BANGALORE, India — The factory floor is going full throttle when the new girls walk in. Everywhere is the thrumming of sewing machines, the hum of fans, the faint burning smell of steam irons. On narrow tables that run between the machines, half-assembled Marks & Spencer miniskirts are thrust forward by fistfuls. The tailors, absorbed in the task of finishing 100 pieces per hour, for once turn their heads to look.
The new girls smell of the village. They have sprinklings of pimples. They woke well before dawn to prepare themselves for their first day of work, leaning over one another’s faces in silence to shape the edges of each eyebrow with a razor blade. Their braids bounce to their hips, tight and glossy, as if woven by a surgeon. On their ankles are silver chains hung with bells, so when they walk in a group, they jingle.
But it is impossible to hear this sound over the racket on the factory floor. The tailors glance up for only a moment, long enough to take in an experiment. The new workers — teenagers, most of them — have been recruited from remote villages to help factories like this one meet the global demand for cheap garments. But there is also social engineering going on.
A government program has drawn the trainees from the vast population of rural Indian women who spend their lives doing chores. In 2012, the last time the government surveyed its citizens about their occupation, an astonishing 205 million women between the ages of 15 and 60 responded “attending to domestic duties.”
Economists, with increasing urgency, say India will not fulfill its potential if it cannot put them to work in the economy. They say that if female employment were brought on par with male employment in India, the nation’s gross domestic product would expand by as much as 27 percent.
Experiments like the one in Bangalore run against deep currents in India, whose guiding voice, Mohandas K. Gandhi, envisioned a socialist future built on the small-scale economy of the village. They also collide spectacularly with an old way of life, in which girls are kept in seclusion until they can be transferred to another family through arranged marriage.
Bangalore is the first city the 37 trainee tailors have seen. They are dazzled by the different kinds of light. Picking their way through the alleys around the factory, a column of virgins from the countryside, they stare up at an apartment building that towers over the neighborhood and wish their mothers could see it.
Among them are two sisters, Prabhati and Shashi Das. They have come from a village at the end of a road, a place so conservative that the single time they went to a movie theater, their male cousins and uncles created a human chain around them, their big hands linked, to protect them from any contact with outside men. They are, as far as they know, the first unmarried women who have ever migrated from the village to work.
Neighbors in the village are waiting to see what happens. The nasty ones say, with obvious relish, it will end badly. They whisper about migrant workers whose eyes were removed by organ traders while they slept. They say Prabhati and Shashi will be “used this way and that.”
Still, they go. Prabhati, at 21, is stubborn and able, and Shashi, two years her junior, pretty and fizzing with suppressed laughter. The two sisters hook pinkies when they walk down the lane that leads to the factory.
“All the flirts and ruffians in the whole world must have been born on this lane,” Shashi grumbles, but she is laughing. Attention is like water to her.
The sisters are waiting, too, to see what will happen to them. They are both at the age when they could be summoned at any moment to be displayed to a family of strangers as a potential daughter-in-law. And each of them wants something else, something impossible.
It is late May, the first day of their factory summer — of love letters folded into squares and dropped onto work stations; of fevers sweated out on the floor of a bare hostel room; of supervisors shouting in a language they do not understand, a couple of words — “work” and “faster” — gradually becoming clear; of capitalism, of men and of a bit of freedom.
Luring Idle Young Women
It all started in March, in the drippy jungle of rural Odisha, when two distant relatives happened to meet on the roadside.
One of the men had found employment as a “mobilizer” for Gram Tarang, a for-profit agency contracted by India’s government to recruit and train workers. He mentioned that Gram Tarang was offering a cash incentive — roughly 450 rupees, or about $6.75, a head — to mobilizers who identified young women willing to enroll in a training program for garment factory jobs.
The second man, Hemant Das, perked up, sensing the approach of a change of career. Hemant had an underfed look and teeth rimmed with tobacco stains. Among the first college graduates from his family, he had tried his hand at laying bricks, tutoring schoolchildren, programming computers, setting up wedding tents and waiting tables before finally falling back on the only job widely available to men here, working as a field hand for 200 rupees a day.
Hemant was from a village called Ishwarpur, and as it happened, idle young women were something Ishwarpur had in great quantity. That they could be monetized came as good news.
On its economic merits alone, Hemant figured, the government scheme would prove tempting: After two months of training, their daughters would be placed in a factory in the industrial center of Bangalore, where they would earn the legal minimum wage, 7,187 rupees per month, or about $108, which is more than most of their fathers make. Six months after arriving in Bangalore, they would be free to return home if they wished.
Hemant set out the next day with a fistful of pamphlets and an uncharacteristically sunny disposition. But as he made his rounds of local families — 30 of them, at least — they shook their heads. No. “Letting go of female children is dishonorable, in itself,” explained Pramanand Das, who presides over an informal family council.
Minati Das, the mother of a 19-year-old, got to the point quicker. “Not everyone wants a daughter-in-law who is a working woman,” she said. “They think she has lost her chastity.”
The village had its own plan for these young women. Upon reaching adulthood, they would be transferred to the guardianship of another family, along with a huge dowry that serves as an incentive to treat them well. The transfer is final. Once married, the new bride cannot return to visit her parents without permission, which is given sparingly, so that the bonds to her old home will weaken.
She must show her submission to the new family: She is not allowed to speak the names of her in-laws, because it is seen as too familiar, and in some places she is not allowed to use words that begin with the same letters as her in-laws’ names, requiring the invention of a large parallel vocabulary. Each morning, before she is allowed to eat, the daughter-in-law must wash the feet of her husband’s parents and then drink the water she has used to wash them.
Hemant would have been completely out of luck if he had not thought to try Karuna Das, who had two daughters of marriageable age. Karuna was a sinewy day laborer, and he had roamed far from the village in his younger days to work in iron foundries in Chennai and Hyderabad. The gossip was that Karuna agreed to enroll his eldest daughters because he was unable to scrape together 100,000 rupees for dowries. That was undoubtedly the case.
It was also true that Karuna did not care much what other people said. He had never behaved like a poor man. When word spread that he had agreed to send Prabhati and Shashi, the village elders convened emergency meetings to determine whether this violated “purdah,” or separation between the sexes, and whether this would damage the marriage prospects of their own daughters. Women stopped by to tease the girl’s mother, Radha Rani, who wept inconsolably.
It turned out that Karuna had not been asking for permission. He instructed his daughters to pack four or five changes of clothes. Go see what the world is like, he told them. “They were reluctant to go anywhere because they were a bit scared,” he said. “I told them being scared is O.K. O.K., you’re scared. Now you have to move on.”
First Train Ride
Prabhati has never seen a train, much less ridden in one, and on the 33-hour journey to Bangalore the earth seems to heave under her. As miles of paddy fields slide by, she vomits. Thatch roofs are replaced by peaked roofs, and she vomits. When they reach south India, rain begins to hit the window in fat spatters.
It had come as news to Prabhati that the training program involved traveling 900 miles. But some intention had hardened within her. She wanted to prove the neighbors wrong. She did not care about her marriage prospects because, after examining the marriages that surrounded her in Ishwarpur, she decided she did not want to marry at all.
“I will go to Bangalore,” she told her parents. “If I come back, then you can get me married. If I don’t come back, you can’t get me married.”
Shashi sits beside her retching sister and strokes her back. She had not wanted to come. Happy enough with a future as a housewife, she had focused her energy on making mischief. Among friends, she introduced herself as “45 kilograms of hotness.” Out of the corner of her mouth came a stream of dirty jokes, and she made the other girls dissolve in helpless laughter by comparing breast sizes to vegetables (including, mournfully, a kernel of corn).
Working on an assembly line was not Shashi’s idea of fun. But Prabhati plunged forward, and, as usual, Shashi cruised along in her wake.
The sisters, lugging a bag of clothes, sit with 35 other girls from Odisha who are making the same journey.
They have all dressed in baggy purple-and-gray uniforms, with ID cards swinging from their necks. Their parents had made last-minute attempts to keep them from leaving, which had to be repelled with sustained tantrums. A girl called Baby, who is 18 and bespectacled, said that she had secured her mother’s permission only by refusing to eat for two days.
“They wanted me to come home,” she says. “I’m not going home.”
The Gram Tarang instructors had taught them an anthem about self-sufficiency, and they sing it on their journey to Bangalore, again and again, for comfort.
We will stay a month and train ourselves
This job is the story of our lives
The job is as important as prayer
We won’t fear, and we will go ahead.
The sun has not yet risen when they arrive at the hostel that will be their new home for the next six months: 137 women in 15 unfurnished rooms, every inch covered with girlish flotsam, underwear and bras drying on the window grates, sentimental verses penciled on the walls.
Prabhati and Shashi’s room is being painted, so on the first night 25 of them crowd into two rooms, so tight that one of their roommates stretches out on the kitchen counter. “I thought there would be beds,” murmurs one, and the chaperone from Gram Tarang looks exasperated.
“They complain, ‘You could have given us this, you could have given us that,’” he says. “We sweetly explain that it is not possible. They don’t have the bed system in Bangalore.”
But the girls are too keyed up to sleep. Climbing onto the roof, they can see the sun rising over a landscape of other roofs, where, in all directions, migrants seek a breath of quiet. There they can gaze up at the 22nd story of an apartment building, where residents come out to hang their laundry on balconies. It is the most amazing thing they have ever seen: big people looking tiny.
“I want to see what I haven’t seen,” murmurs one of the girls, sleepily. “I want to see what I don’t even know exists.”
Baby says something about her eventual return to India, and when someone corrects her, she looks up sharply.
“Bangalore is in India?” she asks.
Unlearning Village Lessons
For the first few weeks, everything is new. Stepping out of the hostel, the trainees are surrounded by men: Men on balconies, men on scooters, men lounging in doorways, staring. The road is plastered with signs saying “tailors wanted,” and one girl gives a yelp of alarm, mistaking them for wanted posters.
On the day of a Hindu festival, Prabhati peers down from the roof at a troupe of transgender dancers, smiling and twitching suggestively as men press in around them. When one bends down so that an onlooker can stick a folded bill in her cleavage, Prabhati is so shocked that she has an impulse to reach for a stone and throw it.
“If this happened in the village,” she says, “you would all be dead.”
In rural Odisha they like to say that “a girl’s shyness is her jewelry.” But here, there is no space for the newcomers unless they make space for themselves. To cross the street — a throbbing two-lane road coursing with auto rickshaws, clattering cargo trucks, scooters carrying whole families — requires stepping in front of the slower-moving vehicles, if necessary stopping them with their bodies. The girls waver, and then they plunge.
Much of what they learned in the village must be unlearned here. One evening when Baby begins preparing dinner, several of her roommates protest. She is menstruating, and caste tradition dictates that menstruating women must live in isolation, sleeping alone and taking care not to step into the kitchen, lest they contaminate the food and water. So two of the younger roommates cook, emerging an hour later with a glutinous, inedible glop. At this point, Baby is irritated. Menstruating women are allowed to work in the factory, aren’t they? She walks into the kitchen, and the scent of spices and onions fills the room. After a brief discussion, they agree that the menstruation rules will be void for as long as they are living in Bangalore. Then they stuff themselves with food and fall into a deep sleep.
When they are introduced to a factory supervisor and dive to touch her feet, a traditional gesture of respect toward elders, the supervisor jumps back as if she has been stuck with a hot poker. She then assumes a slight crouch, as if preparing to defend herself from further reverence.
Back in their bedrooms, the girls laugh hysterically at this. From childhood, they have been told that it is disrespectful for a girl to laugh out loud in the presence of elders. In the event of irrepressible laughter, girls must cover their mouths with anything at hand: the corner of a dupatta, a hand, a washcloth. This lesson, too, flies out the window. In the hostel they laugh like tractors. They laugh so loud they spit their water out.
Low Wages, Long Hours
“I’m giving you 25 seconds to thread this needle,” the supervisor says in Hindi. The recruits, whose native language is Oriya, barely understand. Thirty-seven tailors bend their heads, trying to guide frayed threads through a maze of eight loops.
At the K. Mohan & Company Exports Private Limited, the girls have entered a world of machines: massive industrial extractors, laser cutters, a rapid-response protocol that kicks in when a needle tip breaks off.
And yet, incredibly, garments worn in the West are still made by humans — nearly all of them women, working exhausting hours, with few legal protections and little chance of advancement, for some of the lowest wages in the global supply chain.
As the trainees practice sewing straight lines on pieces of scrap fabric, supervisors pace the aisle, hoping to spot one with machinelike dexterity and speed. One of them slows, and then stops, beside a girl called Cuddles, the daughter of a truck driver. The supervisor blinks, looks again. This is — there is no other word for it — talent. She has covered the fabric with seams as straight as the lines on ruled notebook paper.
Cuddles is among the first in the group to be integrated into an assembly line, bent over, eyes straining. Her task is to stitch together three small tags for the Marks & Spencer stretch corduroy skirt: one that identifies the brand, one that gives washing instructions and one the size, a scrap so tiny that it is nearly impossible to hold straight between finger and thumb. If she allows a tag to slip to the floor, or fly away in the gusts from the ceiling fan, her salary will be docked. She will be under pressure to complete this task 100 times per hour for eight hours, with one half-hour break for lunch, for a base daily wage of around $2.
A man with a loft of dyed black hair steps out of his office to greet the group. This is N. Manjunath, the assistant general manager for human resources at the factory. He is recruiting rural workers through the government program because he is desperate: City-dwellers are no longer interested in factory jobs like these, with their low pay and punishing conditions, and attrition rates are high. Migrant women are more docile. This is what Manjunath is hoping.
Prabhati, Shashi and the other recruits take seats in a canteen, and sit with their hands folded in their laps. They are to work every day but Sunday. They can collect their pension in 40 years. Should they die on the job, state health insurance will cover funeral costs.
They are drowsy. The numbers fly by them in flocks. When a response is expected, they chorus “Yes, miss,” or “Yes, sir,” as they would to a schoolmaster.
“Can we work on Sundays?”
Manjunath thinks of himself as a kind man. But the complications of employing village girls have strained his last nerve: the weepy petitions for leave to return to the village for essential functions, like a father having a hemorrhoid removed; the domestic squabbles, which on one occasion ended in the consumption of toilet cleaner; and the “love cases,” in which a tailor, upon forming a romantic attachment in the factory, is summarily ordered home.
Lately, when the girls come to him with complaints, he listens skeptically, with a sardonic smile. He assesses this latest batch of recruits, the second from Odisha, as “lackadaisical.” He believes they have come here for an adventure, and will gravitate back to the village as soon as their parents tell them to come home.
He is right to worry. After six months on the job, when the government incentives are paid out, around half the trainees brought in by Gram Tarang return to their villages. Only 40 percent stay longer than a year.
It comes down to this: If the village has a plan for the girls, so does the factory. Leading them through the rows of machines, Manjunath wags his finger.
“Don’t get married too soon,” he warns them.
Dreaming of Love
Within two weeks of their arrival, one of the sisters’ roommates has eloped straight from the factory gates, not even stopping by the hostel to pick up her clothes. Those who remain spill their secrets to one another. Tanushree Behera sleeps entangled with a girl she calls her wife. Jayasmita Behera is divorced, having left her husband less than two weeks after the wedding.
“If I had stayed,” she says, “my life would have been destroyed.”
The rest spend their evenings in quiet conversation with boyfriends, whose existence is unknown to their parents. They examine each other’s palms for creases that indicate they will be among the small number of Indians — as low as 5 percent, according to one survey — who marry for love. At the factory, they stitch their boyfriends’ names on scrap fabric. Male tailors stroll by as they work, dropping love letters folded into fat wads, and the girls read them aloud, to comic effect, at the hostel. “My dear, my lever,” someone writes to Shashi in broken English. “I have tied you up in my heart.”
Sitting cross-legged on the floor, they compare notes on evasive maneuvers they use to avoid being shown to prospective in-laws, like Roadrunner slipping away from Wile E. Coyote. Shradhanjali Mallick, the beauty among them, says she used to have success with bouts of hysterical crying, but that moving to Bangalore has been more effective. “How can they marry me off if I am not physically present?” she asks innocently, and Prabhati laughs. “Let them hold a wedding of mothers-in-law and fathers-in-law,” she says. “Because that’s the only kind of wedding they will be able to pull off.”
This is not something Prabhati can laugh about at home. Her views on marriage were set in stone several years back, when a young wife in her village was set on fire in a domestic dispute. Prabhati has been arguing for years that she should be allowed to remain single, that her parents should proceed to fixing a marriage for Shashi, who is pretty and will get better offers. “I will become a nun,” she says. But her parents flick away her comment, casually, as if it were a fly. So she thinks of escape.
This is a subject she cannot discuss with her sister. Three years ago, Prabhati came across a mobile phone that a secret boyfriend gave Shashi as a way of keeping in touch, rigged, as if for espionage, with no audible sound or light, to be switched on at times when they have agreed to speak. Prabhati snatched the phone away and informed her father. Shashi screamed at her father that day — don’t break that phone! — but she never saw it again. For months, she could not look him in the eye.
The sisters were never as close again. When it comes to the future, Prabhati and Shashi keep their own counsel.
Praying for Sunday
By the first week of June, the new girls are praying for Sunday to arrive. Their joints hurt. Their backs hurt. They come home from the factory with fingers punctured by needles or sliced by industrial clippers. Sitting still for eight hours is strange and new, and at times, the boredom is maddening. They sing to their machines. They pull hairs out of their chins. Baby amuses herself by giving herself little scratches on the wrist.
They are locked into the hostel except for “out passes” on alternate Sundays, which are granted by the factory human resources staff. A Gram Tarang “life skills” instructor makes the rounds inside the hostel, selling them 600-rupee jars of an Herbalife energy drink, which she tells them will help them keep up with the pace of work in the factory. It does give them energy — it includes caffeine and maltodextrin — but it also gives them diarrhea and eats up their remaining cash. This is no small problem, because they are running out of money for food.
They count the days until June 10, when they will be paid for their first two weeks of work. Prabhati and Shashi, who had left home with 5,000 rupees, or about $75, find themselves with 100 rupees between them. “If there’s no salary today, it’s going to be a problem,” Prabhati says.
On June 10, they are not paid. Three more days pass, and they still are not paid. Outside the factory window the sky has turned black and the air is churning; a curtain of monsoon rain is about to sweep in.
About 15 girls walk into Manjunath’s office, hearts pounding, to demand their pay. He looks up from his desk, annoyed. The usual genial expression has vanished from his face. He explains that he cannot solve their problem: The company has opened bank accounts for them, but the bank has not delivered their A.T.M. cards. Anyway, he dismisses the suggestion that the girls are running out of money. And who, he wonders, has given them the idea that they can make demands? He surveys the group in search of its leader.
“My clear understanding is that if you have a basket of fruits and only one is not good, it will spoil the other fruit,” he explains. “You have to take one out.”
When Jayasmita steps forward to say they have not eaten since yesterday, he swivels his head in her direction. He does not speak Oriya. “What did she say?” he asks a caseworker.
The girls are promised an advance for rice and are ordered to leave his office. They shuffle out. They had been planning to stop working unless they were paid immediately, but their strike has lasted less than five minutes. Jayasmita slumps against a wall, and vows never to try anything like that again.
“When you come to a new city,” she says, “you have to learn to care for yourself, and not bother with others.”
The money for the first two weeks’ work comes through three or four days later — after withholdings for pension, health insurance, lodging, food and kitchen furnishings, a grand total of 1,874 rupees, or roughly $28. This sum must last them for the next month. In the hostel room where Prabhati and Shashi stay, the amount of the paycheck is not relevant. They have never earned money before, only asked their fathers for it. A wave of happiness washes over all of them. They do not feel like girls, they say: They feel like boys.
They transfer credit — 30 rupees, 50 rupees — to the cellphones of their mothers, brothers, sisters-in-law, brothers-in-law and boyfriends, as if they were distributing sweets to celebrate some windfall.
Unable to wait, they call their families from cubbyhole A.T.M.s to share the news. This is not always welcome. Cuddles transfers a balance of 50 rupees to her father’s phone, but he considers it shameful to accept money from a daughter. He calls her, angrily, to say, “Never do that again.” Cuddles doesn’t care; she has never been so happy.
Prabhati and Shashi are among the last to receive their A.T.M. cards. They find a bank machine in between Krishna Jewelers & Pawnbrokers and Blooming Buds India Playschool. Leaving the A.T.M., Prabhati feels joy, but she is not the type of person who shows it. She scans the street, looking for some way to celebrate, and finally asks a man if she can borrow his bicycle for a moment. She climbs on top of it and pedals as hard as she can, her braid flying behind her. Then, taking note of his look of worry, she swings the bicycle around and returns it to its owner.
Shashi dances down the stairs and most of the way home. The money sends a wild thrill through her, so that she wishes she could fast-forward through the next month, and the month after that, and after that. So that life is a long string of paydays.
The two sisters make a pact: They will stay in Bangalore at least a year. They spend much of their paychecks on nose rings for each other, tiny specks of 22-carat gold. They place them on each other in front of their roommates, beaming, their faces so close together that they could be kissing.
Then Prabhati lies down on her stomach, full length, cheek to the cool linoleum. She is not feeling well.
Among the First to Falter
It is strange that one of the first girls to falter is Prabhati, who was the most resolute about staying in Bangalore.
She has contracted a fever that comes and goes for two weeks. She stops eating and then stops talking; her eyes are so hollow that you could place a handful of rice in them. Shashi stays home, combing her sister’s hair and forcing her to bathe.
But then she must return to work, and Prabhati is left shivering on the floor. “In city life,” Prabhati says, “even if you are dead, people will just get dressed and go to the factory without being bothered.”
Minati Mahji, who has lived in the hostel for six years, observes them wearily. Of 130 women who arrived at the same time, only she and her four roommates have stuck it out. She tried switching to another factory, but it was no better, and she wound up back in the hostel. Her pay has crept up to 9,800 rupees, or $146 per month.
She has seen wave after wave of young women arrive from the countryside, freshly hatched, and she knows how it usually ends — with the girl’s disappearance into that old world as a daughter-in-law. “Whatever they are planning, it doesn’t happen like that,” she says.
Even through her fever, Prabhati knows she wants to stay. She tries to keep her illness from her family, handing her crisp new 500-rupee bills to a street-corner doctor who seems to give all his injections in the buttocks. It is Shashi who tells their father that her sister is sick. Her father calls the Gram Tarang training center, demanding that Prabhati be sent home, and the training center calls the factory.
On the day she is to board a train to return to Ishwarpur, Prabhati stands at the edge of the roof, tears streaming down her face, and watches her younger sister walk down the lane toward the factory.
The mood in the hostel sags. “The day she left, she told me: ‘I told you I would stay a year. And I couldn’t even stay for two months,’ ” Jayasmita recounts.
Minati doubts Prabhati will return. The family, having violated custom once by letting the daughters go, is not likely to do it twice. “People mean to come back,” Minati says. “But they don’t come back.”
On the assembly line, someone covers Prabhati’s sewing machine with plastic sheeting. Three weeks later, two burly men come to push it to an area marked “idle machines.”
Just like that, Prabhati is back in her mother’s thatch hut, feeding kindling into a clay oven. Coming home is like falling into cotton. Rice is sprouting up through great reflective planes of water, so vivid it hurts your eyes to look at it.
The neighbors stop by, seeking an outcome to the family’s experiment. “So, are your daughters back from their jobs?” asks one, in a voice thick with self-satisfaction.
Prabhati’s mother, Radha Rani, takes her to a country witch, who traces shapes around her head with a broom and declares that someone has cast an evil eye on her. He blows on her, a holy wind. Outside there is the smell of things growing. Prabhati sleeps as if she is under a spell. When she calls her sister, hoping to arrange for her return to Bangalore, Shashi sounds far away.
Becoming a City Girl
It turns out factory life agrees with Shashi. She has been absorbed into an assembly line expected to produce 100 pairs of khaki chinos an hour. In the morning she takes her seat among hillocks of pants, and spends the next eight and a half hours in a work-trance, punctuated by the shouting of supervisors and a half-hour break for lunch. A whiteboard lists the per-hour target. They are always behind.
Behind her in the assembly line, a potbellied man in his late 30s peppers her with the gustatory queries that pass for small talk in south India. Have you eaten today? Are you hungry? Do you want to eat more? She swivels in her chair to ask him, “Would you like me to shove these pants down your throat?”
Shashi finds it interesting that she, the screw-up in the family, is the one becoming a city person. She examines her face in the mirror for signs that she is becoming paler. She tells the family that Prabhati should not return, and that she cannot send money home this month. Instead, Shashi arranges for a meeting with Sunil, a boy from a neighboring village whom she wants to marry.
Six years ago, when Sunil first asked Shashi to meet him in person, she was escorted by a female cousin and was too shy to look at Sunil’s face. When he sat on the chair, she would go to the bed. When he went to the bed, she would go to the chair. Finally he told her to stop and listen. She sat still. Whatever it was he said to her, it made her feel that he was her own.
“I love him, you know?” she says. “I do not know whether he is good or bad.”
Since that day three years ago when Prabhati discovered the cellphone Sunil had given her, Shashi has been proceeding cautiously with a plan to persuade her parents to agree to her choice for a husband. She and Sunil have chosen names, Situ and Sukhi, for a girl and boy. “If I work for a long time,” she says, “and I really insist on it, there is a chance.”
Now that her sister is gone, it is no longer necessary for Shashi to keep this a secret. It is a blessed relief, like taking off a shoe that is cutting into a tender part of your foot.
On the August day when her third paycheck comes in, Shashi doesn’t tell anyone what she has planned. Leaving the hostel means breaking curfew, but she persuades her friends to go with her. The small group threads its way along the darkening street, past rotting cauliflower and coconut shells. The girls are headed to a bright shop where smartphones are displayed in glass cases.
The shopkeeper is about 25, his shirt unbuttoned to reveal a glint of gold chain. He has seen many girls like these, provincials, fishing out coins at the vegetable market. He does not hide his disdain. But when Shashi announces that she wants to buy a 4,000-rupee Lava A59 smartphone, he is suddenly wide awake, respectful.
Shashi’s face is a mask of concentration as she repeatedly counts the bills and arranges them into a fan to show the shopkeeper. The girls around her are hushed. The amount is more than half her month’s pay. It is the weightiest decision she has ever made.
When they step back onto the street, something flickers across Shashi’s face — triumph — and she pumps her fist. Back at the hostel, she drops her new purchase into the hands of her roommates, who immediately go through it, looking for WhatsApp, which they discovered the week before.
Sunil will be calling soon. He has been badgering Shashi to make this purchase so she can send pictures over the internet. She disappears into the bathroom to splash cold water on her face. She is gone a long time. She lies for a moment on the floor, staring at the ceiling. Then she dials a number in the village.
“Elder sister,” she says. “I got my phone!”
Not the New Girls Anymore
September has arrived, and every day there is a new reason Prabhati cannot return to Bangalore. Her mother has stomach cramps. Her younger siblings’ tuition bills are due. No adult male is available to accompany her on the train journey. Prabhati mentally reviews the cost of the ticket: 1,350 rupees for the train, 300 more for the auto rickshaw from Majestic Station. She jokes, a little nervously, that she should steal the money. A voice in her head tells her that if she doesn’t go now, she never will.
And yet that voice is becoming fainter. She can feel the village’s drowsy peace overtaking her. Her mother says, in an offhand way, that it is time to start finding a groom. This is not how it was supposed to go. Shashi ensconced in the city, and Prabhati stuck in Ishwarpur. “Before, I was at home, and I didn’t know anything, and it was O.K.,” she says, dully. “Now I know something, and it’s not O.K.”
Back in Bangalore, the factory girls’ fathers have begun to call. They expect them to come home on leave in December, after the six-month factory stint is up.
Jayasmita’s father says a marriage proposal has come from a man in Cattuck. “I tell them I’m not going anywhere,” she says. “The moment I heard talk about marriage, I hung up.” Shradhanjali says she will return, and plans to wriggle out of yet another proposal. “If possible, I’ll fight it off,” she says, but sounds uncertain.
“You know where you’ll find her in a year?” Jayasmita says, teasingly. “At her in-laws.”
The factory girls seem less afraid every month.
Shashi sees her boyfriend, Sunil, as planned. He takes the overnight train in from Kerala, where he has migrated for work. They meet at a nearby gas station and walk in a park for most of the day, holding hands. At 4 p.m., he returns to the train station and boards another overnight train back to Kerala. She uses Facebook and WhatsApp to communicate with him, as if the internet were two tin cans attached by a piece of twine. Every time they get into a fight, she uninstalls the apps.
Her smartphone has become an appendage. She presses it to her ear while she is walking down the lane, striding over rats flattened into the pavement. Waking in the night, she rolls over and checks it for new messages. A group of her friends are toying with the idea of leaving the hostel, seeking higher-paid work at another factory.
She is amazed at how far she has come.
On an outing last Sunday, she arranged to meet a male cousin, another migrant worker, and a group of them strolled together at the edge of a highway overpass, breathing in the exhaust from 12 lanes of traffic. They don’t have money to step into a restaurant, so they sit on a pipe on the ground outside a Toyota dealership, in the bright sunshine, comparing phones.
That’s another thing: Shashi and her friends are not the new girls anymore. The new girls are arriving from Uttar Pradesh and Jharkhand. Their braids are tight and glossy. Dropping their bags in their rooms, they climb up to the roof to gaze at the 22-story building, which is the most amazing thing they have ever seen.
Their eyes widen at the girls from Odisha, in their jeans and T-shirts. The girls from Odisha regard them with friendly condescension. They invite them into their rooms, as if they’ve been here forever.
This article was reported over four months by Ellen Barry in Bangalore and Ishwarpur, India. Descriptions of events are based on her firsthand observations and on dozens of interviews. Andrea Bruce contributed reporting assistance. Jennifer Harrison provided interpretation.
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