My mind changed following a drive into the hinterlands of Bengal a few years ago. My destinations included the weaving towns of Shanthipur and Phulia as well as Shantiniketan; however, as it often happens, the journey trumped the destination.
An hour after we escaped the sound and dust of Kolkata, clean air filtered in. The sun streamed in. The landscape rippled into a verdant blur. Massive logs of wood striated the green. Soon, the scene thickened to something even thinner: jute.
Biswajit, my Bengali guide, chattered on as we drove through the countryside. I learned that the plant was called “jute” even in Bengali. The word was borrowed from the vernacular of the adjacent state. Natives of Orissa called the jute plant and its fiber by the name “jhuto.”
Jute fiber, as I had experienced it in my early years, was uninteresting: brown like mud, rough as bark, dull as husk. I’d forever been surrounded by gunny sacks made of jute—swollen with cement, coconuts, rice, wheat, mangoes. Ropes of varying heft and length—fashioned from jute and coir—lay coiled by the well of my parents’ old bungalow in Chennai. So I had scant respect for the lackluster length of doodad—until that day on the outskirts of Kolkata as we cruised on National Highway 34.
On either side of the highway, in thickets between banana trees and coconut trees, jute stems poked the sky, emerging as reeds close to the earth and thickening on the top at seven feet where they sprouted into a shower of leaves. Here and there, clusters of jute reeds were knotted on top, like wigwams, awaiting their summer harvest. Most of the world’s jute cultivation, some 85%, was concentrated in this delta of the Ganga river. For miles around, jute fed and clothed the locals, permeating the soul of man and animal.
After jute was harvested, farmers stacked them up to dry for three or four days in the sun. Then they threw the long reeds into lagoons where they rotted for up to fifteen or twenty days at a time. The men bashed the stems with a long wooden hammer to loosen the fiber from the core.
“Can we stop to talk to them?” I asked Biswajit when, around the bend of the road, we came upon farmers pounding at stalks in the water. The main road had narrowed into a thin ribbon. Little inlets of water had sprung up around us. The stink of rotting stem diffused into the air. Mosquitoes infested the swamps, Biswajit warned, as he led me down to the water to show me the first stage in the processing of jute. Below, five men stood in waist-length water. The steady thwack of a wooden board on reed slashed the silence of the late morning. Severed reeds slid back in, casting ripples in the greenish-brown waters.
I recalled something I’d heard earlier that morning in Kolkata from Ruby Pal Choudhury. A visionary in the Crafts Council of India, Ruby helped West Bengal’s weavers market their products through her outfit, Artisana, a showroom stocking exquisite crafts and textiles from the northeastern region. In her hands, she had held a feather-light jamdhani silk scarf bordered with muga wild silk from Assam. It was expensive, she had said. It was positioned for a niche market, for the affluent, discerning customer. But Ruby wanted India to continue making them despite the mounting prices and the waning clientele. “Doesn’t matter. It should be there. We must not lose it. And we must not use Korean and Chinese muga.” She paused, glaring at me through her steel-rimmed glasses. “Why? We have to support our weavers and our spinners and our farmers.”
Ruby’s words haunted me that morning as I stood, later, beside my guide watching farmers thrash jute. Biswajit translated one of the men’s protests. “Don’t shoot photos. No photos, you hear?” Waist-deep in water the color of ten-day old wheatgrass juice, the farmer fielded my questions in a colorless way. He said that he stood amid the rotting jute for five hours a day, typically, from 7 AM until noon. “I get about 450 Rupees,” he said, without raising his head, his arm swinging as he stripped the cane. He tossed the eviscerated reed to his right.
He loosened the jutes strands in the water. Fibers fanned out in the rotting swamp.
Wherever I turned that day, oceans of jute swayed until the horizon. Closer to the road, washed fibers baked on bamboo poles, toasting like golden snakes catching the rays of the sun. Dried hairs sat coiled on the ground in tight bundles, Rapunzel’s locks sheared from the soil.
In the last few years, jute is turning up, dyed in ravishing colors, in the form of artistic goodie bags at Indian weddings. At handloom exhibitions in Chennai, I would hear potential clients argue with middle men who peddled jute artifacts created by craftsmen back in West Bengal.
I wanted to tell buyers my stories of dour men pickling in water for hours day after day. I wished to let them know that those men were the reason I would never ever part with my jute bags, or my jute chain, or my jute earrings, or my jute tussar sari.
I wished they would hear my spiel while they were lost in the heat of their virulent bargain: “Just give him what he asks. Because what you see here is skin shorn by sodden limbs. This thing here was once a clump of stalks stripped by the salt of shriveled fingers, a lot of pale reeds, broken, by pale, broken men.”