Reshaping Her Destiny
It was very difficult for me to keep my children under somebody’s care, but I didn’t have any other way. I didn’t have any male member to support my family. Till their marriage I am doing the role of both male and female.”
Rahamat’s destiny is turning out better than it began.
She was married at age 12 to a man twice her age. Still a child herself, she soon gave birth to two sons and two daughters. Her husband, whom she says “did not have good habits,” died at age 40, when she was 27. She mourned his loss, to be sure, but she did not allow lengthy mourning, because she had four children who needed caring for. She needed to take action. What action, she didn’t know. But she could not afford to sit and do nothing.
Put yourself in her shoes: 27, four children (the oldest being 11), a fifth grade education, no money to her name, no job, no one to help her, no way to raise her children.
And, she thought to herself, this is no way to raise my children. I must do something.
“Come,” she says to her youngest son. “It is time to go.” She stands in her one-room apartment, holding a cloth bag in each hand. Her children’s clothes are stuffed in both bags. Her other children are outside, waiting.
“I don’t want to go,” the boy whines.
“But you will be with your grandmother. Come on. We do not have time to waste.”
The boy groans but dutifully gets up. She leads her four children, like a mother duck leading four ducklings on a journey, which they are all surely on. They follow her through the streets of Chennai until, a half hour or so later, they arrive at the tiny apartment where Rahamat’s mother lives. Her mother can take in only one child; she takes the youngest. Rahamat leaves her youngest with her mother and takes her other three children to a hostel down the street. She has arranged for them to stay there and their grandmother will look after them.
The hostel is an old, white stone building. It has a large, open room with many beds on the sides and a kitchen and toilet in the back. The floors and walls are stained but clean. Light filters through a few small windows.
The kids warily eye the place. The two girls have tears in their eyes.
“I don’t want to stay here,” the youngest girl says.
“It is what you have to do for now,” Rahamat says firmly. “I have a good job to go to. I will send money every month.”
“Please don’t go,” the other daughter says. She hugs Rahamat, and Rahamat’s eyes become moist.
“I have to go. It will be better for us. You will see,” she says.
She wills herself to think about the children’s future. She puts away her present sadness to focus on her goal of securing a good future for her children.
To secure that future, Rahamat makes a journey of nearly 4,000 kilometers, to a land she does not know, to a language she does not speak (she learned Arabic in three months, out of necessity), to customs that seem as foreign as the language to her. She has found domestic work in Ras al-Khaimah, one of the seven emirates that make up the United Arab Emirates, through friends. She makes 400 dirams per month – about $100 USD – working for an Iranian family. She sends some money home each month and puts the rest in the bank. She doesn’t need much to live on herself.
Her plan, you see, is larger than survival. It is larger than just having enough to buy food, to have a roof over her children’s head. If she thought that way, she would never get ahead.
But she thinks in a different way. To worry about food, about water, about rent, is not going to be her destiny, and it is not going to be her children’s destiny. She is a woman of faith, and her faith helps her persevere. She recites scriptures to herself to bolster her faith and to give her confidence to move forward.
At night, she lies in her bed in the house where she works. It is a good bed, much better than any bed she has slept in. She thinks of her children sleeping in the hostel on old mattresses or on mats on the floor. She thinks of them sharing a toilet with so many people. It is not what they want, and it is not what she wants.
For a time, it has to be that way. And she is moving, slowly, inexorably, toward a day when it will not have to be that way. Her mother and her grandmother have passed on a determination to her that is born of selflessness and a desire for a brighter future for the ones she loves: her children. That is how her grandmother was toward her mother; that is how her mother was toward her. And that is how she is toward her children.
Her goal is like a distant mountain. She is moving toward it, but sometimes it seems so far away.
She pushes the thought out of her mind that her children will hate her for abandoning them, for leaving them so far away. Or worse, that they will forget her.
She tells herself to stay focused on the reason she is in Ras al-Khaimah. But sometimes it is hard to do. It is especially hard because the couple who employ her are not kind to her. They have no patience with her because she does not know the language. She doesn’t understand much of what they say to her, but the scowls on their faces and the tones of their voices speak a universal language.
Still, she thinks, I must keep my back straight. My head up. I must work hard. I must send money home to my children. And I must save for their future.
She does this for three years. Along the way she becomes conversant in Arabic. She augments her language skills by reading the Koran. She puts up with the verbal abuse from the couple in exchange for money to send home. Every month she sends some money home and puts some in the bank. The weeks and months and years roll on. Her children are growing and her bank account is growing, too.
That mountain that she is walking toward is beginning to draw closer. And she is beginning to walk toward it with a bounce in her step, with confidence.
This journey has not been easy, she tells herself. But surely I will get there.
Three long years.
That is how long it has been since she has been to Chennai, indeed anywhere in her home country.
That is how long it has been since she has kissed her children, since she has made them a meal, since she has prayed over them, since she has made sure they have tended to their studies.
In other words, since she has been a mother to them.
Through a placement agency, she has found more domestic work in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. But before she starts her new job, she journeys back home to Chennai. She needs to see her family. That is a must. Three years is an eternity.
But now, as she nears Chennai, the mountain that she has been walking toward for those three long years – securing the future of her children – looms larger than ever.
Yes, she has sacrificed much in that time. She has lost years with her children that she cannot get back. But she has also gained something. She has saved enough money to buy a house—meaning, a few rooms in an older urban building. This is not what Westerners would consider a “house,” but it is understood as such in India. Rahamat’s house would be considered a very meager and humble apartment in Western culture, but her children have never lived in a place they have owned. She is introducing them to a new way of life, a new way of operating in the world.
By the sweat of her brow and the will of her heart, she is giving them a hope for the future.
She spends a few months with her children and mother. She cannot believe how her children have grown. They appear to have blossomed before her very eyes. They look healthy and they are happy to see her.
It is joyous to be back home among people who speak her own language and follow the same customs. She sleeps deeply and peacefully at night, and her body regains energy that had been sapped through her hard work and long journey.
But as the time draws near to depart again, this time for Saudi Arabia, the familiar sadness creeps into her heart. Her eldest daughter clams up, distancing herself from Rahamat. Her youngest son acts up, drawing attention. Her other two children grow moody.
“It cannot be helped,” she says on the night before she is to leave.
“You could get work here in Chennai,” the younger daughter says.
“Work here is not easy to find. And it would not pay as much as I am going to make in Riyadh. If I had not gone away to work, we would not have this house.”
They cannot argue that, but still the evening ends poorly, with feelings ruffled all around, and the sadness in Rahamat’s heart growing heavier. Her last night in Chennai is the only night that she does not sleep well during her return home.
Rahamat spends a few years as a domestic in Riyadh. She continues to save and to send money home. The children continue to grow. They are of marrying age now. After a few years, Rahamat gets another job, through an agent, in Doha. She works in Doha for some years and then returns to Chennai, this time for good. She does so because she does not want to lose her children. She wants to get them married.
So she returns to the city where she was born, and she begins a textile business, buying and selling saris. She marries her children off; all four are married now, and all four have given her grandchildren.
She returns a changed woman. She has spent 11 years in foreign countries confronting challenges, hardships, fears, and obstacles. But those confrontations have proven successful. Because, in those 11 years, she has successfully reshaped her destiny.
She left the country penniless. She returned soon to be using her innate entrepreneurship skills, to help herself and the community around her, although she perhaps did not know it at the time.
She left India filled with doubts and fears. She returned filled with confidence and hope.
She left from a position of weakness. She returned from a position of relative strength.
“The separation was very hard,” she acknowledges. “I did not want to leave my children. But I knew to truly help them, I must leave. I had to be both mother and father to them.”
Rahamat has not only helped her own children; she has helped many young women who are in the same position she was in many years ago. She leads a women’s self-help group in Chennai, and she is a mother figure to many of the younger members of the group.
“My primary goal with my group is to help these women grow in self-confidence,” she says. “I want to help them develop a fighting spirit. Women have to fight. They have to have courage.”
Rahamat is a natural entrepreneur with a fierce drive to earn money and take care of her family. At the same time, she looks to help those around her in the community. She first became involved with Marketplace Literacy Project when some University of Illinois students interviewed her as part of a project on health-related education.
The students asked Rahamat if she would consider buying health education materials at a certain price. She was silent for a moment and then gave a slight smile.
“I would buy it not for myself, but for others,” she said. “I would buy it and teach others about it.”
The students saw her as a potential customer. Rahamat saw a potential business venture.
“Everything I see,” she says, “I see through the lens of an opportunity for business. An opportunity to buy and resell, to provide goods or services.”
Ask her where she learned to look at the world in that way, and she quickly responds it came from necessity, when her husband died. As she now teaches other young women, she learned to fight. She learned to scrap and sacrifice, to plan and save.
She learned how to reshape what promised to be a hard destiny.
Her days are not filled with luxury, but neither are they filled with despair, hopelessness, and want. They are filled with hope, and confidence, and energy, and purpose.
Her children are, by and large, doing well. Her elder daughter, along with her two children, live at home with Rahamat; the daughter does not get along with her in-laws. This daughter has a steady job as a cashier. Her youngest son also lives with her at home.
Her younger daughter is a schoolteacher. Her oldest son, who completed 10th grade (all the others completed high school) works in the footwear trade, as does the youngest son. They both work for Rahamat’s nephew, who owns his own business.
She has, in a sense, expanded her family; a tight bond between her and the 20 women in her self-help group exists.
“I moved from survival to subsistence to beyond,” she says. “My goal now is to give back to my community around me.”
The women in her self-help group sell saris. They are guided in their efforts by Rahamat, who collects Rs. 100 every month from each woman and deposits it in a joint bank account.
“We give loans, some small, some big, for children’s education,” she says, “and the bank helps us when needs arise. We also give money to our women during their time of delivery.”
The women in the group find strength from each other and from Rahamat, their leader. They know what she has been through. They know she has not only walked to the mountain, but scaled it. They know that, along the way, she has overcome many challenges. They know she has come out on top, and they want to learn from her, follow her example, be like her.
“I can empathize with them,” she says of the women in her group. “If my confidence and courage helps them get over their difficulties, then I should help them. I should not get tired of going to the bank often. We cannot expect any benefit or gain from the money that people have invested. What I can expect is that my words will give strength to those who are facing problems. I can motivate women not to lose courage. I can show them how to run a sari or pickle business.”
One thing she has learned, both in her time in Ras al-Khaimah and in Saudi Arabia and in Qatar and in starting her own business back in India, is not to worry about things beyond her control. Instead, she focuses on what she can control – her attitude, her determination, her work ethic, her business sense.
“During seasonal time,” she says, “I can earn ten thousand rupees per month [about $145 USD]. If I get the products for thirty thousand rupees, I can sell each sari for ten rupees profit [about 15 cents profit]. If it is not seasonal time, then I will not make as much profit.”
The key word there is profit. Sometimes not a lot, but it’s there. And it’s enough, even in dry times.
Enough to buy a house and land. Enough to help her children and her mother out. Enough to get her business going and keep it going.
But for Rahamat, she is not content with enough. Her entrepreneur’s eye is still roving, still on the lookout for additional opportunities.
“I am eager to do this on a larger scale,” she says. “I want to go up. I hate to come down.”
Up is the only direction Rahamat knows. Because going up is the only way to scale the mountains that you face.
And to reshape your destiny, you have to scale the mountain in front of you.
Growing Up Muslim in a Hindu Society
India is predominantly a Hindu country; it is about 81 percent Hindu, while the second most followed religion, Islam, is at about 13 percent. Rahamat is a devout Muslim; her beliefs and her faith are integral to all that she does. She begins and ends every day with prayers, and she relies on Islamic law to guide her in decision-making. For example, she will not criticize government leaders, because Islamic law forbids doing so.
Rahamat on Meeting the Challenges of Life
We asked Rahamat what made her such a good salesperson.
“I learned by experience, by trial and error,” she said. “I had no choice. I learned by necessity. Otherwise I would not make the sale and we would have no money.”
That’s the same with other challenges in her life. They rose up in front of her and she had to find ways to overcome them. “My mother told me there are no shortcuts in life,” she says. “She said I must be confident and strong.”
She had to call on strength when she was forced to leave her children to go to work in another country: “It was very difficult for me to keep my children under somebody’s care, but I didn’t have any other way,” she says. “I didn’t have any male member to support my family. Till their marriage I am doing the role of both male and female.”
As for working in a foreign country, she says, “I had no freedom there. It was really a challenge. Only with my confidence and courage I could get over those difficulties.”
Today she faces the challenge of continuing to work past what most Westerners would consider retirement age, and doing so while battling diabetes. She gets a paltry 1000 rupees (around $15 USD) per month from the Indian government. But she accepts this reality with the equanimity—and the faith—that has served her throughout her life. “It is not up to the government to take care of me in this final chapter of my life. It is up to God.”
Motivated to Succeed—and to Help Others Succeed
During our conversations with Rahamat, we discovered three primary motivations that have governed her actions in life: