Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Down the Rabbit Hole

There was the rabbit hole. Beautifully ensconced in the wilderness. There, where it was all green and lush and beautiful. It was all it was set up to be and more. Its entrance was a guild of jewels, it was everything promised. She had grown up with stories that bespoke its mystery, its wonder, its secrets. She had been waiting her whole life to find it, she had been seeking it out for as long as she had known. It was where she would find the treasure.

She hurriedly cleared the awning. She wanted to see what was inside. After all, the wonderment of life was down this rabbit hole. The entrance was unexpectedly small. Maybe if she squeezed in this way, and then that way, she might be able to get in. So she tried. She contorted her body; she went in, head first. It smelled enticing. It smelled of sunflowers. Her favorite flower. So she mustered the courage to contort some more. An inch here, an inch there, and then she felt herself slide. Suddenly the rabbit hole opened up. No one had told her this! She was down a slippery slope. Down she went. Head first.

The wind whizzed past her. The smell of sunflowers lingered. She saw open skies and seagulls; she saw dolphins in the sea; fishermen waved to her. She moved on. She zipped past the sea; she crossed straits, a coral reef, the smell of salt lingered. Suddenly she was in the middle of a forest. The rabbit hole yawned open. She could stand up. She dusted herself clean and looked around.

All was silent. Not a leaf stirred, not a bee buzzed. She heard the beating of her heart as she forayed into the unknown. But she was no stranger to the wilderness. She had been lost many times before. Albeit, never in a rabbit hole. Always a first. And so she trudged on. She had worn the wrong shoes. And dress. Her feet hurt, her dress caught on thorns and ripped in patches. She carried on.

“Hey, little lady, where ‘re you going?” said a big ANT with a bigger load on its back.
“Down the rabbit hole,” she replied. “I’m sorry, was I in your way?” She stepped aside.
“Nah, I’m just doing what I always do,” said the ANT. “It’s all the same down here. If you’re looking for the way to the treasure, turn right, then left and then stay on course. You’ll walk into a SPIDER’s web, he’ll guide you after.”
“Good luck,” said the ANT and moved on.

And so she walked. Her feet hurt and her dress ripped, but she took a right, then a left and kept walking till she found herself stuck in the sticky web of the SPIDER.

The prickly SPIDER made its way to where the little lady was stuck. Sweet, sticky web stuck to her hair and her torn dress. She was expecting him.

“I was told to ask you the way to the treasure,” she told the SPIDER. She didn’t bat an eye as he inched closer, with his hair standing on edge, his eight legs moving assuredly in her direction.
“I was expecting you,” she said.
“The ANT sent you here, did he?” asked the SPIDER. “Are you afraid?”
“Of you or the rabbit hole?”
“Depends on the story you’ve heard,” said the SPIDER.
“I’m here to find my way to the treasure. You don’t want me. I have rotten shoes, a torn dress and a palpitating heart. You’re better off with someone ….intact. Moreover, you have a structural issue in your web. It’s going to unravel right there if you take one more step towards me,” she said, pointing to the upper right side of the web.
The SPIDER weighed his options. He saw her point. She was dirty…and lean. He’d get more out of fixing his web than indulging in a meal he wasn’t keen on.

“Take a left at the fork till you reach a stream,” he said wearily. “You’ll see a Fisherman with a boat. He’ll take you across. Pull at that thread near your left shoulder, it will unravel and free you.”

“Thank you, SPIDER. Good luck with your web,” she said and set afoot.

And so she walked down the rabbit hole. It was the most beautiful place she had ever seen. There was not a human being in sight. The birds chirped, the trees whispered, and the forest floor opened up to greet her. Before long, she was at the edge of the stream. She saw the Fisherman. The same one who had waved to her earlier. Was she back to where she had started? She pushed the thought out of her mind and signaled to him. Her shoes were soaked with silt and her dress weighed her down as she waded through the water to where he was anchored.

“Where ‘re you off to, little lady?” he asked.
“I’m off to see the treasure,” she gasped out. “Can you help me get across?”
“I’m afraid I can’t. I haven’t eaten in a week and I can’t move my boat further out,” he said.
“Can I help?”
“I’m afraid there’s nothing you can do to help…”
“Hang in there, will you? I’ll be right back!”

She sprinted back to the SPIDER.
“SPIDER, what if I told you I could show you a new way to spin your web, would you help me with something?”
“Will it get me more six-legged creatures from the forest?”
“Yes, it will!” And so she spun him a new web; a strong one, made up of enticements and provocations and encouragement – the kind she’d been spinning in the world above. The SPIDER was impressed. He agreed to help.

“I’ll be right back!” she said and hurried to find the big ANT.

“ANT! If I tell you that I can ease your burden, will you help me with something?” she asked.
“What do you mean?”
“How much food do you need to survive every day?”
“A quarter of this morsel of sugar,” said the ANT, signaling to the sugar on his back.
“What will you do with the rest of the sugar morsel?” she inquired.
“I’ll store it of course!”
“What if it rains?”
“That’s why I collect more than I need!”

She looked around, picked up branches, leaves, stones and made the ANT a canopy.
“The rain won’t get to the sugar now,” she said. “You can carry less and store what you have.”
The ANT was ecstatic. He was ready to help.

He followed her down the road… right, then left, right up to the SPIDER.
The SPIDER, the ANT and she walked down the road, took a left at the fork and reached the Fisherman. The SPIDER spun a net so the Fishermen could catch fish to eat; the ANT used his strength to push the boat out into the water. The little girl hopped in with the Fisherman, waved goodbye to the big ANT and SPIDER and they were soon on their way.

The Fisherman dropped her to the other side, bade her well and set off to fish. She followed the path up the hill….she climbed and climbed and climbed. Sweat poured down her body; she paid no heed to her tattered dress and her missing shoe. She rallied on. She was off to find the treasure at the end of the rabbit hole.

She reached the top of the hill and stopped to catch her breath. The valley looked beautiful from up here.

Stop. Breathe. Stay still, little lady. Take it all in (this was the treasure)! But she didn’t know it. She was restless, impatient and eager. She started downhill….and missed a step. She tumbled head first, down, down, and down the rabbit hole. The wind whizzed past her. She smelled the ocean again… she thought of the Fisherman in the stream… she streaked through open skies and sea gulls flying high; she caught sunflowers in her hair.

She tumbled on to the grass. It was green and lush and beautiful. Just as it was before she went down the rabbit hole.

She got up and dusted herself. She was missing a shoe, her clothes were barely concealing her beauty. She had tumbled down the rabbit hole in search of treasure. Instead she met an ANT, a SPIDER and a Fisherman. They all knew each other now, only she wasn’t there.

She turned towards home. Maybe there wasn’t any treasure at the end of the rabbit hole, she thought. Maybe there was, and she missed it. Maybe she missed it.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Vows of a Yogi

It's been over a year and a half since I posted any new tale of the yogi. That's probably because in the interim, the yogi got into a PhD program in anthropology, moved to the United States and made sweet, sweet contact with the man of her dreams (not particularly in that order). She will continue to walk, to run, to wander. She will continue to traverse life's vicissitudes with the passion of a nomad, but now, her steps fall in sync with one other's. Together, they have their feet on the ground and their heads in the clouds. 

What better way to start a new chapter of Wanderings than with the Vows the yogi and her man made to each other on Dec 21, 2013....vows that eventually culminated in 16 auspicious rounds around the ceremonial fire and the promise of 58 years and 6 more lifetimes together. 

This is perhaps the most important tale of the yogi to date. 

I COMMIT TO YOU, my wife
[Dec 21, 2013
Approx. 5:30 pm
Coronado, California]

Taapsi, my love.
You are the “YES” i was always looking for and knew, deep down, existed. I can speak no higher truth in saying that I have waited my whole life for you… all paths and experiences have lead to you and my capacity to love and be loved by you. And in my heart I have always imagined being with you- meaning I have always imagined being with my ultimate partner, lover and friend- someone who I adore, enjoy, love and am deliciously in love with all at the same time. I have thought and talked so often about dream vs. reality… and believe We are that harmonious combination.. feet on the ground, head in the clouds. You are without a doubt the LOVE of my life and a new beginning in my understanding of Family.

As I have surrendered to this amazing journey, I offer these promises....

I will respect you on your best and worst days and stay by your side.
I will protect and care for you, fill your cup and hold your hand.

I will help you look for the things you seek
I will Hope for you, Concentrate on you, Shop for you and Learn with you.

Whatever you give, I will cherish and multiply,
add harmony and keep rhythm with everything I possess.

I present these words as an affirmation and commitment
to you, my eternal partner and wife.

And as I also love Haiku…

We are found today
Grounding feet, parting clouds, ripe 
A waking dream, Still.

I COMMIT TO YOU, my husband

The first night we met, all I really noticed were your good looks and orange backpack. I thought to myself, I really like his genes – we’d make great babies. When I saw you, it was like watching David Hasselhoff in Baywatch – you looked way too hot to be available. And then you reached over, shook my hand and said “Hi, I’m Mark”. Holy cow. This was for real! That moment, for better or worse, was the beginning of us.

Here we are, almost four years later, ready to take the plunge…perhaps literally in the pool after all this. Ours was a bumpy ride (might be an understatement, actually). But for the past two years, since we chose to live together, I have come to value you and love you and cherish you more than I have ever before. What I am feeling right now, in this moment, standing in front of you, is a culmination of sweet joy, pure love and intense attraction in a way I have never experienced before.

You have been the beginning of so many “Firsts” in my life, baby. I had never held hands in public before I held yours, I had never listened to classical music or watched a ballet performance or heard an opera singer before I met you. I had never been inside a Land Rover or inside a tent or sat naked in hot springs before I met you. I didn’t know how powerful haiku could be or how weak Ray Lamontagne could make me. I had never eaten a mushroom risotto or drunk as much as much coffee as I have with you. I have never met a man who has cried freely before me and then held me as I cried. I have never met a man for whom chopping wood is as manly as breaking into a Bollywood dance which is as manly as making kettle corn and watching Luther in bed. Our love has been a revelation. I have become a person I Never thought I was, or would be…and I am riding this wave, baby. How can I Not want to marry you?!!

Selfishly, I cannot and will never let you go because you Really are my other half…you’re my other half that I didn’t know I had! Our friends and family stand witness to the fact that I am more a woman, more a partner, more a sister, more a friend and more a human being than I have ever pushed myself to be. And you are more than part of that reason. I can’t wait to marry you because you make me blissfully happily (my facebook pictures seem to be testimony to that!). I have always been your woman…with my head in the clouds and my feet on the ground. Now I am ready to be your bride.

I vow to always meet you halfway. I vow to be your equal partner – to stand by your side always, to always choose you, to ease your burden even when you tell me “I’m the man”…I vow to wipe your tears, share your laugh and offer you a sanctuary to laugh and cry some more. I vow to be open and honest and love you even when you play Youssou N’Dour :D

You are My man, baby.
And I will always love you. Like a crazy person.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Sadhna: Devotion To A Cause


One cold January morning, Sonali and I found ourselves in the beautiful city of Udaipur, in Rajasthan. We were there to visit Sadhna, an organization that is responsible for providing a livelihood to over 625 women in and around the area, by teaching them traditional Rajasthani applique and tanka embroidery. Thus far, communication with them had been limited to a few emails and phone calls; we knew of some of the products they carried and were briefly aware of their work with the Rajasthani women. We were invited there by Leela Vijayvergia, now the Chief Executive at Sadhna, who was instrumental in setting up Sadhna as the income generation arm of an NGO called Seva Mandir in 1988. 

Leelaji is a very happy person. Literally, very happy. She regaled us with tales of how she helped start Sadhna- from identifying women to train in the craft of embroidery, conducting workshops to introduce the craft, empowering groups of women with the right to manage their affairs and finally taking on the mantle of being the Chief Executive at the organization. Sadhna stood out for us because all the women involved with it played a role in the management of the organization’s affairs- and were great at it too! All artisan members are part of Sadhna’s General Body, which meets once a year to discuss issues and share their experiences. Elected representatives make up Sadhna’s Managing Committee and two of those representatives are part of the Board of Trustees! The more I heard Leelaji talk about the influence of the women artisans on the management of Sadhna, the more in awe I was of these silent heroes. 

It wasn’t just Leelaji who was smiling by the time we got into the car and made our way to the artisan groups. It was hard for anyone to ignore the excitement in our voices and for once, I felt like a tourist in my own country. Udaipur is a beautiful city, one of the prettiest I have seen in India. Lakes dot the city landscape, palace reflections fill the waters, the air is nippy and the mood laid back. Leelaji suggested we visit Delwara, 27 kms away from the city where Sadhna’s oldest and most active group was. 13 of the 43 members of Sadhna’s Managing Committee came from this village, each of whom was responsible for the training and support of about 15 women artisans.

Sonali and I were welcomed with open arms into the group that had gathered to meet us. Despite language being a barrier, a lot was said and more was understood. The women were eager to share their stories; their new skills, their stronger roles in society, their contribution to their children’s education and their desire to rope in more women into Sadhna. Our objections fell on deaf ears as tea, biscuits and salty snacks were laid out for us. My voracious appetite made up for Sonali’s sensitive stomach and the women were pleased. During the course of the day, Sonali and I visited three women’s groups in total, each one as strong as a family unit. Kids played around their mothers while they worked, there was gossip floating in the air, problems were being discussed and solutions offered from amongst themselves. 


By the time we made our way back to Sadhna’s head office in Udaipur, the sun was setting and lakes shimmered in gold as our car skirted the waters. The women we met were probably cooking dinner for their families, their half embroidered pieces kept aside for another day’s work. WORK. That’s the key word. Sadhna has provided these women work when there was seemingly none. These women can’t leave their homes or their village to find work outside. Without Sadhna, they would have been sitting at home, cooking, cleaning, taking care of their children….and killing time. Now, they are being trained- not just in embroidery styles that are generations old, but also in the areas of business enterprise and community management. These are all strong women, because the decision to change the course of one’s life cannot be an easy one, yet 625 women in Udaipur are making this choice everyday. And where Sadhna first put out its hand to help them stand on their feet, today 625 women are helping each other stand, walk, and even run.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Cool Running

“Run Forrest, Run!!” 

Is it weird that over the pounding of my heart and the blaring of Coldplay in my ears, I thought everyone was mouthing these words to me as I crossed Kilometer 13? Well, it could be because at Kilometer 13, I was Alladin’s magic carpet, “soaring, tumbling, free-wheeling through an endless diamond sky.” Well, in this case, that was the endless stretch of Worli Sea Face road, but I was flying, alright. The adrenaline was pumping, I was over 90 minutes into my run and my legs were mean machines. I was invincible. 

But hold on a second. That’s not the beginning of my story. My story begins in September 2011, when I wake up one morning and decide I want to run the Mumbai Half Marathon. I was two months late into my training, but that was the least of my worries. My biggest worry was that I was a treadmill runner, not a road runner. Moreover, the longest time I had clocked on the treadmill was 40 minutes, gasping for breath and hanging on to the sidebars for dear life. The Half Marathon required atleast 3 times that stamina, didn’t involve the convenience of a constantly moving rubber belt and threw in wind and heat as playful obstacles along the way.  Nevertheless, I started training diligently enough to surprise myself and come December, I was confident of making it alive after the 21.097 km run. 

Overly optimistic about my chances of survival, MyMela and Asha Handicrafts lent their support not only by sponsoring my running ticket but ensuring there were welcome banners and even a cultural group dance to celebrate the triumph of my life-threatening feat at the end of the finish line. And so I took off- Kilometer 1 out of 21- a spring in my step as my lungs breathed in the cool 6:30am air of Mumbai. 

Kilometer 2-5: I play bumper cars with almost 11,000 other people who start the Half Marathon with me. My body is still warming up. 

Kilometer 6: I start dropping off the rest of the crowd and join the 3000 odd people keeping better pace up front.

Kilometer 7: My body is in steady motion, my breathing is regular, the air is nippy and the crowd is cheering. 

Kilometer 8- 12: I have no recollection of covering this distance. I’m flying. 

Kilometer 13: I feel like the invincible Forrest Gump. 

Kilometer 14-17: Forrest Gump begins to slow down. 

The longest I had run in my training was 16 kms. When I reached Kilometer 17, for all hypothetical purposes, I was hanging on to the sidebars for dear life. I had 4 kms more to go and I could go no more. Or so I thought, till the tortured eyes of a fellow runner beckoned me to follow. And so began the 4 km partnership of Taapsi and Siva. For the rest of the way, we kept each other company; gasping for breath, dragging our feet and covering the distance an encouragement at a time. 

…And so we reached the finished line. Strangers cheered us on, loudspeakers blared with music and the big digital clock told us we had made it in good time. Siva and I jumped about like idiots for a minute, he for completing the marathon, me for making it alive. Then we made our acquaintance- exchanging names and numbers, quietly acknowledging the role of the other in accomplishing our feat, promising to stay in touch.

Soon, I left Siva and went to find my overly optimistic Asha and MyMela team and my friends who were all trying frantically to get a hold of me. Exhaustion,  blisters, thirst were all forgotten as I jumped about like an idiot for a second time as I hugged my supporters, enjoyed the dance and took pictures for posterity. 

I completed my first Half Marathon in 2 hours 27 minutes, surpassing my goal of 2.5 hours by 3 minutes. My rank was 2811 out of 11,000. Completing the Half Marathon had started off as one of my 2012 resolutions, intended to be treated as a one-off event. However, in keeping with my character, I have changed my mind. I think I am officially addicted to the high of running in an organized event. I spent almost 5 months running outdoors, listening to music, setting my pace, going the distance….alone. Nothing prepared me for the spirit of the city; for strangers who, at 6:30am, stood on the sidelines distributing glucose biscuits and water to weary runners; for the elderly participants not letting us young ones slow down; for the two little boys holding a placard saying “We Love You, Mom! Keep Running!” And so I have changed my mind. Running the Half Marathon will not be delegated to my ‘One-off Events’ memory bank. I am going to do it again. In better time, albeit. Because I want to be part of that community again. And because I came out alive.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Northern Exposure

Google maps said it would take us 1.5 hours to reach Almora from Pantnagar airport. It took us 5 hours. And so began our  relationship with Panchachuli Women Weavers where you always get more than you bargained for. 

Nestled in the mountains of Kumaon in one of the northernmost states in india, Almora is an unassuming  little town that is  home to the cooperative, Panchachuli Women Weavers. When Navroze first mentioned Panchachuli to me, my first thought  was, “where the hell is Almora?!” Needless to say, the location piqued my interest and I quickly drew a picture in my head of a small, sleepy organization in a small, sleepy North Indian hillstation town where a handful of women  work hard at their looms to earn a day’s honest pay. 

A month later Navroze, his daughter Sonali, and I find ourselves on the road, counting the minutes, then the hours, as we make our way from Pantnagar airport to where-the-hell-is-Almora. The car jostles down unpaved roads, climbs up steep slopes, flies merrily around sharp mountain curves and finally deposits us, ashen-faced, in front of our residence in Almora five hours later. It takes precisely two minutes  for the adrenaline rush from the ride to be replaced  by euphoria as we take in our surroundings. We are in heaven.

As far as the eye can see  majestic mountains fill the landscape. Thick clouds gorged with rain drape the peaks while down on the slopes, flora flourishes under the warmth of the sun’s rays. It is the monsoon season, and here in Almora, the temperature is surprisingly  cold. I can’t wait to visit Panchachuli. I am already envious of the women weavers for the incomparable beauty of their surroundings. 

Panchachuli Women Weavers was started by a dynamic woman, Mukti Dutta in 1990. With the help of a few master weavers in the region, Mukti motivated local women to learn the art of weaving pashmina and lambswool fashion accessories. Her goal, then and now, was to empower them through vocational skills and a source of steady income. Starting with an arduous journey to Tibet, from where she sourced high quality pashmina wool, to the painstaking task of introducing and sustaining a new livelihood for the people, Mukti can be credited with changing the lives of hundreds of women in Kumaon. Today, Panchachuli employs over 800 women from 32 villages in the region, all of whom are involved in various stages of processing and dyeing raw wool; then producing exquisite woven and knitted products. 

I had got the picture in my head all wrong. This wasn’t a small, sleepy organization run by a handful of women. This was a vibrant, active, enterprising community of hundreds of women working together, sharing meals, gossiping, laughing and smilingly evading my camera as I tried in vain to capture on film their overwhelming solidarity. 

Munni Didi is the organizing force behind these women. A master weaver herself, she has worked with Mukti over the decades to inspire and retain the women who now comprise Panchachuli Women Weavers. She is probably in her mid fifties,  a tad shy but with a ready smile, and she was eager to introduce me to every aspect of the organization. 

There is an energy at Panchachuli that I’m struggling to convey in words. Perhaps it’s the brilliance of the brightly colored clothes the women wear, or their quiet chatter or the constant hum of the handlooms or perhaps it’s the unison of all forces at play that is so overpowering and endearing that words fall short. My camera clicks away as I pass from one group of women to the next, taking in the work they were doing; some alone, some in groups, some weaving, others sewing, sorting, drawing…. bursts of giggles greet me as my lens follow different faces, different hands, different souls at work.  

It’s now early evening. A bell sounds to inform one and all that the day’s work is over. As its deep resonance fills the mountain air, women come pouring out in twos and threes, holding hands, laughing, talking, sharing stories of the day. Outside, there are buses waiting to take them home. 

Familiar faces pass me. I smile and wave good bye. I watch them fill the streets and think to myself, what a feeling it must be to know you’re part of a quiet revolution. I am envious. 

For more stories on my trips across India click here.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Three Crafty Women

“Kaise ho, chacha (how are you, uncle)?!” yelled Mukti Datta to a townsman as she expertly maneuvered her jeep along the narrow hill road. My heart was in my mouth as I watched an oncoming car squeeze past, sharing the 10 foot wide unbarricaded road with us. But not Mukti. This half Belgian, half Indian woman of steel was something else altogether, and she made me a little nervous. 

“No, I don’t get lonely. There is so much to do here.” Saraswati’s quiet words pierced through me as I tried to make sense of her primitive surroundings- all of two little cottages divided by a vegetable patch, two youthful trees, a make-shift toilet and a hand pump for water. Oh, and the perk of no electricity after sundown! “I left Italy when I was 22 and came to India. I knew then as I know now that this is home. Why do I need to go back?“ she asked me simply. I looked around and had no answer. What does it take for a woman from a foreign land to make a remote village in South India her home for 40 years? I did not understand her. 

“Madam, khana lagaon (Madam, should I serve the food)?” The manservant respectfully bowed down and whispered softly into the Queen Mother’s ear. Her Highness Satvashiladevi Bhosle, or Rajmata (Queen Mother) as she is fondly called, adjusted her purple sari over her head, discreetly nodded and continued talking to me. “Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru was my favorite guest,” Rajmata said with a smile. “He was so particular about how Indira carried herself.” She was referring to Indira Gandhi, his daughter who later followed in her father’s footsteps and became the Prime Minister of India in 1966. I had only read about both Prime Ministers in history books, yet here I was, seated with royalty, listening to a personal tale about having them as house guests. Rajmata wasn’t bedecked in jewels nor did she have a tiger as a pet (a disappointment to my active imagination), but she exuded grace and pride. She was a proper lady and I was in awe. 

My most recent whirlwind trip across India in search of unique handicrafts introduced me to such an eclectic mix of people, that I was still reeling from all the life lessons by the time I  touched down again at Mumbai airport. 

On the one hand,  there was the tomboy Mukti Datta, a force to be reckoned with, who almost singlehandedly spearheaded the movement that now provides a livelihood for over 1000 women in the hills of Kumaon in North India. With the help of master weavers like Kunthi Martiola and the Danny Kaye and Silvia Fine Foundation, Mukti set up Panchachuli Women Weavers in 1990. Today  the organization produces exquisite pashmina and lambswool scarves and shawls that are in great demand throughout the world.. Mukti lives in Binsar, about 30 kms from where her organization is located and when I met her during the monsoons, she was spending an hour and a half commuting that distance across muddy slopes and around hairpin bends, all in the blinding rain. I bravely hitched a ride with her back to the resort and by the time I got there, I was convinced there was no getting the mountain life out of this woman. Half Belgian she might be but she speaks Kumaoni, the local language, with a flair my grandmother would have appreciated (believe it or not, she was from this part of the world too). Mukti knows everyone, speaks of leopards roaming the hillsides and offers a ride to any local who asks. I could see how Panchachuli Women Weavers got to where it is today- they are riding on the back of their very own tigress.

…And on the other hand, I met the reticent Saraswati, a 60-something Italian woman who left her home at 22 to start afresh in South India. I was in Belgaum, Karnataka to visit an organization that promotes the weaving of jute and coir bags amongst a few women’s cooperatives in neighboring villages. It was only because we had time to spare that my guide suggested we stop over at Saraswati’s house/ashram on our way back to Belgaum. It was approaching darkness by the time we got to her place and when she first walked out, I was taken aback by her simplicity. Clad in a traditional midi (similar to a kaftan), with green glass bangles on her wrists and with her oiled hair loosely tied, she looked like a local villager. She had even taken an Indian name, Saraswati, meaning the goddess of knowledge, music and the arts.  It was only when her four year old granddaughter came running out that I realized she had not only raised her family here, but could also converse fluently in Kannada, the state language! Saraswati told me that the land on which her house was built was gifted to her by her Guruji, her mentor. She and her family use one cottage while the other is a working space for the women artisans to complete the bag making process. It is also used as an ashram when travelers stop by her village. I struggled to understand where Saraswati came from. Here was a woman who had voluntarily given up a life of comfort to live a rustic, hard life in a village where she was a stranger.  But the more I watched her talk, act and react, I saw that that was not the case anymore. She is very comfortable in her space. She is where she wants to grow old; with her plants, her family, her women weavers and her hand pump. She is at peace. It is I who struggles to understand, creating  chaos in the calm.

Thinking of  these two women my travels had introduced me to, I chanced upon royalty during the final leg of my journey to the city of Sawantwadi, located in the southernmost tip of Maharashtra in Western India. The Queen Mother completed the trinity of extraordinary women that I met. I say chanced because when I networked with her daughter-in-law in Mumbai, she never mentioned to me that they lived at the Sawantwadi Palace or that she had married into the royal Bhonsle family that once ruled the erstwhile  Kingdom of Sawantwadi. Imagine my surprise when ‘our meeting’ happened amidst  sweeping lawns, butlers, chauffeurs and of course, Rajmata (Queen Mother). Rajmata is herself a noted artist as well as a patroness of local arts. The craft of making round playing cards known as ganjifa is almost three hundred years old and involves the painstaking process of handpainting each card with unique iconographic illustrations. Because of the intensive laborinvolved in the technique and the disintegration of princely states in India, this craft (which was promoted by royal families across India)  faces the danger of extinction. Today, thanks to the perseverance of Rajmata, Ganjifa art is still being practiced and Sawantwadi boasts of being the only place in India where this technique  is still flourishing. Rajmata has opened up the Royal Darbar (audience hall) for ganjifa artists to work out of, she ensures they get monthly wages and has used her network of contacts to keep domestic and international buyers interested in the craft. I could see she is proud of her artisans and the work they are doing. Rajmata struck me an active, confident woman who despite her advancing age has a goal to achieve- to keep the art of Ganjifa alive for as long as she can. And I am in awe of her conviction to succeed. 

Reeling from all the life lessons I had learned, it came as no surprise  that I was overwhelmed by the time I returned home to Mumbai. I had traveled from the north to the south, and then to the west of the country and while my search for new crafts had yielded a rich harvest, more stirring were my encounters with these three women. Be it Mukti traveling to Tibet for the best quality wool or Saraswati’s open door policy with women cooperatives or Rajmata reminiscing about royalty playing Ganjifa cardgames, each woman has worked her environment to provide the utmost support for local artisans. In the process she has given of herself so that her own personality is woven into the craft to which she is committed.  And in a country with a population of 1.1 billion and counting, these three exceptional women surely are a minority worth emulating.

For more stories on my trips across India click here.