In recent years, commodity chain analysis – the scholarly effort to piece together the production and consumption ends of various commodities – has really taken off. For goods ranging from cotton to coffee & tobacco to tea, scholars have brought cultivators and laborers into the same frame as factory workers, retailers, taste-makers, and consumers. At first glance, Mythri Jegathesan
’s new book Tea & Solidarity: Tamil Women & Work in Postwar Sri Lanka
(University of Washington Press, 2019) appears like yet another contribution to a burgeoning literature on the politics of tea’s supply chain.
But the book, in fact, is so much more. Based on the author’s rich fieldwork conducted amongst Hill Country Tamil women living on tea plantations, the book uses feminist and decolonial methods to tell the long story of marginalization and struggle in a war-torn Sri Lanka. Hill Country Tamil women trace their descent from indentured coolies brought to Ceylon from southern India; as such, their stories have long been narrated largely as stories of victimization, of structural violence, landlessness, and dispossession. Challenging these conventional narratives, this book aims to recenter Tamil women’s long struggle for dignity on and off tea plantations by paying attention to the aspirations and labors with which they demand recognition for their work, make homes in the wake of dispossession, and desire better futures than those currently on offer. With clear, heartfelt prose, methodological imaginativeness, and careful attention to intersecting axes of power and distinction, this book not only makes essential contributions to the fields of anthropology and gender studies but also to scholars interested in South Asia, decoloniality, and ethical research methods.
Aparna Gopalan is a Ph.D. Candidate in Social Anthropology at Harvard University studying the reproduction of inequality through development projects in rural western India.