When I first arrived in England, a small, shy, 12-year-old, fresh from the tea plantations of Assam, I was taken under the wing of a small, shy, pale kid with mousy hair. She taught me how to survive in the large, rowdy comprehensive school and we became inseparable.
But despite our close friendship, we lost touch when our families both moved away from the area. Then along came the internet and Friends Reunited. After a gap of about 20 years, to my great joy, I found her again.
But I almost didn’t recognise her. That small, shy, pale kid had transformed herself into a strong, self-assured and razor smart woman. And I mean really strong. She had become a body builder and a champion dead-lifter, as well as a mother and a trainer of personal trainers.
Particularly surprising considering we were both rather puny at school and hated PE. We even skived it once, then lost our nerve and tried to sneak back in, only to get caught in the act. So much more humiliating than being caught actually skiving…
And she even had a new name to go with her new body – Crow Dillon-Parkin.
Since the renewal of our friendship, she has transformed herself again. This time into a conceptual artist, tackling issues of gender and body image. She read my blog about the uprising of Munnar’s women just as she was preparing for an exhibition in a former tea warehouse, now an art gallery but imminently facing a further transformation of its own, into luxury flats and offices.
Crow, dressed from head to toe in raven black, except for her cropped, platinum blonde hair, showed me round the exhibits. A collection of inherited kitsch tea towels, building bricks caked in dried tea leaves, tea stained “tea”-shirts, delicately embroidered trade winds – white on white, a photo of a tea-cosy bleeding real wool out of its frame and down the wall…
Then we came to Crow’s piece. She had called it Unity of Women after the Munnar women’s movement, ‘Pembila Orumai’.
A homely tea-tray bearing a stainless steel tea-pot and a recently used tea strainer on a cup and saucer. That was it. It all looked perfectly ordinary and utterly mundane.
Somewhat perplexed, I asked Crow to explain it to me.
“Well, look more closely…” she challenged me. I peered again. And suddenly I saw it. The golden-brown “tea leaves” in the strainer were actually miniscule figures of broken women’s bodies.
The piece, with devastating eloquence, sums up the stark truth behind your cuppa. It has become such a mundane and cosy part of our lives that it is only when we are challenged to look more closely that we can see the reality of what it’s doing to the women who produce it. Their bodies are being strained and broken; their legs are scratched and bleeding from the rough bushes and from leeches. Carrying the heavy loads through steep hill paths injures their backs and knees and causes high rates of uterine prolapse. In parts of India, they suffer from malnutrition and pesticide poisoning… yet their trade unions, government and employers have agreed they should be paid less than the national minimum wage for other agricultural labourers.
It doesn’t have to be like this. If we told our supermarkets and our favourite tea brands that we don’t want our tea so cheap that women’s bodies have to be broken to produce it, they could challenge the way that tea prices are set so that there’s more for the workers. Seriously. Write to them. Speak up at their AGM. They can add their voices to those of local organisations calling for the improvement of pay and conditions on Indian tea plantations. They can support the creation of trade unions that genuinely represent the workers, so that they can negotiate for safe working conditions, decent accommodation and a living wage.
Then maybe there will come a time when the once powerless women who produce our tea can say, like Crow when she became the World Champion Deadlifter in her category, “I am the strongest I have ever been…”