XQs VII: A Conversation with Sarah Besky

[The XQs (Ten Questions) series is a conversation with the author of new and exciting works in South Asian Studies, whose aim is not to “review” but to contextualize, historicize and promote new scholarship. Interview conducted by Patwari via e-mail. Previously: IIIIIIIVV, VI.]


Sarah Besky received her Ph.D. in Anthropology from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and is currently Assistant Professor of Anthropology and International and Public Affairs at Brown University. She is the author of The Darjeeling Distinction: Labor and Justice on Fair-Trade Tea Plantations in India (University of California Press, 2014). Her current research works across ethnographic and archival evidence as well as rural tea plantations and urban auction houses and blending factories to explore “cheapness” as a social and economic value. A second book based on this research is tentatively titled The Cost of Cheap Tea: An Ethnography of Value in India.


1. Let’s start with the title of the book, The Darjeeling Distinction. What is the significance of this title?

Darjeeling is often represented as distinct—a place apart from the rest of India, and tea unlike (and better tasting than) other teas. Darjeeling tea is known for its smoky, muscatel taste. It is not drunk with milk or sugar. It is one of the few teas on the market whose name is also the name of a place. The Nepalis, or Gorkhas, who constitute Darjeeling’s majority population, are often portrayed as internal others within India. They have built a longstanding movement for subnational autonomy. Their claims for a separate state of Gorkhaland are largely based on their shared sense of ancestral attachment to the place. (Meanwhile, the plantations on which many Gorkhas live serve as the pastoral backdrops for Bollywood musical asides–when the budget does not allow for a trip to Switzerland). With the book, I wanted to critically examine Darjeeling, as place and product, in national and international imaginaries. The book examines the linkages between geographical and consumptive distinction, but it also looks at the ways in which the plantation, as a productive form, remains exceptional.   In it, I critically engage Darjeeling’s multivalent distinctiveness, where it comes from, how it is perpetuated, and what it means for Gorkha belonging.

Photo by Sarah Besky

2. What is your book’s main argument?

The main argument of the book is that Darjeeling–as a place and a product–are still very much operating on the logic of Empire. Given that a subnational political movement, a luxury beverage, and a commodified “natural” landscape coexist in this place and product, I further argue for an approach to empire that’s not only historical but also explicitly environmental. Given that plantations and hotels make money in part by exploiting images and ideas about “exotic” Nepali women, I argue also for a continued understanding of empire as explicitly gendered.   Finally, my aim–in the book and my larger work–is to revive a conversation started long ago by people like Sidney Mintz and Eric Wolf, about what a plantation is. My argument is that to understand contemporary capitalism, we have to understand how the plantation form endures over time.

3. In your book, you urge us to rethink tea plantations. You place tea plantations within an imperial framework and point out the lack of use of the term ‘plantation’ in social science literature to refer to Euro-American agri-businesses. Could you elaborate?

I went to Darjeeling to study fair-trade and organic certification, what they meant to workers and how they might be making a change in workers’ lives. The short answer to this question was that these certification programs didn’t mean that much, and many workers did not know what they even were! So I turned my attention to the plantation itself. What is a plantation in the 21st century? What holds it together? What might pull it apart? My graduate training at the University of Wisconsin-Madison included courses in rural sociology, geography, and environmental history. Working in this interdisciplinary context allowed me to situate my interest in Indian tea in an ongoing dialogue about sustainable and alternative agriculture (and its discontents) in the United States. During fieldwork and writing for The Darjeeling Distinction, I tried to bring what I had learned about contemporary US industrial agriculture (alternative or conventional) to bear on my research in India.

I began to ask: What makes a “plantation” different from the industrial strawberry fields of California’s Central Valley? Thinking in this way brought my attention to time and domestic space. I was interested in time in the sense that the plantation workers whom I came to know seemed to live rather cyclically. They returned to the same fields from crop to crop and season to season. Time is also important because plantations are often styled in tea marketing and tourist literatures as out of time–as if this cyclical work pattern were something idyllic rather than stifling and exploitative. Despite the racial and gendered immobility built into the plantation, I got interested in how workers managed to think more historically–to locate themselves in a post-colonial history and to imagine a post-plantation future, if not for themselves, then for their children.

This brought me to domestic space. Permanent workers are entitled a house along with their job, and the bulk of their compensation comes in kind. What made working on the plantation bearable was the provision of these in-kind benefits. Most workers I met, then, were not calling for the complete breakup of the plantation system. Instead, they critiqued the failure of plantations to provide quality in-kind benefits, or, “facilities.” This failure extended the oppression and marginalization of the fields into households.

What continues to trouble me is the refusal within the global fair trade movement to use the term “plantation” to describe the agricultural systems that produce tea, as well as fruit, bananas, and coffee. Fair trade marketing uses softer terms like “estate” or “garden” or “large farm” to describe tea plantations. In the US, perhaps, we prefer to think that the plantation is part of a bygone era, but the plantation is still very much alive and with us—and really thriving—in a market that demands cheaper and more uniform staple and luxury items.

Photo by Sarah Besky

4. I particularly appreciated your emphasis on the landscape and geography. Can you talk a bit about in what way you think that emphasis is important and what insights it leads to?

As I mentioned earlier, a great deal of my graduate training involved working across geography, rural sociology, and environmental history. Ethnographies are certainly about people and everyday life in a particular place, but they can also be about place itself. Darjeeling’s landscape is an inescapable part of its distinction. In the first chapter of the book, I take the reader on a walk through this landscape to tell more of the history of Darjeeling, its people, and its tea. The concept of landscape–something both lived and worked in and looked upon–links the tourist architecture of Darjeeling town, the colonial botanical garden, the Himalayan forest, and, of course, the plantations. But more familiar anthropological methods also allowed me to rethink the plantation as more-than-human. Workers themselves had intimate affective relations to tea bushes, which–while not indigenous to the area–are incredibly well adapted. Those bushes have about the same productive lives as human beings (50-60 years), but like workers, they were being pushed to a breaking point by agricultural intensification.

Photo by Sarah Besky

5. I loved the photographs that accompany the text. In your argument, images (and imaginaries) are centrally tied to (in)justice and power. Can you tell us what ‘Third World Agrarian Imaginary” is? Also, how does your own work partake in representational politics?

I’m so glad you enjoyed the photographs! When I read the geographer Julie Guthman’s writing about the “agrarian imaginary” in the United States—an image of food production based in part on nostalgic images of the family farm, I began to think about representations of fair trade producers. On fair trade packaging, we frequently see either images of smiling “small farmers” living on intimate terms with the crops they plant, or what Paige West calls “imagined primitives”—stylized images of exotic indigenous people. These kinds of images are obviously problematic. Guthman argues that industrial organics are made palatable to conscientious consumers through the image of the family farm. I wanted to ask, then, how images made the plantation palatable to consumers of so-called “ethically sourced” commodities.

Explicitly sexualized images of Nepali women–those exoticized “others” I mentioned in answer to your earlier question–are often woven into tea marketing, fair-trade and otherwise.   These images are part of what I call in the book a “Third World Agrarian Imaginary.” Nobody wants visual evidence that their consumption practices are implicated in the exploitation and dispossession of others. Images of the mountain landscape, with plantations in the foreground, have long made Darjeeling attractive to international and domestic tourists, from the colonial era to the present. The third world agrarian imaginary interchanges these exoticized images of people and place with images of people “in need”: those whom fair-trade aims to help. Finally, images of indigenous dress, culture, and aesthetics were central to Gorkhaland’s political symbolism.   As I explain in the book, gendered images of the motherly, caring tea worker–a long suffering woman—were a major part of this, as were images of mountains and khukuris on the Gorkhaland flag, which played on an imaginary of Gorkha masculine virility.

As you note in your question, photography also helps ethnographers tell stories. With my own photographs, I’m trying to develop a counter to the simplified and decontextualized images we see in packaging and advertising. I think this embrace of photography is something that’s re-emerging in anthropology.   One example of how this can be done really well is Jason de León’s recent book, The Land of Open Graves, which features photographs of the US-Mexico border by professional photographer Michael Wells alongside images produced by migrants themselves.

Photo by Sarah Besky

6. I appreciated how the presence of the ethnographer in the landscape comes through in the text. Since I’m interested in visual and sensory methods, and the kind of writing that, well, takes the reader for a walk in the landscape under discussion: Would you speak about being in the field with a camera and what, if any impact it has on the process of fieldwork, in analysis, and presentation? Would you speak about visual anthropology and/or sensory ethnography?

There are two things going on in your question: walking and images. I like photography, and I am working on honing my skills to think more critically about images in my ongoing work. (Again, people like Jason de León and Danny Hoffman are way ahead of me in terms of skill and artistry.) But I really like walking. I walked all around Darjeeling and the plantations.

I am not sure how good at daydreaming you are, but I am really good at it, and my mind immediately goes to movement—movement around wherever I am or wherever I have been. I’m interested in sensory ethnography, but more fundamentally, I think that moving around in a place, on foot, which requires that we use our bodies to think, permits ethnographic insights to emerge that simply wouldn’t emerge in a seated interview, for example. More practically, walking was how most of my friends in Darjeeling got around plantations, so by joining them, I had the chance to speak with them. Again, when you’re on a walk with someone, the landscape is hard not to integrate into a conversation.

Photo by Sarah Besky

7. Would you say something about the relevance of your work? What fields and conversations you see it joining and commenting upon? I’m also interested in your brief assessment of South Asian Studies more generally, and South Asian Anthropology in particular.

I see the book as intervening in ongoing studies of Empire, in conversations about global food systems, and in a continuing conversation in economic anthropology about value. I also see this book as part of a bigger conversation in the environmental humanities, since human-plant relationships (of aggression, exploitation, and care) are all part of the story of plantations. In my more recent work, I’ve gone back to the landscape we talked about in an earlier question to try to think about Darjeeling’s environmental dimensions more explicitly.   As for South Asian Studies/Anthropology, my impression is that the field is as wide-ranging and unruly (in a good way) as it’s ever been. What’s exciting to me is that political ecology and political economy (or the environment and development) seem to be converging so much more often. Given how much attention India’s democracy and economy get in the popular press and much of the academy, I think that critical, qualitative, humanistic perspectives on these issues are crucial.

8. Is something better than nothing?

I heard some version of this saying too many times to count during my fieldwork. People used it to justify various kinds of development interventions on the plantations. In the conclusion to The Darjeeling Distinction, I suggest that one take-home point of the book is that such interventions—including fair trade—never happen in a vacuum. People’s ongoing lives are not “nothing,” and as anthropologists, we have to protect against the image of the suffering, helpless other that’s so common in humanitarian and ethical consumption discourse. Humanitarian rhetoric frames solutions, but in order to do this, it also has to frame problems in ways that fit those solutions. On plantations, saying something is better than nothing was a way of avoiding history, colonialism, and most importantly the plantation system itself. Plantations are too powerful to ignore, and they are certainly not nothing.

9. Can you recommend five recent works that complement your own?

Townsend Middleton. 2015. The Demands of Recognition: State Anthropology and Ethno-Politics in Darjeeling. Palo Alto: Stanford University Press.

Jayeeta Sharma. 2011. Empire’s Garden: Assam and the Making of India. Durham: Duke University Press.

Andrew Willford. 2014. Tamils and the Haunting of Justice: History and Recognition in Malaysia’s Plantations. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.

Sara Shneiderman Rituals of Ethnicity: Thangmi Identities Between Nepal and India. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015.

Jason Cons. 2016. Sensitive Space: Fragmented Territory at the India-Bangladesh Border. Seattle: University of Washington Press.

10. Did your book go through significant changes from your dissertation. Can you talk a little bit about the production of the book itself, from formulating dissertation research question to the turning the completed dissertation into the book?

I already mentioned that I initially wanted my dissertation to be about the effects of fair trade on workers. As I said, that question proved less interesting than bigger ones about the plantation itself.

The book did come out fairly soon after I completed my dissertation. It was about a couple of different timely topics, namely fair trade, which seemed to be reaching a kind of peak of public and academic interest at the time, and the Gorkhaland movement, which was changing dramatically as I was writing. I wanted to get this book out quickly and move on to asking questions about the plantation in India that went beyond fair trade. While I rewrote the book significantly from the dissertation, the empirical basis remained similar.

I should also say that I crafted my dissertation as a first draft of a book, so I did not have to gut a literature review chapter or delete an entire methodology chapter. My advisor, from the beginning, encouraged me to layer theory and method throughout the text. This was really helpful advice.

My editor wanted a book that could be assigned in undergraduate classes in anthropology and other disciplines as well, so even with all that preparation, I spent a solid 8 months between 2012 and early 2013 revising the manuscript for publication.

Thank you!

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