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.