Stepping out of the cool comfort of the car, on a hot summer afternoon in April in a remote village in Nuapada, Odisha, I had no idea I was about to meet someone very special.
I stood at the entrance of an ordinary village house, low-tiled roof, cow dung-pasted walls, an old lady with a walking stick, sitting in the shade, staring at us curiously from her wizened frame. Next to the house was a small shop selling biscuits, sweets lined in neat glass bottles on the mantle, we peered inside to see a petite saree-clad pretty woman, with the brightest smile ever. “This is Lakshmi Panday,” said my colleague Manas, by way of introduction, she undertook a tailoring course course around a year ago at the ‘Skill Mitra Udyog Mitra’ centre we had visited earlier. “Aao, ander aao”, said Lakshmi as she welcomed us into her small shop. But wait a minute, I was supposed to meet a tailor, not a shop keeper. Just then glancing around there it was in one corner of the shop, her sewing machine with several colourful blouse materials, laces and tassels waiting to be transformed into beautiful saree blouses.
I couldn’t wait to hear her story and Lakshmi could not wait to tell it. Smiling, confident and an easy communicator, within two minutes it was apparent that behind the pallu-clad demeanour was a very sharp mind. “I always wanted to learn to sew, I would nag my husband about it,” she said. Then when she learned of the Tata Trust centre offering the course, she took it up right away. The experience provided her not just the basic technical skills, but as I sensed, ignited something deeper, a latent creativity and entrepreneurial spirit. Soon after the course, the machine was bought. Armed with her own passion for design and fashion and using her mobile to look at the latest trends, she began stitching blouses for herself. Showing off her talent, Laksmi rushed into her house and brought forth a couple of her own blouses, lace and velvet trimmings on the sleeve, low backs with gold strings and tassels crisscrossing; she was not just a seamstress but a designer too. She showed off a blouse in particular and told me how she had bought all the material and stitched this in the morning to wear it for an evening function, the design was such a hit that many village women asked if she could make one like that for them as well. Seamstress, designer, model, all rolled in one. She shared that she had a fixed clientele who kept coming back to her. Lakshmi makes at least two blouses a day and charges anything up to Rs. 150 for each. That is around Rs. 9000 a month.
“But you also run this shop” I posed. “Yes, I manage both, that’s why the machine is right here. When my husband returns from work in the evening, he fills in for a while, while I get the dinner done,” she said. “My home is next door. Come come, come in and see my house, it is a bit messy though today.” The words resonated with what I say quite often when I have unannounced guests in my Mumbai flat. Women are the same everywhere, I felt an instant bond with Lakshmi. Inside was a small courtyard surrounded by a couple of rooms, her dimly lit kitchen and children’s room with a TV, her son and daughter sat glued to it, further inside was her bedroom, I saw a mosquito net covered double bed. A spare room for other family members, and a barn on one side leading to a vegetable garden patch that completed the tour. Suddenly a young calf emerged and nosed around us new folks, Lakshmi tied up the calf to keep it out of our way. My eyes strayed to the something laid out to dry in the courtyard, and her eyes followed mine, “its dried brinjals” she said, “we add it to our dals.” Manas added, “This is a common practice, vegetables, and tomatoes are dried when in season and are used later when they are scarce.” I must try this out back at home I thought to myself, I pay a lot for sundried tomatoes!
By now her family surrounded us, the old lady I saw earlier was her grandmother, I told her she was lucky to have a daughter in law like Lakshmi. “Yes, yes,” she said, “she is so fair as well, all my daughters in law are fair” she claimed proudly.
“You manage quite a lot,” I said to Lakshmi, “a house, a grandma, a cow, vegetable garden that needs care, your tailoring, and the shop. Whew! That’s a lot; it makes my life back in Mumbai look like a cakewalk.” “I have plans” she went on as she led us back towards her shop, “My husband and I plan to buy a computer and printer, people here have to travel far for a Xerox, I can offer these services at my shop.” Her eyes shone as she shared “My husband says he will put us on Google Maps so that people will know about our services.” My colleagues Manas, Anibrata and I looked at each other, we had the same thought, Lakshmi had a rare gift, she was a born entrepreneur. I was floored, she was an inspiration to me, here she was in the middle of nowhere, against all odds, blooming as a businesswoman, brimming with happiness and excited about her future.
She is a prime example of what we at Tata STRIVE strive for. We’re sure wherever Lakshmi is today, she is doing well for herself and her family.
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