Body shops: where cultures meet
In the recent Telugu film Aadavari Matalaku Arthale Verule (The Words of Women Have Different Meanings, Selvaraghavan 2007), Venkatesh plays the role of an expert IT worker who achieves impossible feats (not what you expect: there is a scene in which he bangs away at a keyboard for a whole night and saves the company from some kind of disaster). The interesting part of the story, however, is that Venkatesh is a country boy; he is a bloody good IT guy but he has no English, only speaks Telugu. Fortunately for him, the beautiful Trisha, playing the training supervisor of the new recruits, does not equate intelligence with knowledge of English, although for other reasons she remains sceptical of his abilities until he performs the above-mentioned miracle. The story then moves to Sydney, Australia where a team led by Trisha and including Venkatesh is sent to undertake a job for a client. Soon after this the IT story is pushed to the background and on returning to India, Venkatesh accompanies Trisha to her village, where the more familiar rural tale of internecine conflicts takes over and Venkatesh, never too convincing as an IT worker, finally seems at home.
It was thus pleasantly surprising to see that Xiang's research project had led him to the same three geographical locations that are featured in the film: rural Andhra Pradesh, globalized Hyderabad, and Sydney, one of the markets for skilled labour produced in AP-Hyderabad.
Xiang's book presents the daily lives, the intricate familial and professional negotiations, calculations and strategies, dreams and speculations through which individual Indians in the finger-labour market survive. It is a story of how communities and families feed the training schools with much-needed investment by way of fees, so that they may be launched on an international job market, where the earnings, if secured, are high enough to make a difference to the family's situation back home. The family back home remains the anchoring place, an 'ethnic' feature that both endears our workers to the employers because of the docility it induces, and renders them a source of annoyance because of the slippery practices, the deviousness that this ultimate fidelity to family and community seems to legitimize.
The prologue to the book deserves special mention as a record of the author's attempt to bring to the anthropological research project a measure of self-reflexivity that is not usually associated with it. A Chinese scholar's decision to study Indian workers in diaspora (to begin with) introduces into the ethnographic relation a position of knowledge that is askance to those of the western anthropologist and the native informant (who is nowadays encouraged to undertake research in his/her own society). Xiang is of course a stranger to India, which is a neighbouring country but one that is culturally very different from China. But there are similarities in the social situations of himself and his subjects, which I have already mentioned above. Xiang ends the prologue with the hope that this effort will contribute to 'South-South dialogue in anthropology'. No doubt it will. But perhaps it also demonstrates the possibilities for deeper understanding that stem from shared social realities, on condition that we do not let this understanding turn into a 'shared secret'. For the classical anthropologist's distance from the object, we should substitute, as I believe Xiang does here, a political subjectivity that gives the scholar the necessary alienation that will turn understanding into critique.
Madhava Prasad is Professor in the Department of Cultural Studies, English and Foreign Languages University, Hyderabad, India. He is currently Visiting Senior Research Fellow at the Asia Research Institute. Professor Prasad also teaches in the Cultural Studies programme of the Institute. He has published a book on Indian cinema, entitled Ideology of the Hindi Film (Oxford University Press, 1998), and essays in film and cultural studies.