Witnessing Slavery in the 21st Century

By: LINDSEY UNGER
    Four hours North of Thirvanthapuram, India, sits the city of Kollam.
Malayalam swirls advertising a concrete company are spray painted everywhere. On the concrete canvases, sickle and hammer drip in red endorsing the relative prosperity Communism has brought to this part of India. Emaciated cows lick at the painted wall and graze in the sewage amongst the rickshaw fumes and coconut stands. Destinations and the road between them blend seamlessly until at last, the car pulls into the formerly British port city, Kollam.
At this point, I’ve spent five weeks in the province of Kerala, the most Southwestern tip of India, and so far I’ve witnessed a world that only reaches Westerners in movies like ‘Slum Dog Millionaire’. Nevertheless it is impossible not to encounter everything we associate with the third world: people mutilated to beg for money, trash stretching as far as the eye can wander, homes made of street scraps, and packs of dogs pegged to be a part of the yearly extermination. Most severely affecting me, quite selfishly, however, is the way people treat me. For every human connection I forge with someone, I come under fire by a hundred others who beg me, sexually harass me, and verbally indicate how little worth I am of. And why? For existing as I do: a young female, having a strange voice and being neither Indian nor fully “white”. Here in India, there is no reason to respect me: not my physical person, property or opinion.
Much of my time here, however, I have spent attacking my own filter of perception, tearing it down to absorb my surroundings without judgment and perhaps reach a slightly higher comprehension of the world. Yet, this belittling treatment has forced my soul to harden and depleted my compassion, the sole thing I have to give.
In Kollam, my travel companion, Chris, and I met a man named Harjeet. Harjeet, with his broken English and respectful attitude, surprised me. The Kollam native quickly became our new rickshaw tour guide, eager to familiarize us to his city. I felt refreshed to be considered a person in his company. After several experiences across the city, Harjeet offered to show us something he never would show other Westerners. We agreed to the special experience.
As we reached a rural road, the rickshaw came to a stop. A path led us to Harjeet’s ‘rope factory’, a lakeside mud pit where eleven or so wizened women sat, filthy, with their emaciated frames fused to the position and exact angle of their work. Their eyes were bloodshot, their hair crawling with bugs and their clothing served little purpose. Their misery was unlike any I had ever seen.
Their jobs were to beat the exterior of rotten coconuts that marinated in the lake until the husk-like part came off. This was the material skilled workers use to make rope. Unlike the skilled workers with their machines, these women were special: they were slaves, owned by Harjeet. He proudly remarked on this reality, causing Chris and I to freeze. I felt sick thinking I had taken comfort in Harjeet’s kindness. It was apparent the women feared him, torn between acknowledging me and continuing their work. They feared Chris as well. While the men busied themselves elsewhere, I stayed with the women and made a connection. Our connection was greater than language, for we lacked a common one. I could not even imagine the lsat time they were treated with respect and I was sure they had never met a Western woman. There was a commonality present that day, a bond and respect that women only share with women. I sensed this connection drawing us together despite our obvious differences.
Smiles passed between us as I sat in the mud with them and helped pile up their husk fibers. They were pleased by my humility. I asked if I could photograph them and demonstrated the concept of photography. They responded enthusiastically. I spoke to them individually. The women allowed me to photograph them in their work individually. All of them smiled ear-to-ear when I showed them their photographs on the digital camera. Even the women, who had initially been stern, smiled when they saw their photos. I felt India’s beauty in their souls. I wanted to help them. The urge still crushes me.
In this part of India, which claimed to be communist, why wasn’t everyone equal? I could not resolve this in my mind. Chris looked at me and understood what had transpired with the women. When I left the women, my only thought was that they were a few of inevitably many. This slavery is surely alive, just upon other rural paths, too. I’ve learned palm groves can enclose so many secrets.
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