Making a Living with Salt in Divya Victor’s Kith

Don’t pass the salt. Hold it. Find its stories.

Here is one of the many stories about salt, as told in Divya Victor’s Kith:

. . . it grows
when the sun beats down–turns
earth to salt turns sweat to rupees
it grows from the ground
fields of white
funeral flowers
for the ones who
harvest them 

The “ground” refers to Rann of Kutch in Gujarat, India, one of the largest salt deserts in the world. The ones who “harvest” salt are the Agariyas—a community of migrant salt workers. In this narrative, Victor depicts salt as both the fruit and the “funeral flowers.” The first metaphor injects life into what is commonly perceived as an inert mineral and presents salt as an agricultural product of photosynthesis and labor. The latter calls attention to the deaths involved in sustaining the production of salt. Taken together, these botanical images invite us to rethink the boundary between Life and Nonlife. If life is, as Jane Bennett suggests, an energetic figure that sheds light on a set of forces beyond individual control, then salt can be considered a “life,” since it embodies the ecological flows of water, sunlight, earth, sweat, and money.

The question “Is salt a living thing?” is more than a thought experiment: it is a site of struggle with material consequences. The answer to this question affects the status of salt workers. The salt industry and the state treat the Agariyas like industrial workers, but scholars and activists complicate the matter, characterizing the nature of salt work as “agriculture cum industry.” In Dakxin Bajrange’s 2007 documentary The Lost Water, one of the salt workers expressed a similar view: “As the sea is like a farm for a fisherman, the salt pans are the cultivation area of the Agariyas. As one needs to cultivate the land in agricultural process similarly, the Agariyas have to be work with pavda. It should be actually considered as the cultivation of salt and not the salt industry.”

One might say that salt workers are simply speaking of farming metaphorically. But what if they are not? What if this debate reveals a more profound confrontation between different ways of knowing and being? Furthermore, what is at stake here is not only intellectual sparring but economic justice for salt workers. As Bajrange’s documentary further explains: the industries of the “Agariyas can only be developed if government declares minimum support price for salt, and for that the process has to be considered as agricultural process and not an industry.” 

The struggles of the Agariyas have been recorded in documentary films and journalistic reports. While these genres may offer a more realist account of salt farming, experimental poetry can make vivid the conflicts and connections between different ways of knowing and the governance of life. In her poetry collection Kith (2017), Victor devotes an entire chapter to salt production in Gujarat, India and plays with a collage of journalistic reports, interviews, historical documents, photographs, and verses. Victor’s formally innovative engagement with realist accounts compels us to recognize the ideas and practices governing Life, Death, and Nonlife in the working conditions of salt pans.

Life and Bare Life

Kith brings together parallel universes in global economic inequality. In the following poem, Victor juxtaposes different images of what salt looks like on the body in different socioeconomic worlds: 

those of us who have stared into sunsets
& those of them who have gone blind from the sun
those of us who have scrubbed our skin with salt
& those of them who have lost limbs to its sting

“Those of us” and “those of them” are situated at two different ends of the chain of production. The two worlds almost never meet, but the parallel structure in the poem brings them together. While we enjoy salt as a commodity in moderation, salt farmers are constantly exposed to an unhealthy amount. Going “blind from the sun” and “lost limbs” are references to the work hazards faced by salt workers. Victor quotes Ambu Patel, an activist: “There is a saying [in Rann of Kutch] that if you’re a saltpan worker, you have three ways to die: first gangrene, second TB (tuberculosis), or third blindness.”

The stark contrast between those who consume salt and those who are consumed by salt highlights the state of exception for salt workers who exist at the nexus between the politically qualified life and the life exposed to death. Although salt farmers contribute to capitalist production and are nominally included by the state, their lives are managed in such a way that they are constantly exposed to deadly threats. In other words, to borrow the language of Giorgio Agamben, they live in a state of “inclusive exclusion.” This makes salt farmers a modern figure of bare life, trapped “at the deadly intersection of poverty, illiteracy, and migrancy.” Their precariousness was brought to the public eye in the aftermath of the 1998 cyclone—an event Victor also references in her book:

—we have a headcount
       Of animals—lions and tigers—but
       —we can’t count our own people

Achyut Yagnik, a social activist, on
the Gujarat Cyclone, category 03A

The salt pans in Gujarat are partially located in a wildlife sanctuary meant for protected species. What is left unprotected, ironically, is the community of migrant salt workers. In the wake of the cyclone, their bodies fade into the landscape, unaccounted for.

Even in non-catastrophic circumstances, salt farmers’ bodies continue to be consumed by salt after death, quite literally. Because their legs are so encrusted in salt, their bodies cannot burn completely on the funeral pyre and must be buried in salt. Victor cites this phenomenon in her book:

because their feet grind into the saltmarsh
because their ankles grind into brine
because their calves grind to a halt over time
because salt cures flesh
when it is set on fire
in a funeral pyre
it does not burn.
[. . .]

as told to a reporter
for The Hindu
29 January 2013

Salt workers’ parahuman configuration becomes an embodied illustration of the consequences of living in a state of exception. The phrase “salt cures flesh” plays on the double meaning of “cure”: to harden and to relieve. What hardens and harms these farmers is also a material that saves them from total, physical erasure. 

A bird fossilized in salt at Rann of Kutch, India. Photo by Nagarjun Kandukuru, 2014.

That said, Victor does not romanticize the resilience of these parahuman bodies and does not celebrate the redemptive power of poetry. Her citational practices lay bare the despair of those who are living in “inclusive exclusion.” A number of poems in Kith recast information from newspapers and other documentary sources. By relying on citations, Victor respects the integrity of salt workers’, witnesses’, and activists’ voices. Meanwhile, this citation also reminds us that our knowledge of those who live in inclusive exclusion is always mediated. The play with repetition and the lineated arrangement of the quote both highlight the poet’s intervention. As such, we hear the opinions of people at the salt pans, and yet we are forced to remember that the shape of the original utterance is ineluctably lost to us.

Life and Nonlife

Kith also travels across time to highlight how different frames of governance of life overlap and how salt is entangled in a long history of control in India. The British regime imposed a hefty tax on salt produced in India. During the 1930 “Salt March,” Gandhi boiled a handful of earth in seawater to produce salt, which symbolized a resistance against the colonial tax policies. Thus salt is often associated with freedom and independence. Nevertheless, the postcolonial state is not free from salt control since salt companies continue to underpay salt workers, and the state refuses to grant them the status of agricultural workers. 

By implication, salt is not recognized as an agricultural product. It is no surprise that salt companies and the state refuse to recognize salt’s status as an agricultural product because to change this status would mean a more fundamental revision of what counts as living and inert. Anthropologist Elizabeth Povinelli points out that the seemingly self-evident division of Life and Nonlife undergirds the distribution of power and the governance of Life and Nonlife is articulated through language, among other things. 

Victor seems to be writing against the naturalized division of Life and Nonlife. Her work dramatizes the vitality of salt by elevating it to the status of a life-giving and life-sustaining force:

Your body cannot make salt
it must be offered to you
& taken into your body
through your mouth
& into your life
so you can live
it is a kind of kith—

Just as the opening passage where salt is metaphorized as funeral flowers, salt is animated as life-giving kith. Kith, in Victor’s formulation, is similar to but more than kin. It proposes a relational mode that inspires an intense feeling of solidarity based on resemblance or knowledge. These affective intensities nudge us to cut across norms and established boundaries between things.

It is more productive to tweak the question “what is kith?” to “what does kith do?” Similarly, the question “what does salt do” opens up new frames of knowing salt. Salt, like our kith and kin, performs care work:

kith cleaned your teeth, kith relieved your tired feet, kith soothed your bee stings, kith treated your mosquito bites, kith eased your sore muscles, kith sloughed off your dry skin, kith singed off your old tattoos, kith extinguished your grease fires, kith cleaned soot from your chimneys, kith kept your flowers from wilting, kith held your silk flowers straight, kith protected your patios from weeds, kith killed your poison ivy, kith kept your windows frost free, kith de-iced your sidewalks, kith deodorized your shows, kith tanned your leather, kith kept water in your cells, kith sent messages from your nerves, [. . .] kith whitened whites, kith purified your steel, kith scrubbed your fish tanks, kith made your plastics, kith refined your petroleum, kith preserved your fish, kith illuminated your purples, kith was worth your gold, kith was your tax, kith was your offering to god, and so with kith you gargled your throat and fell asleep with kith in your mouth.

This list can be read as a user manual of salt since “kith” and “salt” are interchangeable here. The accumulation of verbs makes us more attuned to the ways salt acts upon us. By leaping from domestic scenes of cleaning to microscopic maps of cellular activities to industrial images of manufacturing to intimate portrayals of self-maintenance, this passage reveals how salt weaves itself into the fabric of our lives.

A woman working in the salt pans of the Rann of Kutch, Gujarat, India. Photo by Vinod Panicker, 2007. 

Curiously enough, the salt-kith metaphor is a circular one because it is unclear whether “salt” or “kith” is the object of explication. The collapse between “kith” and “salt” is productive as it reveals as much about salt as it does about kith. The vibrant imagery of salt/kith as a laboring agent reminds us of those whose work is invisible or overlooked to us in a more privileged part of the world. 

Victor pays tribute to these laborers, especially migrant workers like the Agariyas, using blanks to acknowledge our collective amnesia of their lives and deaths:

mining dollars elsewhere
in the memory of ____________________________________________,
___________________, ___________________, ___________________,
___________________, ___________________, ___________________,
___________________, and ___________________, ___________________,
___________________, ___________________, ___________________,
___________________, ___________________, ___________________,
and ___________________, ___________________, ___________________,
___________________, ___________________, ___________________,
___________________, ___________________, and ___________________,
___________________, ___________________, ___________________,
___________________, ___________________, and other kith.

Instead of giving voice to individual salt workers, the poet fills the page with silences. While other narratives might seek to commemorate salt workers or speak on their behalf, Victor’s experimental writing highlights that their ways of knowing are not always intelligible to us. Deaths and erasures cannot be redeemed by any form of documentation. Salted wounds do not heal in the act of writing.

Featured Image: A road leading to the salt mines of Gujarat, India. Photo by Nilanjan Sasmal, 2016.

Weishun Lu is a graduate student in English (Literary Studies) at University of Wisconsin–Madison. She writes on contemporary American poetry, critical race studies, Asian American literature and culture, and affect theory. Her other contributions to Edge Effects include the essay “Behind the Beauty of Orchids, Centuries of Violence” (March 2018). Contact.