The Power of ‘Ordinary Conversations’: A Review of Madhumita Dutta’s ‘Mobile Girls Koottam’
By Nithya Rajan
Feminist research is increasingly moving towards collaborative research methodologies that center the experiences, voices, and knowledge of the people being written about and disrupt the researcher-researched dynamic through a dialogic process. Even so, very rarely are we presented with unanalysed narratives and stories of those whose lives we seek to understand. Madhumita Dutta’s new book, Mobile Girls Koottam: Working Women Speak – a compilation of a series of “ordinary conversations” between the author and a group of young women who work in the factories of multinational corporations located within a Special Economic Zone (or SEZ) in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu – is a rare offering of this kind.These conversations first appeared on Radio Potti as ten podcast episodes, in Tamil with English transcripts, produced by Sam and friends, under the title Mobile Girls Koottam.Through these conversations recorded over five months in “Muthu’s room”, the apartment where many of these women lived, Mobile Girls Koottam succeeds in presenting what Dutta calls “women’s vision, their thoughts and views on society as they were spoken by them, rather than interpreting or representing them in any particular way” (p.xxvi). While the conversational format of the book in which Dutta only appears fleetingly The introduction (p.xv-xxxv), titled “I invite you to listen…”, and the concluding “Reflections” (p.217-224) are the only sections where Dutta exercises her authorial voice. does not necessarily resolve the questions of authorship, translation, and the role of the researcher that feminist researchers have long grappled with, it challenges the hierarchies of researcher/researched, author/subjects, and the long-held understanding of what constitutes theory and theorisation. In pushing the boundaries of how feminist research can be presented, Mobile Girls Koottam is an important addition to groundbreaking feminist texts like Richa Nagar and Sangtin Writers’ Playing with Fire (2006). Presented as multiple conversations with titles like “If men had periods” and “Is housework work?”, and interspersed with thought provoking illustrations by graphic artist Madhushree,Some of Madhushree’s illustrations are included here courtesy of Dutta. Mobile Girls Koottam will appeal to academic and general audiences interested in questions of gender, migration, labour, and neoliberalisation.
In the introduction, titled “I invite you to listen…”, Dutta traces her journey to “Muthu’s room”, which begins with her work as an activist around the Special Economic Zone Act that was passed by the Indian government in 2005. Dutta posits that the book is an attempt to show what the women whose bodies become visible as workers in these newly-established SEZs “aspire to, what they dream of, how they would like to be seen, what stories they would like to share, how they would like to change the world” (p.xvii). The question of the researcher’s positionality, often central to feminist researchers’ methodology, is addressed by Dutta in the introduction: “this invitation to listen is also an invitation to interrogate our privileges” (p.xviii). Rather than enlisting the obvious power differentials of caste, class, and education that circumscribed her interactions with the women, Dutta points to the often-unacknowledged privilege exercised by researchers/scholars in taking the voices and stories of others that are deemed “unworthy or unintellectual,” and rearticulating them in “intellectual” language and claiming them as knowledge production (p.xviii). While some readers may question how Dutta’s presence in the room shaped the conversations and the women’s responses – what was said and what was left unsaid – these are questions that can never be fully resolved in any ethnographic project.
Feminist scholars have written about the impact of neoliberal policies in the global South, the rise of SEZs, and the precaritisation of labour in India (Dutta 2016), and the creation of a gendered disposable workforce under global capitalism (Wright 2006). The conversations between Abhinaya, Lakshmi, Pooja, Satya, and Kalpana (“the women in the room” [p.xxvi]), Samyuktha/Sam (the interpreter), and Dutta in Mobile Girls Koottam are an important addition to this body of work. The free-flowing conversations in the book compel the reader to see these women workers in “the fullness of their political vocabularies, visions, and lives” (Nagar et al. 2019: 19). The conversations touch on various topics including menstruation taboos, gendered labour/housework, the preferential treatment given to male children, and the extractive nature of factory work. Although they do not use terms like “neoliberalism”, “global capitalism”, and “disposable labour”, Kalpana, Satya, Pooja, Lakshmi, and Abhinaya’s stories show their astute understanding of their location and role in the international, capitalist system of production. More significantly, the conversations in Mobile Girls Koottam show that questions of labour, gender, the body, family, sexuality are deeply entangled, and that factory work is only one aspect of these women’s lives. Even as they navigate the city as rural migrants and the factory as women workers, they continue to be part of families and communities that are embedded within complex structures of class, caste, and the rural-urban divide. By letting the women that appear in the book just talk, Dutta demonstrates that to write about women’s experiences as workers in an exploitative global system without also listening to/hearing their experiences as daughters, sisters, and friends, or that to highlight their challenges as workers without also talking about their desires to be married, start families, and own a farm, would be to tell a partial story.
Without analysing, extrapolating, or theorising from these women’s rich narratives of growing up in rural Tamil Nadu and later migrating to the city for work, Mobile Girls Koottam illustrates how the modern-traditional binary is facile in the Indian context. For instance, in a conversation on the lack of public spaces for women, the women’s desire for a space to “loiter and chat” (p.103) shows how migration to cities and living away from the patriarchal gaze of the family or community does not change their relationship to spaces which continue to be circumscribed by their gender. The group’s vision for a “Nokia girls’ tea shop for women” (p.11- 23), where women can relax, drink tea, and use the toilet, is a searing commentary of women’s lack of access to public spaces and facilities in the country. The women’s stories of negotiating the pain and discomfort of periods while working on a fast-paced production line that depends on the labour of young women also disrupts the often-invoked binary of the “traditional” village and “modern” urban technology-based workplace. In response to Sam’s question about how they manage as menstruating women in a workplace where speed and efficiency are prioritised over the well-being of workers, Satya responds, “we adjust” (p.85). As we travel with the women through the book, the phrase “we adjust” echoes, speaking to the endless negotiations that these young women workers make in a rapidly neoliberalising India where period taboos, caste oppression, and patriarchal norms continue to govern their everyday lives.
Kalpana’s assertions about the importance of marriage (p.183) along with her critical analysis of how ideas of chastity and virginity are used to control women’s bodies (p.115), challenge the easy categorisation of “Third World Woman” (Mohanty 1988). The brilliance of this book lies in its ability to show that working class, Third World women are the most astute theorists of their own lives and that there is much to learn about the workings of caste, gender, and capitalism by “hearing/listening to” them. This book will encourage more scholars to incorporate listening to and hearing as a part of their research methodology and to relinquish at least part of the labour of analysis and interpretation to the reader.
*This review is published in collaboration with Antipode: A Radical Journal of Geography.*
Dutta, M. (2016) The Nokia SEZ story: Economy of disappearances. Economic and Political Weekly 51(51):43-51.
Mohanty, C. (1988) Under Western eyes: Feminist scholarship and colonial discourses. Feminist Review 30(1):61-88.
Nagar, R and Sangtin Writers. (2006) Playing with Fire: Feminist Thought and Activism through Seven Lives in India. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Nagar, R in Journeys with Sangtin Kisan Mazdoor Sangathan and Parakh Theatre. (2019) Hungry Translations: Relearning the World through Radical Vulnerability. Champaign: University of Illinois Press.
Wright, M. W. (2006) Disposable Women and Other Myths of Global Capitalism. New York: Routledge.
|↑1||These conversations first appeared on Radio Potti as ten podcast episodes, in Tamil with English transcripts, produced by Sam and friends, under the title Mobile Girls Koottam.|
|↑2||The introduction (p.xv-xxxv), titled “I invite you to listen…”, and the concluding “Reflections” (p.217-224) are the only sections where Dutta exercises her authorial voice.|
|↑3||Some of Madhushree’s illustrations are included here courtesy of Dutta.|