Puja Gupta, ILR BS '05
Puja describes her recent visit to Jaipur, India
Puja Gupta is a Cornell alumni (ILR ’05). The following is a story from her visit to Jaipur, India, while on a Service Corps Fellowship funded by the American India Foundation. Puja’s interest in working in India was sparked by her experience volunteering for an NGO in Jaipur, researching issues of labor and trade as a Cornell Presidential Research Scholar in 2003.
I approached the dark street. Street lamps showered light down, making the floor, strewn with sequins, glimmer like stars in the black sky. Jittery anxiety curdled in my stomach. I had talked to my moussi (mother’s sister), a half an hour prior, about visiting the Auntie upon whose doorstep I was standing.
Moussi had been bent over a grapefruit-colored piece of soft cotton, sewing sequins on embroidered flowers. A skirt, it was going to be. I liked it and wanted one and asked her where she got it. She was working on the piece for a neighborhood ‘Auntie’ (a term of respect for women in Indian society) and was promised 2 rupees (0.04 USD) for her labor. It had taken her all of that day’s morning and half of the afternoon. My cousin, had enlisted my housewife Moussi on the job in order to give her a responsibility outside of the house. She was going to drop off the completed piece to the Auntie this evening. When asked if I would accompany her, I didn’t think twice before answering yes. I had studied Industrial Labor Relations in college and the opportunity to witness the bottom of the global supply chain was not one I received often, living in the first world.
We walked two blocks in my Moussi’s middle class Jaipur housing colony to this Auntie’s street, which, unsurprisingly, looked like any other street. Moussi explained to me that all the houses on this street ran the same business; they brought cloth and supplies from a nearby factory and divided the fine needlework up amongst the street children. They paid these children next to nothing for their labor, and then handed their orders back, under intense deadlines, to the factory owners.
There I found myself, on the front step of this Auntie’s ‘sweatshop.’ My stomach was curdling. What did I expect to see? Fourteen children with blood callused fingers crouching over sewing machines?
Inside was an open room with a bed lying in the center. A tube light mounted high on the wall lit linoleum covered cement floors. All was standard for an Indian household.
Scraps of cloth, grapefruit colored and other hues, scattered the barren bed. Off the corner sat a rather large Indian woman, mole on her face, hair sprouting on the mole, dressed in a frumpy nightgown, unattractive. She was sweet. Offering us tea, as is customary, and a seat next to her. Just as her house was like any other, she was an Auntie, like any other. A dark piece of brown cloth lie in her fat fingers and as we were talking, she was simultaneously sewing patches on it, not missing a stitch or a word. I asked her about the nature of her work. She told me that the factory gives her bulks of clothe that must be sequined, patched, embroidered, or stitched, and must be finished within a matter of weeks, maybe even days. For which, she gets a premium wage, or at least more rupees than it costs her to dish out the work to the neighborhood slum kids to complete, wherever they may, and return back to her. Grapefruit sequined skirts and mousy brown aprons were the current order, due in a few days.
A young boy, fourteen years of age, entered the back of the room. In a voice instantaneously transformed, before sweet now coarse, she commanded him to serve the guests, us, water. Unnecessary bending defined his shape as he served us water. My American politeness showing its face in the wrong place, I thanked him and he averted my eyes. I later found out that the boy was one of the Auntie’s nephews who had been brought to live with her to help her in the business. The cups were returned to the tray and he was ordered to round up a certain boy child employee to make him give his pieces. The boy came back, empty-handed. He said the child would get her the work by the next day’s afternoon. She responded with an “Ourffh,” a cracked smile, and an ironic laugh. I wondered how she handled that when we left.
We walked out the front door and I again found myself on the front step. This time I didn’t feel jittery inside; I felt numb, like someone had just slapped me, but in slow motion and with a flat object. It was all too real and too normal. The street, the house, the woman, the kid, the cloth, the wages, the exploitation. And as we turned the corner, I thought, you just never know what you’re going to find, such a beautiful sight: sequins on the street?
- Puja Gupta, ILR BS '05