Rescue workers attempt to find survivors from the rubble of the collapsed Rana Plaza building in Savar May 2, 2013. (REUTERS/Khurshed Rinku)
A photograph haunts my waking hours. In it a man is curled embracing a woman. His eyes are closed, his head against her chest. Her back is arched, right arm resting on his left, elbow finding a niche in the crook of his arm. From the pose alone, it is as though he had reached for her in his sleep; as though her wrist, bent down against his brow, might bend again, directing her hand to stroke his hair, his face, his bowing back; as though she and he together had paused to feel the beating of their hearts.
The Kama Sutra must have a name for their embrace, for it is beautiful and common. But catastrophe and not love is the subject of this scene, for these two are dead.
We don’t know how they lived or what they were called, whether they were lovers or strangers taking desperate hold of each other as the ceiling crashed and the walls came down and a bolt of aqua cloth with polka dots loosened like a winding sheet against their tomb of concrete and twisted rebar.
We know them by their work, as garment-makers; by their workplace, Rana Plaza in Dhaka, Bangladesh; by the date they were killed, April 24, 2013, because factory bosses valued the return on whatever rag they were sewing more than life. We know—because their final gestures were exposed enough to be captured by the photographer and activist Taslima Akhter—that their loved ones were among the first of those mourning the 600-plus dead and were not among those wandering for days near the wreckage carrying tattered hopes and a different type of photo, of faces bright and alive, belonging to the scores who were missing. We know that 2,437 workers, some grievously injured, were pulled from the rubble alive. We know that all who sewed in the eight-story Rana Plaza were paid between $35 and $70 a month; that they belong to the second-largest population of garment workers in the world; that the day before the collapse they heard a rumble, almost like an explosion, as the building cracked, but were called in to work the next day anyway; that the factories in Rana Plaza were among 100,000 in Dhaka, this century’s satanic mills, where women, men and children toil long hours, under brute conditions, at punishing speed, stitching cheap fashions that an American will buy today and toss in the trash next year.
Beware the fabulous bargain, union workers in the US garment trade used to say; it conceals a world of pain.
If the dead bodies of Dhaka seem remote as a concern for sexual politics, that merely reveals how shallow those politics often are, and indeed how limited are the familiar, compartmentalized politics of the progressive brand.
As wails of grief and shouts of protest pierced the air half a world away, there were but a few bleats here. Earnest consumers complained about Walmart and vowed not to buy clothes made in Bangladesh. Some unionists called for safety measures and industry-sponsored factory inspections. Confessors of body politics, meanwhile, were prepping for Masturbation Month (May), or planning a Stronic™ Sex Toy Race for Gay Pride (June), or arguing that maybe police ought to arrest the female fan who tried to fellate rapper Danny Brown onstage, or advertising another academic meeting to discuss the elemental stuff of life in a language intelligible only to themselves.
The dead of Dhaka ought to prompt a deeper consideration by everyone of the punishments of capital, and of the relationship between desire, repression and power.
The two people locked in death’s embrace were workers, but the totality of their life was not contained within the harsh parentheses of their labor. It happens that they were a man and a woman; they might have been otherwise. We mourn them not because of their tools or even because of the manner of their death but because they were human, like us; with desires, like ours, for kindness, justice, pleasure, desires attenuated and finally foreclosed by human systems—cruel ones, but not functioning by fate. Having been made by acts of human will, they can be unmade. It seems necessary to say that.