, and the inevitable mutability of lives.

Mutability is a word that British author and journalist Jeremy Seabrook favours because his impressive body of work explores all that is fickle and inconstant about those at the bottom of the pyramid. The subjects of Seabrook have previously included the poor in Britain, the global sex trade, working children, the inhabitants of India’s Muslim ghettos, and gay men in India.

Seabrook now turns his searching eye and searing prose on the people on the vast, shaky—literally so, given the fires and building collapses—shop-floors of Bangladesh’s garment industry, which brings in about 70% of that country’s foreign exchange. The first half of the book is a fine, albeit depressing, journalistic exploration of the long, health-destroying days and nights of the garment workers, primarily women from Bangladesh’s impoverished interiors. The second half is a skilful, sprawling tapestry of history, economics and reportage. It wanders through 18th, 19th and 20th century Britain, India and Bangladesh, to tell us how golden Bengal lost its sheen and why it might—in a repetition of a shattering loss more than 200 years ago—easily forsake what it has achieved asthe world’s third-largest exporter of garments (after China and Turkey).

The Songs Of The Shirt—Cheap Clothes Across Continents And Centuries: Navayana, 297 pages, Rs495
The Songs Of The Shirt—Cheap Clothes Across Continents And Centuries: Navayana, 297 pages, Rs495

Seabrook travels into the factories, the ghettos, the city, the lush countryside, eviscerated villages, and into the lives of those who people these places. He brings to life the textile economy of Bangladesh—the people, the hastily constructed buildings and Dhaka (the industry is centred there), with its frenziedly changing history and watery, earthquake-prone foundations, a city where even the elite must live with the lights and air conditioners (energized for the greater part of 24 hours by diesel generators) on through the day because the buildings are too close and too chaotically built to let in light and air.

A good writer could end the story here—and we would still be touched—but Seabrook is substantially better than good because the unpredictable nature of the lives he reveals is only the start of the story. He takes us through the circle of history, which begins when 17th century Bengal was known for the beauty and strength of its handmade textiles. The import of fine muslins from Dhaka and silk from Murshidabad into Britain stirred dissatisfaction from the earliest years of the East India Company. It metamorphosed into punitive taxes and culminated in the destruction of Bengal’s textile industry and the devastation of the lives of its weavers.

Revealing his great familiarity with subcontinental culture, Seabrook compares golden Bengal’s situation with that of the tribal archer Eklavya, who surrenders his thumb to his guru Dronacharya so that prime pupil Arjuna can stay champion. Seabrook writes: “The East India Company, playing Dronacharya, captured the market with the inferior Manchester cloth (Arjuna) by neutralizing the genius of the local weavers."

Even the devastating famine of 1769-70, when a third of Bengal’s population either died or fled, was not allowed to hamper revenue collection, which fell only 4%. This “economic violence" perpetrated on Bengal, he argues, ended its golden age, emptied out cities like Dhaka, and set the land on a decline from which it has not really recovered, creating a culture haunted by poverty and death, where both Muslims and Hindus practice black magic and employ a variety of beliefs to ward off evil.

Seabrook constantly switches centuries and lands, comparing the miserable lives of the 19th century Lancashire mill worker, who usually did not make it past 30, with Bangladesh’s textile worker, who, thanks to her country’s health successes, lives beyond 60. Delving into historical narratives and records and evoking days and lives passed, he contrasts the great migrations of farmers and weavers in Bengal with the short but devastating journeys made by the British weavers who eventually became Manchester mill hands and the eventual convergence of their fates.

The similarities between 19th century Britain and 21st century Bangladesh might lead us to believe that Bangladesh is only passing through a stage of development that it must in order to achieve the kind of prosperity that Britain now enjoys. But Seabrook argues that the past experience of Britain resembles only superficially what the emerging world is experiencing now. Indeed—and this is counter-intuitive in many ways—he writes that the displaced of early Victorian Britain had it harder; their journeys were more challenging, their despair was deeper: “Death does not hover with the same ubiquitous menace over the sites of industry as it had done in Victorian Britain; as a consequence, the pleasures of the poor are not snatched with the same heedless voracity that characterized the meagre spare time of the cotton operatives, where alcohol and opium derivatives offered instant oblivion."

But the greatest difference between Bangladesh today and Britain then is that the industrial age produced a national division of labour in the UK. Manchester may have been associated with cotton but other cities made lots of other things (Sheffield, cutlery and steel; Leeds, woollens; Northampton, footwear; Glasgow, ships; and so on). Bangladesh depends on a single, flimsy industry, which depends on fabric and raw material from elsewhere, and the workers are aware of the mutability of what they do.

What lies ahead is unclear, and this book does not seek answers. It only throws up questions, such as these: “Will the market become cosmos, leaving no alternative, no culture, no civilization, no other way of living outside of its constantly expanding frontiers? What new demands will be made of us, who were the spinners and weavers of Bengal, the cotton operatives of Lancashire, the garment workers of Dhaka, the ragpickers of the world? What shape will that culture take, and who will benefit from the apparently infinite pliability of cultivators-turned-workers, workers who have become cultivators once more, cultivators transformed again into workers or workers who have become the servicers of globalism?"

Samar Halarnkar is a Mint columnist and the author of A Married Man’s Guide To Creative Cooking—And Other Dubious Adventures.