Field notes: Ponduru. 22nd-25th Jan 10
I had twenty chances to introduce my research question, and fumbled every time. I tried to be relevant and clear to the person answering my questions, but what do I know? So I tried different things each time. In any case Ponduru was emotional for many reasons. I have some reasonable understanding of the group there, and feel part of their journey to modern markets. I take most pride in the product that emerged out of there, almost in the first year; with some input from me, through training in natural dyes, and encouraging them to go back to using moga silk in their borders, and bringing the manager’s attention to their own old samples. I also have an unnerving experience that I make a joke of, of an old weaver looking for me, when I visited last time, after a gap of 5 years, in order to shake my hand and thank me. That did more than anything; I think to stop me from going back to Ponduru, in the last few years. Not that I need an excuse, I have found it increasingly difficult to ‘face’ the field, except to sort out problems in places where they don’t ‘know’ me and have no expectations.
This time, my visit had been preceded by field workers Ravindra and Srilakshmi to the weaver’s society, and to the weavers’ houses, in two streets of Ponduru. They had already communicated that we would be doing a study, and that I was doing a PhD on handloom. Whether because of that, or something I don’t still understand, this visit was much more peaceful for me, even though the situation of the weavers’ themselves was not that much better than before. The water and sanitation system has pretty much stayed the same too. This i think is the single biggest issue in any village. We walked around many houses, the manager Krishna Rao insisted on coming with us, he asked me why I wanted to do this; I told him that I had run out of ideas on how to work in DA, but that luckily the others in the organization still had some ideas for the next ten years, and that they were happy for me to find out what weavers were saying about directions for interventions for the next ten years. He was quiet when I asked him about his own plans for the society when he left, two years from now.
There is a sense of a tide, in the way weavers talk of moving in and out of weaving. A sense of a lack of control about the strength of the waves that sweep them out of weaving, out of the village, into other things, and other ways of living. What came across strongly was that they felt strongly that things were not getting better. There was not an unthinking unreflective abandoning of weaving, which I had always secretly suspected was the case. The pain on their face when they spoke of working in ‘lesser’ trades was too acute to miss. Working in the jute mills, working as construction labour, their hands were not made for this. There was not as much expectation also of either the state or of NGOs or the co-operative. The reality of the market was visible; there was better wage in the cities, and in the mills. Both were true, the children who did well in school and moved out, into better jobs, in the cities, and the children who did not do so well, and stayed on the loom, and were being forced out to work in the mills around the village. The community was not anymore united in its goal of clothing the world around them, the family did not see it as a better option, to work together to produce cloth. A repeated articulation, that communities and families did not anymore want to work together closely, and earn together makes me wonder if the truth was actually the opposite, in relation to the outside. This is a community that knows what it means to work together, and articulate clearly and constantly the constraints of doing that. To me in the past, it sounded very much like they were explaining why they did not want to work together. Now I wonder, if that is their way of dealing with the fact that they do, in reality constantly work together, and depend on each other. Ponduru has its Muslim reed makers, its Reddy women customers, still. Both devangulas and padmasali castes weave here, still. The whole family works with each other, both on loom and outside the loom to keep the household together.
Boodidi appaRao wears his silver shiva lingam and vibhooti very overtly, to my secular and conservative mind. Are all devangulas shaivites? I didn’t ask. His concern for his wife struck me as a very important part of him. Is it something about the dependence on each other, when on the loom that brings about this sense of harmony? He is a weaver of much skill, and flexibility, taught himself silk weaving, though now worried about the increase in silk price. Gets ‘ready [to weave] warps’ from Berhampur, and weaves for a master weaver there. He was approached by the master weaver, decided to teach himself silk weaving, and only went back to him when he was confident that he could demand his price. He has also worked in a stone quarry, decided to come back since his wife was alone at home, rather both weave and live together, now that the children are gone from the house. His wife Rashmi says that it is inevitable that children don’t weave, they want to be self sufficient, and weaving makes you dependent. One son venkat rao is home from his work in a textile mill in chilakalooripeta, in Guntur. The boy says he would never stoop to weave in a jute mill. He was chosen to work in this mill because of his ability to manage yarn. It seems an inevitable trajectory that handloom weavers work for power loom and mill, and consider it progress. He said that his children’s education would be part of the perks he gets from the mill, one reason why he wouldn’t think of coming back into weaving.
Maanem Vishwanath has four daughters, and no house, we sat in Krishna Rao’s brother’s house for the interview. The recorder really helped to maintain order, so that the discussion did not descend into a free-for-all. I think you have to have nothing, to make the kind of statements that vishwanath made, about what is important in life. He spoke of travelling to the city, looking for work, with his four daughters and wife, and deciding to move back and do the same work here. I think that having made the jump in his mind, to take up other work, moving back to the village did not seem so difficult. He said his wife works in a hotel, and gets a good meal there in the afternoon, along with a wage. He revealed the knowledge of too many days when he had felt the pain of not providing her with food, in the satisfaction of where she works now. He spoke with wisdom and contempt, for where society was headed, that a wife had now become someone who could bring you a gold chain that you could ‘hang’ around your neck, rather than someone who lived with you and shared your life. Is it weaving that is unsustainable, or having four daughters, I wonder? It was a rare moment of understanding for me, sitting in that house, as he revealed his vulnerabilities to me, as one would to a friend and loved one, not expecting anything except comfort and understanding of his situation. Krishna Rao said at the end, we should put a loom in the society for him. I think I will follow up on that, using my influence in the society. He may not benefit much from it, but it will buy my peace of mind.
The conversation on what one considers ‘avasaralu’ or needs, which a livelihood should satisfy, took the conversation to buying gold. As the women there joked about their husbands’ incapability to buy them the gold they ‘deserved’ and had been promised, I begin to understand again the metaphor that gold holds in our lives as women. It is not a metaphor I even begin to understand, and it is too basic to even try…but it is something that goes beyond desire and greed to own something of value, but becomes key to the woman’s identity, it is both her area of expertise, and her assertion of her right to the family resource.
Muppena AppaRao and I have had words in the past, when I was a young field worker, and from his embarrassed face, he remembers it. Both of us pretended of course to meet for the first time, as I sat in his house to interview him, and his son who works in the jute mill. I learnt two words from him, which I have to understand better; ‘swanta vritti,’ and ‘kaala kshepam’; I suspect these words have a significance that I am not getting. Literally they mean livelihood, and ‘time-pass’ but the way they were used, they shouted ‘self reliance’ and ‘productive way of life’. It was the son of Muppena Appa Rao, Gopi who said when I asked him ‘so why do you not weave’ to stop saying that. I do weave, he said, I have not left it, there is still a loom in my house. Find me a way to stay, and I wont go anywhere else. He said there is no self-respect in working for someone else, but there is no money here, not even enough to live. And how long will I ask my father for handouts, in a combined income? I wonder then, if it is the father who wants the son out of weaving, in order to ‘better’ himself. When I asked the boy what he found most difficult about weaving, he said we make a living from day to day, there is no one to pay us if we don’t work that day, on the other hand no one to stop us from taking a day off. He said, when someone falls ill it is more difficult, because we have to continue to weave to make up for that person, and there is no time to actually take care of that person. Keeping the loom running is the most important thing, and it plays on your mind all the time.
Balla Bhadraiah has been in and out of weaving two times already, by the age of 33. He moved out of the village to the north, and came back after some problem with his employer, interestingly it wasn’t any Devangula contact, but a friend who he went to, looking for work. Still not happy, even as we were talking to him, he was negotiating for a job at the BSNL tower, weaving was a stopgap for him. His sister Jayalakshmi was home from Tiruppur, where she worked in a garment factory. She had been a beneficiary under the SERP women’s group training in tailoring, and had found a job with one of the companies, where she worked as a supervisor, said she didn’t know much ‘tiching’ but knew how to talk to buyers and do ‘kolity’. She was dressed in a night pyjama type of two-piece suit, and was comfortable walking around like that. Liberation that came with a factory job or my pre conceived notion of what young women in villages should wear?
Allada Asiri naidu was visiting his parents for the festival, he had married a girl without paying dowry, and his father had thrown him out. He had friends along with whom he set up some kind of liquor shop, lost money, and now works as an auto driver to distribute water in the city of Vishakapatnam. He says he’s too fat now to return to the loom, and feels pride in working to distribute water, which is an essential commodity. He has a strong relationship with his ‘owner’ the proprietor of the company he works for, and is happy to work as hard as he can, to keep the business going. He is firmly citified; and talks with a swagger, the prodigal son come home, after having done well. The village boys sitting around see him as a bit of a hero, and he enjoys it. I suspect it comes from the fact that he married independent of his parents choice, and probably also made it in the city against a lot of adversity.
Puchala Paidraju was the final weaver we visited in Ponduru, in a way a good way to stop. He is a weaver of Dastkar Andhra, for the last ten years, and there is a sense of stability around him, which I missed with the other weavers. He openly acknowledged that it came from having security at work, though it was still not enough to keep his children studying. The deep rooted need for this community that their children should be educated showed itself time and again. Speaking about neighbors who were migrating, he said that children suffered, mostly in their studies. Villages were better places for them, he said. The move may be better financially, but how many children actually did better? But most of the conversations around needs that were or not being fulfilled by handloom were around education; with older weavers. He spoke of the son who made it into engineering college, but could not study, as he was too poor for the fees. I know for sure that the son of that boy will study engineering.
I continued my quest to find out what happened to these young people who had moved to the city in search of livelihoods with Paidraju, who Ravindra called from Ponduru from his parent’s house to fix up a meeting. I met Paidraju, the son of a weaver in Ponduru, in Kalanikethan in Vishakapatnam. It is a saree shop, but he works as an accountant. He completed his B.Com from Ponduru and came to Vishakapatnam looking for work, a friend found him this job, and he is happy because he is able to send 2000 rupees home, every month. Thirty and unmarried, because he doesn’t think he is stable enough. He says he would move back to Ponduru, to be with his parents, but wants to do well, so that he can take care of them. He says they worked hard to bring him up, and make him capable, now it is his turn to take care of them. No city fascination for this boy, he is worried about what the future will bring, feels his responsibilities strongly, and the debate on modern and tradition is lost on him; what can be more traditional than the urge to take care of his old parents? He saw in me someone who wanted to help others, and said he too had had such an urge when he was younger, had been part of an association called ‘friends association’ that tried to help young people in trouble, in the village. I bought a Gadwal saree in the shop; and we parted in full understanding that our paths would not cross again.
On the way back to the hotel I was staying in, in Vishakapatnam, I bought a battery charger, because the treasured recorder was swallowing up regular batteries like a thirsty man drinking water in a desert. I needed a scissors to cut it open, I found a capable young woman directing cleaning work outside my room, and asked her for one. As we were waiting for someone to bring it, she asked me what I did, I mumbled something about handloom weavers. She asked me ‘but what exactly do you do, with handloom weavers’ and as I again fumbled through an explanation, she said, ‘I’m from that community myself, so I thought I would ask’. She was my next interviewee. Mangamma from Uppada, never wove before she got married, and only wove with her husband for a short while, before her father in law suggested that she should take him back to the city with her, and find themselves jobs. She said ‘weaving is hard to learn’ I wonder if her inability with the loom made it unsustainable for them to continue weaving. She used to work in the hotel, before, and had a family who felt sorry for her that she had to go back to weaving, so when she came back were happy to help her to regain her old job. Her husband now works in the sweet shop. Her children do not know how to weave. The only thing she says, is that most people don’t know the value of handloom cloth, of how hard it is to make a beautiful saree. She says she refused a gift from her brother in law, a woven saree. She told me ‘I don’t want an expensive woven saree, for which they would get a lot of money in the market, I know how much work it is’. Is that what it takes, to recognize the knowledge and hard work that goes into a saree, to try and fail at making it, yourself?
My final appointment for the day was with 20 year old Tutika Mohan Rao, who studied BSc in maths physics and chemistry, working in a stock market. He is living with his sister and her husband, says it is not too hard, though of course not like living at home. He works quite hard, not under any illusions about life in an office. He said he was looking to move, quite obviously had met me in the hope that I would be able to offer him a job. I was quite shocked, since he had taken a day off to meet me, and I wondered how he had got the wrong idea. Was it the word interview? I needed to change that. But actually for him it was just a shot in the dark. At the end of the interview, I asked him how much more he wanted to earn, than the 4000 he was earning, he said, 1500, because that will be the increase in cost for me, to live alone, and I need to send 2000 home, which I am able to now, because I live with my sister and her family. I find this fascinating, how much these children feel the obligation to take care of their parents, is it something to do with this community, or is it village culture? Why has it not survived, in the city, where old people are discarded like used clothes? Anyway Tutika Mohan Rao said he was happy to work for Dastkar Andhra, no problems with working with weavers, he has since sent his bio data to our office. Quite enterprising, but I will leave it to Latha to decide what she wants to do.
As we wound up after one of the interviews in Ponduru, Krishna Rao was telling one of the weavers about his grandchild, who lives in the city. The little boy, on a visit to his home, while watching his grandfather at the loom, said ‘aa thaadu kinda padindi’; he was referring to a broken yarn that had fallen down, as ‘thaadu’, not ‘pogu’. ‘Pogu’ is specifically yarn that is on the loom, ‘thaadu’ is more generic for thread. While relating this, he sounded half shocked and half awed at his ignorance.
The interesting thing about how quickly the next generation move into ‘secular’ ‘city’ ‘modern’ spaces through education or migration makes me wonder about what ‘culture’ and ‘identity’ truly means to them. Is it about how quickly a generation moves into white collar jobs? There is an a-historicity to this movement that makes it seem discontinuous; they shed so many things, when they move; but maybe this is the only way to transition? Does it make a difference when the environment is different? For instance whether in the 90s or in the 2000s, or whether it is 2020? What happens to villages? This will definitely be the next place to go in my research.