The upper level of the building is cramped with bodies and trays of beads, frames, a smelly glue pot, the rolled up tatters of jute bedding and sundry little personal items. Six young boys work feverishly placing small beads onto blunt needles and then sticking them into position on wooden frames. They work quietly, so as not to raise the ire of their Boss, who sits in an easy chair in the room below. The television rumbles sometimes or the Boss can be heard snoring as he naps the day away. The doors are all locked; there are bars on the windows. From the outside the building resembles a ramshackle warehouse. Inside, though it is a prison of work and deprivation.
Thus, is the story of Gopal and his cohorts. How Gopal comes to this bleak sweatshop in an alley in Mumbai and how his cohorts cope with such a brutal life is the story that Kashmiri Sheth tells. It is, at times, heart-breaking and at others, hopeful. It brings the reader in contact with good people and people who are broken and brutal. Gopal is a resourceful and strong protagonist who never loses hope that he will be reunited with his family, who uses his wits and savvy to survive under circumstances that would make many of us despair.
The issue of child labor and sweatshop evils has come more and more into the public eye, over the past few years, as the commercial consumption remains high and the supply of cheap, but well-made goods streams into the country from third world nations. American consumers, being so far removed from the source of products, can easily buy everything from jewelry to hangbags to picture frames to clothing to fireworks to coffee and never connect their consumption patterns with the practice of slave labor ... slave labor. That's what it is ... in bold black and white. Within our own country, there are wide-spread abuses of workers within the agricultural fields, as everything from tomatoes to oranges to celery is brought to market. A practice that this nation turned its back on so many years ago continues to this day and we consumers unwittingly (or blythely) ignore its continuance in the blind need to consume without investigating the source of our 'stuff'.
Kashmiri Sheth has put faces and names to the nameless workers who labor every day in sweatshops, in writing this powerful novel. While hers is a book written for a young adult audience, there are plenty more out there to read and think about. There are agencies to investigate and support that work toward economic equality, fair labor practices, humane treatment within the work place, and education of workers. I know I will never look at an inexpensive picture frame again without wondering whose young fingers might have created it.
Kashmiri Sheth traveled to India to research her novel and I am very glad that she did. I can only hope that more people read this book and discuss the important topic of economic justice with their friends and families. I would recommend this book as a family read-aloud, a class or church youth group book club read, or as a scout troop read and investigation project. It is a vivid story that has all the brutal components of the issue without such graphic horrors that it would traumatize kids. It would be a real eye-opener for those ten years and older. An important book ...