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.)
‘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.]