A looming legacy

A looming legacy

There has been plenty of reportage on the Fabindia lifestyle in recent years, deconstructing the sort of people who wear or use the plethora of handcrafted, organic, eco-friendly, fairly sourced-and-traded products from one of India’s most famous “ethnic" brands. As India’s consumer base has grown, so has the company, and so, as the journalism suggests, has the self-consciousness of its adherents.

But Fabindia is not a purely hipster label. It has a long and complex history as a social enterprise that marries profit margins to public service. Its championing of the artisan and weaver communities from whom Fabindia’s materials are sourced has always been staunch and unpretentious, even as its products have consistently found ways to fulfil the mutating demands of urban aspiration.

Radhika Singh’s book about the brand traces this backstory, working up from its beginnings as the young John Bissell’s part-hippie, part-yuppie idea to its transformation into an Indian powerhouse. The gaps that Singh’s history fills allows readers to understand how the brand came into the public eye after 1990, with a solid infrastructure and a small but influential band of loyalists already in place. In spite of Fabindia’s exceptional position—an enterprise that was simultaneously American and Indian, urban and rural, aiming for profits as well as social justice—it was subject to the same economic and political storms that other Indian businesses weathered in post-independence India. Singh, whose first book this is, receives access to a vast archive of documents, from Bissell family letters and photographs to a seemingly exhaustive record of business transactions, invoices and international communications.

It should have made for a uniquely thrilling story. Yet Singh approaches her story with varying attitudes. She begins as a lifelong Fabindia fan, a connection deepened by personal relations with the Bissell family, and moves forward alternating between reporter, fly on the wall, historian and teller of anecdotes. All of these can combine as crucial elements of a successful biography, which typically mediates the immersive aspects of a story—involving readers fully in its narrative—and the reflective. But it is as a biographer that Singh stumbles.

When she compiles company information—as she does at length in the book, reproducing financial statements, vision plans and case studies—she is dry. With her interviewees, her style shifts to warmer, subjective tones, not always to the story’s advantage. The delve into Fabindia’s political-economic history is much less fluid than the writer’s withdrawal into the intimate, if cautious personal portraits of the Bissells. This also makes the former less appealing to read.

Surprisingly for someone who quotes so extensively from the private records of her subjects, Singh’s primary source when referring to the history of post-independence India is not archival records or historical reportage, but Ramachandra Guha’s popular compendium, India after Gandhi. So much for academic rigour.

In between great stretches of reported speech and dubiously negotiated tense shifts, the author can sometimes lose control of her conversations. “Are you sure you want to know all this?" Singh reports one of her interlocutors saying midway through her conversation. That this throwaway line makes it into the book demonstrates its failure to deal with the ambitious scope it set for itself.

Having said that, the book’s meticulous approach to detailing Fabindia’s early years, particularly in relation to the craftspeople with whom they created historic relationships—and signature fabrics—provides us a framework for understanding the brand’s emphatic successes in the post-liberalization decades. Their half-quixotic, half-canny business model reveals ideals that are, in Singh’s telling, a little akin to their eccentrically sized kurtas: sometimes flawed, sometimes elegant and generally comfortable for their legion of fans.