Tuesday 1 December 2015

Tana bana

I'm guessing your Hindi (or my transliteration) isn't up to knowing that tana and bana are the weft and the warp on a bit of weaving. The warp it the (stronger) thread that runs along the bolt and the weft is carried by the shuttle to-and-fro across the fabric. Tana Bana [teaser trailer] is also the name of the latest movie by Pat Murphy, whose biopic "Nora" [trailer] about James Joyce and Nora Barnacle was favorably reviewed when it came out in 2000.  This time Murphy's off to Uttar Pradesh to investigate the plight of weavers-of-saris [R for sari] in Varanasi / Benares / Kashi. The arm-chair traveller knows two things about Benares 1) The Buddha started his movement from here 2) the city is on the Ganges and its burning ghats at the riverside are a popular place for disposing of dead bodies, washing your clothes and brushing your teeth. But under this tourist facade there is a real city, rather decayed, with real people struggling to feed their families. Benares is 1200km from Pakistan (and a little closer to Bangladesh) yet is about 25% Muslim. If you were a humble urban worker without a limousine in 1947 at the time of partition, there wasn't anywhere to go: certainly no rellies to bunk with, even if you made it through the slaughter to safety. You had no relatives in Pakistan because your family had been living and working in Benares for 1000 years.  Almost all the sari weavers are followers of the prophet as their fore-fathers were before them: sic! all the weavers are men. One of the points made in the film is that Benares has grown in size since the foundation of the state: typically of a developing nation the regional peasants have been driven off their farms by Monsanto and globalisation and fled to the city. When the global recession caught up with India in 2006, these people could go home and scrabble a living on the family farm. Not the weavers.

One point not made in the film is the fact that the rate of natural increase among Indian Muslims is faster than that of Hindus, Sikhs, Christians, Jains. This is an observation that feeds the anxieties of other people until another pogrom breaks out. We're really familiar with that concept in Ireland where the Protestants of the North were/are being told they they were going to be out-bred by the Catholics . . . who hadn't discovered condoms yet etc. etc. . . . flag flag flag . . . riot!

Given the potential for demonising Islam in 2015 [Charlie Hebdo, Syrian refugees, Paris 13/11/15], Pat Murphy's film - which must have been wrapped months ago - is gently sympathetic to the plight of these artisans as their price is undercut by machine-driven looms set up by local entrepreneurs and by cheap Chinese knock-offs.  If you can't tell or don't care about the difference between machined and hand-made product or if the machined sari is better as well as cheaper, then our weavers are going to the wall. And 1000 years of tradition will disappear in a generation, as the kids get a schooling and then a job in a call-centre  . . . if they're lucky. Nobody, in India or anywhere else, wants children working in mines or sweatshops or being sent up chimneys to get cancer of the scrotum. India has indeed legislated against employing children in the workplace.  Like we, as a home-educating family, got caught up the same legislation that was drafted to deal with educational deficit and truancy among the dispossessed; so the next generation of weavers cannot legally learn-by-doing the family trade. Lots of my friends grew up in Irish farms in the 1960s and 1970s and, as a matter of course, helped with the business. Learning to drive a tractor when they could barely reach the pedals; milking cows or feeding pigs/chickens in the winter dawn before school; pitching bales of hay; shovelling shit; picking stones; singling turnips; going mad with the chain-saw; chopping kindling; filling the log-basket beside the range and so forth. Every year a few handfuls of children get killed on Irish farms but few legislators would risk re-election by forbidding children to enter any part of a working farm. My piece yesterday about the 3Rs and the virtue of making things with your own hands is relevant. There is, to my mind, a qualitative difference between a 10 year old making my shirts in a factory in Bangladesh for 50c a day and a 10 year old weaving a sari with his father/uncle/brother in their own home in Benares.

It's also salutary to hear a roomful of articulate teenage girls rowing in behind arranged marriages and the burqa; both of which wind-up Western right-on feminists something dreadful.  Of course, you can dismiss these opinions as mere indoctrination because Our Girls have 'choice'.  But it's a choice that is rarely exercised in any substantive way: catholics hereabouts almost always wed catholics, middle class boys don't marry shop-girls and its a rare Irish girl who has a mother-in-law in Lagos.  The burqa-girls also expressed a certain wonder that their Western contemporaries got married behind a mask of fake-tan and 200g of artifical fats and colouring.  What are they hiding, the ask, and from whom?

I decided at The End, that this film about Indian exotica was a mirror for own lives and the society we live in. The beautiful hand-crafted sari that the weaver of Benares makes for €10, having worked on it for 3 days, is sold for Hindu weddings. These are no bolt-of-cloth everyday saris, they are for that special occasion. A bit of bling for The day. We do that in Ireland as well. The bride gets her only made-to-measure dress and wears it once.  Her friends and relations come to witness and get a desperate catering-quality meal which costs the bride or her Dad €50 a head; so they feel obliged to spend €50 on a pop-up toaster with six slots. The average cost to the couple is somewhere North of €20,000.  It costs their guests [x N=100 is typical] the same amount again or more. That's €40,000 that won't be used as down-payment on a home for the newly-weds. €40,000 is just about the 20% that fiscal rectitude legislation requires as the minimum up-front requirement to secure a mortgage on a typical starter home. If you want to be poor for the rest of your life then you can follow the standard model. A pal of mine got married in Dublin about 5 years ago to the mother of his two children: he took the afternoon off work, got spliced in front of the civil registrar and took everyone (N=10 incl immediate family and two witnesses) round to a nearby hotel for a cup of tea and a bun before going home with his bride and the kids on the usual bus. Cost: €243.78 incl VAT; 90% going directly to the government for the paperwork.

It's clear that, just like the weavers and spinners and Luddites of the 18thC and 19thC proto-industrial England, the weavers of Benares need a Union to level the negotiating playing field against the rapacious buyers. But they also need to think outside the box and make table-cloths or gonfalons instead of selling saris to a middleman who has them over a barrel.  We live in a global economy, it shouldn't be impossible for them to find a market in Britain.  Some enterprising graduate from Bradford or Manchester please note: there is a possibility for arbitrage here.

For me in Ireland it's not just about weddings, it's about the whole bill of goods that we are brainwashed into believing we need. You can only wear one pair of shoes at once, you can only read one book at a time and if you can't make a nutritious meal for six with €5, a sharp knife and two saucepans, then you need some training.  Yes indeed we have far too much stuff.

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