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Another Taste of Salt

2017 May 1

This post is a photographic update to my post on salt production in Marakkanam some years ago. That time, there had been only a small number of chatty women collecting dry salt from the sides of salt pans and depositing them onto a slowly growing salt mountain. This time, on yet another ride back from Chennai, I stopped to witness a different phase of salt production: the bagging.

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The already-built salt mountain needed now to be broken down.

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The task required a chain of actions, which were clearly gender segregated–work deemed harder was consigned to men. A woman would loosen the packed salt, a man would move it down the slope.

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Women would gather the falling salt at the base of the mountain into piles which collected on top of a white plastic sack:

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Their tools were rudimentary: a hoe, a few rectangular pieces of plywood…

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Two women to lift the lying sack and pour, another two to hold a second sack upright and open..

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More often than not though, two designated strong men were the ones to catch the salt poured by the women.

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Then in a series of swift, scripted, and practiced movements, the men would curve their bodies so that their heads met and locked; the complete arch which they now together became could support the weight of the filled salt sacks, each a 100 kgs or more.

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The process was mesmerizing for me, scorching and scalding for workers spending so much time in the white heat and corrosive company of sea salt. Nonetheless, it proceeded pauselessly amidst much chatter and moments of levity (caused in part by our presence as onlookers).

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The only pauses were precipitated by the occasional disagreement..

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Which was quickly assuaged so that the bagging could return to its usual pace. The open maws of assembled bags were sewn up by a designated tailor..

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In all heavy, labor-intensive processes, the presence of a supervisor, or someone who does nothing while others do everything, is most essential…

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The workers had their 100-bag quota, and not even the distraction of a stray woman with her two ducklings could really get in the way of work. We were invited to pose for pictures–as though we’d been the ones collecting salt. The boys could hold the salt sacks in turn, it was suggested, while I clicked pics of each. But we declined politely, and the bagging resumed as though we’d left already, our presence and that idea but a blip in the steady onward march of homogeneous empty time.

We left on the now unguarded salt roads, with the questions about aesthetics, beauty, and the terrific human cost of all we consume lingering still from the last visit.

What is the taste of salt trodden under the feet of men?

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