A cup of fine tea: Divya Rajan’s “Factory Girls”

Divya Rajan’s “Factory Girls” [Read the poem here]
(First published in Issue #8 of Cha, this poem was nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 2009.)

–This post is written by Tammy Ho .

‘We work hard / to kill people we don’t know. / The ones who can afford / to die.’ (L35-L38) Thus ends Rajan’s poem “Factory Girls”, a depiction of a moment in harsh reality of poor factory workers in a developing economy. It is not as if the tedium and prison-like depressing mood of the factory is not disquieting enough, the particular products that the protagonist puts together are cigars (L32) instead of shoes or electronics; a luxury item for upper classes and nothing but a detriment to one’s health.

The cigar-factory workers’ life is indeed a bleak one: strictly regulated, they can only have pre-approved breaks of pre-determined lengths. This is highlighted in the poem by example of a washroom break: ‘The rules say, once in four hours, / so we, the ladies from the country / don’t drink water.’ (L1-L3) The same rigidity presumably applies to lunch breaks, but the choice of using a toilet break for the poem evokes a stronger sense of sympathy for the protagonists in the reader’s imagination. The break lasts for exactly ten minutes (L5) and is a highlight of the day for the girls at the factory, as they leave with their ‘minds and hearts lighter’ (L9). This is not just because of the physiological relief, but also due to a moment’s escape from their regular lives into daydreams: sometimes they forego the right to pee altogether and just gaze out the bathroom window (L10-L12).

Outside the factory, there are ‘odors of acid salts and chimney fumes’ (L14) and dried leaves that hint of trees farther away. The thoughts of the girls in the bathroom drift from the very nearby sensations of the factory yard into acacia trees that are imagined to flourish a mile away (L15-L17). Then the focus switches to visual stimulus and what can be seen from the small glass window: ‘tall steel buildings, megaliths / with stretched spines, / new ones preceding the old’ (L19-L21). Just as with the odors, the description moves from reality to fantasy, as the narration depicts the buildings kissing the sky, making love with each other (L22-L24). The fumes from the factory chimneys (these chimneys may also be a reference to the cigars that the girls make) become a metaphor for the narrative’s flight of fancy, as they dissipate to the grey skies ‘that’ll never be auburn again’ (L27) the same way the factory workers’ toilet break fantasies are doomed to dissipate at the end of the ten-minute deadline. The uniform skies have no stars or clouds (L28-L29), but the girls grab the sun in their “timid fists” before heading back to the factory floor. The daydream ends.

Under the watchful eye of the inspector the girls continue their work, and the contrast between their work and their dreams is emphasized by the revelation of the products they make. The poor factory workers from countryside cannot afford to dream more than ten minutes every four hours, while the customers of the cigars they make live lives of luxury and leisure. Unfair as it may be, there is no choice for the protagonists. They must work hard because that is all they have, and try to savour the whatever brief dreams of a happier life they can afford.

Don’t we all?

Divya Rajan‘s work has been published in Poetic Chicago anthology, Asia Writes, Apparatus, Danse Macabre, Femina, Gloom Cupboard, Read This, The Times of India, and many others. She has been a recipient of All-Bombay Intercollegiate Creative Non-Fiction Writing Award, a Pushcart Prize nomination and most recently, one of the winners of Cram 8 Chicago (an anthology edited by CJ Laity). Rajan currently lives in Chicago where she co-edits poetry at The Furnace Review. She has finished work on her first chapbook, Chanting Silhouettes. Her work has also been featured onWordslingers, a Chicago-based radio show, Chicago Public Radio and Accents radio show. [Also see Rajan’s Cha profile.]

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7 Responses to “A cup of fine tea: Divya Rajan’s “Factory Girls””

  1. rumjhum biswas Says:

    As an Indian, I am familiar with the reality of “factory girls” regardless of the industry. It is a harsh world, and that is an understatement. So it was not just the world of the factory girls that dug into my heart. Divya has portrayed that stringent, almost concentration camp like atmosphere so crisply and vividly not only through her words but also in the careful structure, the line breaks and punctuation in her poem. I could almost hear the hiss of urine stopping with stop clock precision; see the girls row by row craning their necks to see the bleak world outside their even bleaker world within and returning – their “minds and hearts lighter, after.” And that beautiful metaphor of megaliths kissing the sky with corroded lips, among others… all of it together really made this poem stand out for me.

  2. Michelle Says:

    Divya’s thought-provoking poem illuminates difficult lives. Thank you for highlighting ‘Factory Girls’.

  3. Bob Bradshaw Says:

    I agree with most of the analysis. But I found myself putting less emphasis on the ‘bleak’ nature of the girls’ working environment.

    First, the poem spends nearly a quarter of the poem talking about the bathroom’s rules and the girls’ adherence to them. I sense the girls’ comaraderie and community through their work. Everything in the poem is seen through “our” eyes. “We” sign in, “we” leave, “we” peek, “we” roll tobacco leaves…They experience their world together. Maybe that’s why
    I never sense the loneliness and isolation that one might expect in a poem on this subject.

    Many of us have had jobs like these, with regulated routines. The quick bathroom break, the short cigarette smoke, the gulping down of a cup of tea before one punches back into work …these aren’t necessarily the proofs of diminished lives. They’re just ways of life in a low pay, hard working world.

    It is a polluted world though. The girls are seen “devouring/
    odors of acid salts and chimney fumes/sprinkled oddly with desiccated leaves/ borne by acacias…”. The combination of a toxic world with beauty makes this view interesting, and believable. The world isn’t seen as black and white.

    Even in a regulated world one can find “minds and hearts lighter”. Even in a polluted world one can find beauty, even if it’s seen behind “glass frames, scarred/ with moth-like mausoleum fires”.

    This mixture of a gritty, but beautiful world is emphasized again as the tall buildings “kiss the sky with correded lips/the shade of jaded gray./ They kiss and make love, the dark fumes rising…”.

    But the girls take what beauty they can find, the sun that they “cup into their timid fists”, and go back to work, where they roll tobacco leaves into “origami” cigars. Origami has associations of beauty and delicacy. Even here, in a simple task, a kind of beauty lives.

    The last four lines are a killer ending…”We try to be fast. We work hard/ to kill people we don’t know. / The ones who can afford/ to die.”

    Here, the poem blindsides us. But we feel that we should have seen it coming. That makes the ending even more powerful.

    We see the impact of a small factory and a simple life of factory girls suddenly very differently. The girls must work, presumably to support not only themselves but their families. The grim irony of this ending resonates back through the poem.

    Can the girls afford to take into account the results of their work? How did women so sensitive to beauty become accessories to this killing?

    How did a poem that started out so simply end up here? It’s a tour de force. A lovely poem. One that I admire immensely.

  4. Kathleen Cassen Mickelson Says:

    This is an amazing poem. The intimacy of the images, the bleakness of the setting, the glimmer of hope found in a ray of sunshine or a peek out the window, and that ending that is at once so harsh, so breathtaking, and so exact…..Divya, your talent as a poet and your thoughtful observations are astonishingly good. What a treat to read this poem.

  5. Ankur Agarwal Says:

    The poem reminds me of a Hindi film, in which women used to make bidis, go there, come back, get paid lousily, somehow try to live life. This is an extremely powerful poem: the acacias “might be still living”; there’s an element of breath here remembered; a memory which probably only exists in imagination, and yet not a fantasy, but a memory which makes life livable. I did have a little problem suddenly adjusting to the megaliths, simply because though I know India to be a land of contrasts, yet from the “windows up the narrow bathrooms” it seemed to me a little out of place to be able to see the megaliths, the steel structures. Somehow the rest of the poem talks to me about women bonded in sadness and what they perceive as their fate and repressed forgotten moth like desires, and those steel structures, even if “jaded gray”, try to give it a contour, a distinct one. However, it does not rob the poem of its force; for me, it just jarred with the rest of the mood, and maybe for others it works very well. What does work very well though is the line breaks and the sparse capitalization. This is a gem of a poem!

  6. Divya Rajan Says:

    Thank you, Tammy, Jarno (and Bob), for your kind review and also, for this opportunity to revisit!:) It has also been a pleasure to learn from insights other than my own…

    I’ve to say that this piece was majorly inspired by the non- judgmental, non- fictionalized account of migrant workers at Dongguan (a major factory town), by the same name, written by Leslie Chang. I was truly impressed by the positivity and the tenacity of these girls despite dire circumstances, and hopefully, was able to communicate similar vibes…

    What was left unsaid, Tammy? Not much that I can think of, except maybe, for the attempt to transfuse the pristine charm of the acacia leaves into the rather mundane, unsung, definitely ‘corrupt’ tobacco leaves… also, an unconscious mode of clinging onto/ preserving an element of their past in the countryside: a corollary, if you may!

    Thanks again!

  7. Howard Says:

    Nice analysis.

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