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In Session: Progressive Reading Cultures and Communist Political Thought: between South Asia and the USSR, 1930-1980
1: The Flying Shuttle and the Workers’ Public in Bombay, 1917-1934
Monday, March 22, 2021
10:00am – 11:30am EDT
University of California, Santa Cruz, United States
Bhargavram Varerkar published Dhavta Dhota (The Flying Shuttle), a Marathi language novel, in 1933. Prior to this, it appeared in serialized form in a weekly in 1930. But the weekly shut down and the story was incomplete. Varerkar then converted it into a successful play in 1932 and released the novel next year. It depicts the life and politics of textile workers in Bombay in 1917-18, the last years of World War I. The war had increased the hours of work without an increase in wages. Workers were politicized and labor leaders from within the class led the movement. The protagonist of the novel, the wizened former mill worker, Baba Shigvan, is one such leader. His protégés include a young man named Kanhu Krishna and a young woman named Bijli. Baba Shigvan exhibits a particular disdain for middle-class leaders from outside the mill district– he calls them “bookish labor leaders” as opposed to leaders who have labored in mills and live in working class neighborhoods. There is a contradiction here. The serialized stories, play, and the novel appear at a time when communist leaders, mostly from middle class families, dominated the labor movement in the city. But the content of the stories and play harken back to a time when they are absent from the labor movement. This paper explores this contradiction. Why was it important for Varerkar to depict a fiercely held class consciousness among workers (in 1917-18) before the emergence of leftist politics? What are its implications?