Finding Strength Outside the Home
“It would be a pleasure to go out. Otherwise I would be inside the house within four walls. Outside, I could learn a lot.”
Shanthi’s eyes sparkle like peaceful jewels. She has a calm about her, a serenity, and at first glance, this woman from a tiny village in southeast India would not seem to have the chutzpah to run her own business, or to travel to Spencer Plaza, a landmark in Chennai, to barter with male merchants. Chennai, after all, is the fourth-largest metropolitan area in India, and the country is very much a patriarchal society.
Underneath that calm exterior, however, is the bubbling excitement of a child: Spencer Plaza! To Shanthi, Spencer Plaza is an almost mythical place, a place she never would have dreamed of traveling to—and bartering in—earlier in her life. To her it is an exotic and thrilling place to be, teeming with life and sparkling with possibilities; she feels not unlike a Western child making her first visit to Disneyland. To the Westerner’s eye, Spencer Plaza is an old-fashioned, unexciting shopping center; to Shanthi, it represents a new and exciting way of life.
So here is this frail, bespectacled woman, with her serene Mona Lisa smile, traveling to this bustling plaza to talk to merchants and show them her wares: beautifully handcrafted and precisely painted papier mâché dolls of all sizes. The dolls set on a stand, and, being made of four parts, bob and move as you touch them.
A heavyset merchant with bristly chin hair and black-framed glasses whose long temples are perched two inches above his ears, so that the lenses are slanted toward his nose, holds a six-inch doll in his hands, slowly turning it around. Shanthi watches the man’s eyes, trying to read his thoughts, but the man’s eyes are hooded. Finally he looks up very noncommittally.
“Okay,” he says. “I will take one dozen for Rs. 500 each [about $7.30 USD].”
The calmness does not leave her eyes, but something in them sharpens. She gives him a little smile.
“No sir, those we cannot sell for less than Rs. 1100 [about $16 USD]. Do you see the quality?”
He gives the doll another guarded look and then shrugs his shoulders.
“Okay, today is your lucky day,” he says. “I will pay Rs. 600 each.”
Shanthi’s eyes gleam brightly as she watches the merchant for a moment before, still with that small smile on her face, she takes the doll from him and begins to place it in its cardboard box.
“I will move on, sir,” she says, and she begins to walk away.
“Wait!” the merchant calls out.
She returns. They talk some more. They end on a price of Rs. 900 (about $13 USD). That is the price she had in mind, and she was willing to go from merchant to merchant until she got it. (Shanthi tells us that the seller will likely add 50 percent to what he paid for the dolls when he sells it to his customers. Bargaining is a way of life in India, and if you do not possess good bargaining skills, you will be paying higher prices and selling for lower prices than you need to. Developing bargaining skills is an important facet of Indian life, particularly at the subsistence level.)
All of this, understand, is amazing for a rural Indian woman with a 5th grade education. And nearly as surprising is the attitude of her husband, who, as Shanthi says, “accepts” her working outside the home—not exactly a ringing endorsement, but also far from the norm in traditional India and a sign of the changing times as well.
Shanthi married her maternal uncle long ago – she is in her mid-fifties now – and they lived for a time in Mayiladudurai in Chennai. (Marrying maternal uncles is a common cultural practice in certain communities in this part of India.) But when her mother-in-law died, Shanthi and her husband found it hard to manage with their three boys, and her parents asked her to come to the small village about 80 kilometers south of Chennai where they have lived since 1985. Her husband continues to work for the export company, ironing clothes, a job he has worked at for the past 26 years.
“My parents gave us a plot, and we constructed a house in that plot and we are still living there,” she says.
Her parents giving them that plot of land was one big turning point in Shanthi’s life. Perhaps an even bigger one occurred in 1990, when her oldest son was in eighth grade. Without more funds, he would not be able to enter ninth grade.
So Shanthi joined with nine other women in her village and, under the guidance and help of Mr. Umapathy, a village leader, they created a self-help group and formed a cooperative to make and sell papier mâché dolls. She put in 10,000 rupees (about $145 USD) as an initial investment, which she has long since recovered.
“When I began working,” Shanthi says, “I was making seven rupees a day [about 10 cents]. Now I am making 5,000 rupees a month [about $73 USD].” It was enough to keep her son in school, and it is enough now to help with her grandchildren’s education.
Shortly before helping to form the co-op, Shanthi learned to paint through a 6-month course offered by the government for the village women. The women put their newfound skills to use. Mr. Umapathy petitioned the government for a bit of land for a building, and a loan to build, and the small house that in reality is their doll factory was built in 2000 and paid off in 2007, thanks to a cash reserve that the coop was able to save.
In the beginning they were producing five or six dolls a day. Now the women carefully and expertly craft and paint 200 to 250 dolls a week. Shanthi notes that there are four stages in doll-making, from blending the mixture to molding the various body parts to assembling the parts to painting them; she began in the molding section, but has an allergy to the wallpaper powder used in the papier mâché, and so moved to painting about a dozen years ago. “I choose the colors, I choose the styles,” she says. “But if a customer has an idea, I can paint it as they want it.”
As she worked in the doll business, life continued with its ups and downs around her. All three sons stopped at 10th grade, though she encouraged them to continue and had the money through her work to support their studies. Unable to talk them into furthering their education, she tried to get them to go to work for a company in a nearby industrial complex. But they are all working as drivers for companies near their village. So she helped them buy vehicles, taking a loan from her brother and a few others to aid the purchases. Her oldest son got married, and he and his wife and two daughters live with her and her husband.
That set of disappointments pales with the heartbreak she endured a few years ago, when her youngest son drowned while swimming in a pond with his friends. It is only as she recounts this that the light from her eyes dims, as if a cloud is passing over. The ever-present serene smile fades as well. We are interviewing her in her doll shop, in her painting room; several doll frames are on a table in varying degrees of completion.
Shanthi idly fingers a doll, looking down, and then she looks back up, the shine returning to her eyes. “My first granddaughter is seven years old,” she says. “She is studying in second standard. My second granddaughter is two years old.” She pauses, and then a sweet smile makes the dark cloud that had settled over her disperse. “If I have any problems or any stress,” she says, “it just vanishes when I see my granddaughters’ faces.”
Becoming a businesswoman has done more for Shanthi than allow her to help her children and grandchildren. It has opened up an avenue for her to help other women who are trying to make a way for themselves or help their families. Taking strength from her self-help group and her work, Shanthi has begun to share the lessons she has learned with other women in the village and in her group. And she has started her own small home business by supplying the co-op with materials for the dolls. To start the business, she borrowed 10,000 rupees (about $145 USD) from her mother; she has paid off that loan.
Shanthi, you see, does not like to be in debt to anyone. She likes to be independent.
As with most any new business proposition, the coop faced challenges early on. The women had to acquire quality control skills to ensure that their dolls were of uniformly high quality. They had production challenges as well, learning to work together as a team in a coordinated fashion where the process was not bogged down in any one area. But to survive, they knew they needed to acquire these skills, and now they are an amazingly smooth unit, working seamlessly together, producing high quality merchandise.
They make small talk as they work, and you sense a comfortable, familial feel in the room as they work. They have worked together for many years now, and are as much sisters as they are friends. At their various posts, they waste no motion as they efficiently and methodically create the doughy substance, roll it out as if they were rolling out bread dough, and shape and mold it into the four doll parts (head, torso, long skirt, and base, which includes the legs and feet). Each part fits on top of the part below it. The finished doll then goes to Shanti to paint.
“I used to work with the powder,” she says, “but I had to stop because my lungs were affected. So they put me to painting.” In the painting room a few dozen dolls sit, each one a little different from the others. They are each a unique creation, and it is through these creations, the collective efforts of the ten women and Mr. Umapathy, that the women’s lives are bettered. Through their creativity and resourcefulness, food is on the table. Children are sent to school. Cars are purchased. New businesses are begun. New dreams emerge.
One of those dreams, for Shanthi, is to do a bit of traveling. Other than a few trips to Chennai and some trips with her enterprise, she has stayed in her small village, worked in the co-op, raised her family, and is now helping to raise her granddaughters.
“Going to distant places would be an experience,” she says. “It would be a pleasure to go out. I could learn a lot.”
She does, however, derive much pleasure from the shorter trips she makes with her enterprise. On these trips, they train groups of 10 women each in how to make dolls. They help them understand not just the practicalities of making dolls, but of running a business – securing loans, buying the materials, pricing the dolls, getting them in the marketplace, and so on.
“The women we train are very enthusiastic,” Shanthi says, smiling. “They are so excited to start their own business. They are very friendly and give us gifts for teaching them.” Perhaps the women they train are enthusiastic in part because their teachers are eager to help them learn to start their own business. Shanthi takes special pleasure in helping other women acquire the know-how to start their own business, and she shares her expertise with all that she can, including her brother’s wife. Shanthi has learned how to be independent and make her own income, and she knows how important this is to other women around her. She is as good a teacher, mentor, and coach as she is a doll maker.
Shanthi has spent nearly a quarter of a century making dolls. In taking the risk to step outside her home and invest in becoming part of a business, she has gained much and helped her family. Her husband supported her in her decision to work, and this is not always the case in India.
Over the years, she has learned the importance of taking a calculated risk. Had she not done that, her life, and the lives of her family, would be very different. She has also learned that she is capable, that she is skilled, that her work has value to it.
Perhaps most of all, she has learned that she has value. She has gained self-respect and an equanimity that helps her balance the good and the bad in life, the pleasant and the difficult. She has weathered a lot in her life, and in her 25 years of working, and, of lasting importance, she is teaching others in self-help groups how to step up, step out, and find their strength outside of their home, creating businesses that can help sustain them.
“A lot of people we have trained have gone on to start their own businesses,” she says as she puts the finishing touches on a doll’s skirt. She places her fine brush on the wood table, which has bits of many different colors on it, and smiles that enigmatic smile of hers.
“I am very proud and happy for them,” she says. “As for me, I could not have done all this if I had been sitting at home and doing nothing.”
Changes in Village Life
We have visited Shanthi over the years and we have noted some changes in her village. On a recent trip, we asked her about those changes.
“Oh yes, things have changed,” she said. “Many things. There are more permanent dwellings now and fewer huts. That is good. We also have more shops with groceries, so it is easier to get our food. That too is good.
“But this growth has caused more trash, more clogged drains, and brought more mosquitoes. These are new problems our village faces. We are working to solve these problems.”
Indeed, travelling to this semi-urban village year after year for about a decade, we have noticed steady changes over time, in terms of the improved house constructions and fewer huts. The progress seems to parallel with some lag, the general growth in an emerging economy.
She mentioned another significant change: Women are a large part of the group that is working to solve the village’s problems. “Ten years ago, no women would be allowed to be involved in village issues,” she said. “Now we are working to help solve the problems. And why shouldn’t we? It is our village, they are our homes, too.”