Her name is Basanti. But it could have been Brigitte or Bilkis
The Gold Medalist
We talk incessantly of the Father of the nation and that of the economic miracle, but we never hear a word about the real makers of that nation and that miracle — the operatives at the mind-numbing machines
— TD Fuego
“The workers’ flag is deepest red,
It shrouded oft our martyred dead;
And ere their limbs grew stiff and cold,
Their life-blood dyed its every fold.
* * *
Then raise the scarlet standard high.
Beneath its folds we live and die.
Though cowards flinch and traitors sneer,
We’ll keep the red flag flying here.”
— Jim Connell
Her name is Basanti. But it could have been Brigitte or Bilkis; it does not really matter. She is a young woman of 28, but looks more like 40, with a small wrinkled face. She is bringing up two children on her own since the day her husband walked out on her with someone younger and prettier. Our society’s attitude towards women living alone has not changed very much in my lifetime, and I wonder if it ever will. Divorcees, widows, or spinsters are all regarded as easy prey by most men, young and old alike. But they survive — they have to! — through all the demeaning, gross harassment that this mentality engenders.
If you care to look, you can see Basanti everywhere — in every hamlet, every village and every town. She is always in a hurry, always on the move, head held down as if in shame. So don’t be too disappointed if she does not stop for any small talk; she has no time for any of that. In the morning she must get up at the crack of dawn in order to be at her workplace by 7, after having prepared the kids for school. And in the evening, she must return home quickly to cook, clean, feed the kids and do a myriad of chores before collapsing onto her Courts bed on which she still owes several installments. That is if there is no compulsory overtime to do!
Having been forced into an early marriage by her well-meaning, but not so bright parents (can’t be too fussy when you have an uneducated, dark-skinned girl when a proposal comes, no matter from which Tommy, Dicky or Harry!) at the age of 17, she was producing babies at 18, and trying to be the happy housewife and good mother. But when the thunderbolt hit her little universe, she had to get out of her flimsy cocoon and climb fast up the steep learning curve of life in the outside world.
With not much in the way of academic education or work experience, she took up a job as a machinist in a garment factory. There is not much need for brains in this job. All you need is the grit to sit at a noisy sewing machine all day long, stitching dozens of collars that will be sewn onto completed shirts by someone else. Hers is a story of mind-numbing — not to say bottom-numbing — grind for a basic Rs.1k for a 45-hour week. A far cry from the USD8k per capita income that gets bandied about to show how wonderfully well we are doing!
In order to earn that kind of figure, our Basanti would need to work for a full 5 years!! Yet, the Mauritius Employers Federation will tell you that her labour is an expensive input in their manufacturing process. Worse, our governments — all of them — have colluded with the employers by setting ludicrously low Remuneration Orders for the EPZ. To add insult to the various injuries, there is no Lump Sum or company pension at retirement. So, in her old age, our Basanti will have to make do with the below breadline Old Age Pension and a small payment from the contributory NPF scheme.
But, she has no say in matters of high Economics. Hers is an invisible face in the teeming, madding crowd. You will never see her name in a newspaper. You will never see her photograph on any billboard. You will certainly never see her on any TV programme, being rewarded with any glittering trophy for a job well done. No Sir, that is reserved for some second rate athlete who has taken part and come a wonderful 5th in some obscure international competition, having first been pampered at a top foreign training centre. All paid for by taxpayers’ money, her money!
However, you will never hear the stupid woman complain; she has no right to complain. Hers is simply to do as she is told and shut up! The sound of her intermittent sobs, when she is alone in her bed, gets very easily drowned by the loud, jangling sound of Euros making their way into the coffers of factory owners. Whenever the wonderful success of post-independence Mauritius is evoked, we are told that it is largely thanks to the textile industry (and its hard-working employees) that we have become a middle-income country.
Yet, there never is a murmur about those underpaid workers. In the bright, beautiful tableau that the Central Statistics office paints of the booming economy of Miracle Mauritius, our Basanti does not get to figure even in the distant, hazy background. Of course, the foreground is always occupied by grinning nabobs from industry and government, all congratulating each other on the formidable job that they have accomplished. Medals and decorations with mind-boggling acronyms are exchanged among the brethren, but not even a passing comment about humble little Basanti.
We talk incessantly of the Father of the nation and that of the economic miracle, but we never hear a word about the real makers of that nation and that miracle — the operatives at the mind-numbing machines. No, amid the shrill cacophony of special gospel chanting to the latter-day Gods, we will wait in vain to hear a word about all those women (and men) who get up before the cock has crowed for a stint lasting 9-13 hours in some dark, satanic mill amidst a bedlam of noisy, infernal machines.
We will certainly never hear a word about poor old Basanti — the real gold medalist of Miracle Mauritius!