Five years ago, at about 50 kilometres from Guwahati (Assam), few people noticed the insignificant chowk of Sondha on the NH31. Today it has grown into a bazaar that connects its large neighborhood to the ceaseless horde of people on the busy highway that passes through.
This is all in thanks to to Pranita restaurant – a local confectionary cum tea stall. Apart from its characteristic jumbo-sized sweets and hygiene standards, one thing stands out strikingly – the restaurant is run predominantly by women. On the last International Women’s Day, we surveyed conditions of labour and its gendered aspect. To that end, we talked to about 60 working women at the restaurant and Nripendra Das, the owner of the restaurant.
The restaurant has broadly two categories of labor – the cooking staff which is exclusively men and the non-cooking staff which is almost exclusively women. The most obvious point is the role reversal of the traditional gendered division of labour. However, it should be noted that this role-reversal isn’t something desirable. In case of the restaurant, we see no logic in not having women included in the cooking work too.
The important point however is – women can (and should) run counters, manage money, and serve tea & confectionaries in more and more restaurants than what we find today in Pranita. In other words, Pranita’s work culture is a counter-hegemony against the patriarchal narrative that there is a natural division of labour between the two sexes. When we asked the women if they faced any problem in performing their ‘traditional’ roles in ‘untraditional’ workspaces of the restaurant, they said, “None!” It is this message from the working women of Pranita in Assam that we need to democratise more.
This May Day can be an opportune moment to take a look at some of the most marginalised sections of labour: informal, ‘semi-skilled women workers and so on. The social composition of the workforce at Pranita is homogenous. Except for a few Bodos, the women are all Assamese belonging to non-Brahmin general caste to Scheduled castes. There is not a single Muslim, Bihari, or Bengali woman among them.
The women labour in our country is relatively less skilled, less paid, and easy to replace. The minimum wage is Rs 250 a day. There is no formal security of the right to work. Broadly speaking, the labour falls in the category of daily wage labour with no formal social security. What one must not assume however is a total absence of social security. For instance, the owner said that it is a customary obligation on him to pay for any work-related accident. He also pays for their medicine, sweaters in winter, utility sarees worth Rs 300 each on the festival of Bihu, gifts for family marriages and other rituals. The daily payment also allows them to take unpaid leaves. The women workers work for six days a week. A person also accompanies those who commute back after work at night. The point is not that these are potential replacements for formal social security measures. The point is – in these semi-formal workspaces, there are networks of personal relationships (paternalistic though) shared between employer and employees which provide some reliefs for workers to cope in times of externalities.
When we talked to the women about savings, Kavita Das told us that many have managed to save money. Mitu Kalita, for instance, told us that she has bought a scooter. Almost everyone said they made upward mobility, socially and economically. On the other hand, the owner of the restaurant gave us a picture of workers reeling constantly under the burden of loans from rural micro-credit institutions like Arohan or Bandhan. He also seemed to have a perception of exaggerated menace due to the culture of drinking among the male family members of women workers.
When we talked to the women workers, we got neither the impression of constant indebtedness, at least the cause being microcredit, nor the image of rampant socio-economic issues born out of drinking. The qualification we would like to make here is that the owner has a social landscape in mind while addressing these issues, while the women workers spoke for themselves. We realised how the questions on alcohol and savings intruded their private spaces, and thus deliberately tried to socialise the context. The workers seemed not to leave the personal context while talking about the social context. It is through the personal that women like Archana Deka and Rima Talukdar look at the social and vice versa. The workers’ consciousnesses, in this case, seem to collapse into one another. They see themselves as self-in –society.
Our observation on the difference of consciousness between the owner and the women workers has other dimensions. In the perception of the owner, the women workers do not have a good sense of rational use of money. For instance, Nripendra Das, the owner, said the women often take loans without having any idea about interest rates. He also thinks the women are not fit to invest money in microcredit. Is this a patriarchal and bourgeois perception about the lack of economic rationality of the working class, especially women? The women workers on the other hand, consciously reveal that poverty and lack of access to social security leave them vulnerable to externalities. Saving and indebtedness are an integral part of the situation they live in, said Chitra Medhi. And it is through their economic rationality applied to 250 rupees a day; women like Rupali Baishya resist the wretched and rancorous world of injustice.
If the owner considers the women as hardworking workers, the women consider themselves as rational agents in charge of their own lives who constantly negotiate for themselves a bigger and freer space. For the owner, the work in his hotel is easy. For the women, they only wish it is. For the owner, menstruation is a luxury or excuse to skip work. For women, skipping work is a hard choice between a weary body and a hungry stomach. The owner denies the double burden of work on women due to household work and wage work. He said that he provides food and the women don’t have to work at home. The women agreed on the food. But according to them, the idea of a leisurely household militates against the real world they inhabit.
An important point that we noticed among the women workers of Pranita is that most women are single wage earners. Many of them are unmarried. Many of them are divorced or separated. One of the women wore vermilion and said that she had no husband. It is an ambiguous space where her religion and custom cohabit with rational individualism. Nothing collapses, but almost everything becomes visibly and constantly redefined.
Likewise, many women in Pranita have modulated traditional family relations to claim alternative canvasses where they sketch their paintings with a mixture of personal colours. It would not be unfair to see this as a radical attempt to restructure conditions of labour and gender to expand the possibilities of life, livelihood, and belongingness. Looking from inside the inner world of Pranita’s working women appear fraught – where contradictions wrestle to accommodate and reject, where beauty resides in balance between chaos and order, where assertive currents flow underneath the steady surface. It is here where they actively seek to illuminate among other aspects, the penumbra of gender and labour with their notions of self-in-society.
When we said we have come for the occasion of International Women’s Day, we noticed shy and reluctant smiles below their unblinking eyes. As we parted with notes of gratitude, one of us said, “If the women workers in Russia hammered the decisive blow on this very day in 1917 to trigger the Russian Revolution, it was because they considered themselves conscious and active agents in a network of people with which they shared solidarity and organisation.”
What we then need is to expand these networks of solidarity and organisation where working women can come together in contact with other women and workers along with networks of wider democratic struggles to expand the possibility of rights for all. On this International May Day, as part of the commemoration of labour struggles, we attempted to revisit the lived reality through the inner world of the women workers in Pranita.
Jyotishman Mudiar is a Btech graduate in Civil Engineering from NIT Rourkela. He is currently pursuing an MA in Modern history from Centre for Historical Studies, JNU, New Delhi. Tanzim Hussain is a civil Engineer from NIT Rourkela.
All photos provided by the author