Mobile Girls Koottam — Working Women Speak review: Conversations in Muthu’s room

Six women who worked in a factory discuss their everyday life, dreams, frustrations, and their little acts of rebellion in a patriarchal society

Published - April 30, 2022 04:03 pm IST

In 2014, a university researcher, with an interpreter and theatre artist in tow, landed up in Kancheepuram town of Tamil Nadu and gathered a group of women, urging them to speak about things that mattered to them. The women worked in an electronics factory — Nokia, now shuttered — and the conversations happened in the form of podcasts. Mobile Girls Koottam: Working Women Speak by Madhumita Dutta is the manuscript of the podcasts, and a fascinating account of the lives of a rural migrant workforce, extending beyond the factory floor.

As a researcher, Dutta was particularly interested in people’s “expectations and anticipation” from the Special Economic Zones that were launched post 2005, creating IT and other industrial hubs. She was keen to find out what motivated young men and women to work at these manufacturing sites. Dutta wanted to hear what the women felt about their lives.

Complex narrative

The conversations took place in ‘Muthu’s room’, a small two-room flat on the ground floor of a three-storied house, which she shared with Lakshmi, Sathya, Abhinaya and Pooja; their friend Kalpana visited them often and also became part of the conversation. Rebelling against lazy categorisations of the female rural migrant workforce, the women offer a rich, layered and complex narrative of what they think, see and feel and why they chose to work.

The women hail from different districts of Tamil Nadu and belong to diverse castes. Their families are mostly engaged in farming, weaving, small trading and daily wage work. As the women spoke of their individual experiences or family circumstances, they offered insights into the wider nature of unequal social and economic relations in households and communities, says Dutta, who met the women for over a year. They travelled to the factory in company-provided buses, and assembled mobile phones, working three production shifts of eight hours, six days a week. They had regular wages, written contracts, maternity benefits, provident funds and so on. Women comprised 60% of the workforce but were represented in the union by men.

On days off from the factory, they would lie on the floor with pillows under their heads, watching Tamil movies, songs or local news. Slowly, they opened up, sharing with Dutta the details of their journey: how for example, they initially found it difficult to rent a place, because people always did not view ‘factory women’ as ‘respectable’, especially those who worked on night shifts. Despite their uneven social and material privileges, Dutta immediately realised they shared some common grounds.

As Dutta prepared them for the podcast, all except Kalpana said they would prefer a pseudonym. One of them, 23-year-old Lakshmi, was incredulous about a radio podcast, “Who will listen to them?” The talks were triggered by Lakshmi’s frustration at being unable to have a cup of tea at the wayside stall on her way home from work without being stared at. This discussion led them to talk about everyday routines, the drudgery of household work, discriminatory gender roles, the limiting nature of marriage, women’s bodies, demeaning rituals around menstruation and so on. They spoke of how households without male members are more egalitarian and unregimented; how men make the rules of women’s servitude and how women reproduce patriarchy at the behest of men. Their reflections are from lived experiences.

Breaking free

And if we listen carefully, like Dutta wants us to, we will see nuances — of how caste backgrounds circumscribe and concede women’s freedoms. We have Lakshmi from the dominant Thevar caste from southern Tamil Nadu, preferring to be locked up by her parents inside the house in her village voluntarily as if to pledge her fidelity, while there is rebellious Kalpana, from a Scheduled Caste family, breaking free, inspired by Periyar, and indifferent to patriarchal constructs of female beauty. “I was the same black then as I am now... Colour is not important, work is important... I’ve seen so much Sun in my life,” she says, recalling her hard labour as an MGNREGS worker before she joined the industrial workforce.

It is striking how the secular migrant work space also makes their camaraderie possible. The women show us how female bodies that work on the assembly line negotiate bodily pain, scheming ways of rest and forming quiet solidarities. We sense how the precarious migrant work space — the assembly line — is also perhaps their only chance of finding love and forging friendships unrestrained by the caste-kinship diktats.

The conversations are raw and perceptive. As the women lament their inability to co-mingle in public, like having a cup of tea at the wayside stall, readers can draw a parallel to Virginia Woolf’s lament of library doors staying shuttered to women to maintain knowledge as a male preserve. The tea stall is the male preserve, where male chatter is masqueraded as political-intellectual, and female presence violative. Here the ‘Mobile girls’ reimagine the tea stall as a public space for women, where they can sit around, chat, read a newspaper without the tyranny of the male gaze, and the fear of ‘shame’.

The conversations meander, making the narrative organic, cheeky, funny, brave and profound, all at once. The illustrations by Madhushree add to its richness.

Through this monograph, Dutta asks us to look at these women not as a homogenous lot, exploited and waiting to be rescued, but as reflecting minds, exercising degrees of autonomy, with dreams, aspirations, and shared angst over unjust gender norms and a yearning for an equitable order — expressed in their own voices, unsullied by academic mediation. When the conversations stop, we are left with a sinking feeling of a bond forged through the pages coming to an end.

Mobile Girls Koottam: Working Women Speak; Madhumita Dutta; Illustrations by Madhushree; Zubaan, ₹425.

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