Story of the courage and perseverance of a woman from a village a few miles from Umar kot on the fringe of the Thar desert
Kalavanti lives in the Khararo Charan village, a few miles from Umar kot on the fringe of the Thar desert in Sindh. I met her because she was the supervisor of a group of women artisans that had been connected to the retail market in Karachi by an NGO. At once, it was clear why she was the head of the group: she was outgoing, confidently expressive and had a marked flair for leadership. Above all, she was an exceptionally gifted artisan. Needlework that she excelled in has long been in her family. She learned it as a child by her mother’s side. It was her natural flair that made her excel.
Before the NGO intervention, Kalavanti and the artisans she now leads were all working individually and selling their products locally. Sometimes they received orders; mostly, they simply did their needlework as a matter of course and then waited for customers. But in a village of sharecroppers, turnover of the work was slow and income was next to nothing. Sometimes a middleman from the city purchased their work. But he paid only marginally better than local buyers.
Becoming part of the NGO network brought orders from fashion designers and retailers in Karachi and without the middleman, for the first time, the artisans of Khararo Charan got their labour’s worth. From earning barely a thousand rupees a month, their income jumped to almost Rs 20,000.
What struck me as exceptional about Kalavanti was that she and her husband had stopped after their second child. Though they are both about thirty years of age, they have resolved not to have more children and to ensure that their two boys get the best education that their income can afford. In a society where a small family is an anathema, these two stand out. But the fact that this is now a small family is mainly because of Kalavanti’s insistence.
She had always had the urge to get ahead in life. But in her village, with so few opportunities and no exposure to the outside world, Kalavanti found no opening. And then, there were restrictions from her husband and in-laws about remaining homebound. She said she had never even been to Umar kot. In fact, if her needlework was not picked up by a customer in the village, she could not go into town to offer it to a store. And if she needed something, her husband had to get it for her.
Kalavanti recounted how uproar ensued when the NGO first came to the village and invited women artisans to a meeting with their staff. The word ‘meeting’ reeked of iniquity – even when the staff were all females – so the men thought. Teaming with Hoori, an older and much-respected woman from the village, Kalavanti became a vocal opponent to the backwards-looking men. The initial discussion with the NGO staff revealed that the artisans’ craft would be refined to satisfy urban markets and connect to buyers in the city. That meant an increase in income. So she argued, what gripe did the men have against such an initiative?
It took some doing, but for the first meeting, as many men turned up as women merely to hear what transpired. Kalavanti said that was the end of all the bickering. Next came the question of the promised training to refine their craft for the urban markets. Once again, the men saw a nefarious design in the whole thing. And once again, it was Hoori and Kalavanti who assured the men that all would be well.
There followed the exposure trip to Karachi to meet with fashion designers and a tour of outlets that opened up a whole new world for Kalavanti and her group. Just this initiative brought a seismic change in the Khararo Charan community. Time was when the artisans working in their homes would ask their husbands to shop for their materials in Umar kot. “After the trip to Karachi, the women of my group and I routinely go into town to do our shopping,” said Kalavanti. For the first time, said Kalavanti, she was wearing dresses of her choice and not what her husband brought her.
Karachi was not the far horizon for Kalavanti. With a twinkle in her eyes, she told me she was the only woman from her village, in fact, the only person who had gone by bus to Karachi and then boarded a plane for a trip to Islamabad. For emphasis, she added that she was the only one from her village to have seen Islamabad and presented her craft there at a show in a fancy hotel.
I met her again two months ago in the post-flood period. She and her husband (whose name I never asked) waited for me outside the compound where they lived with the rest of his brothers. The compound was a heap of debris, all from the homes that collapsed in the relentless rain over six weeks.
I sat with the couple in a roofless hulk that was once a room they shared with their two little boys. She told me she had barely managed to save her materials and needlework before the roof caved in. They moved in with her brother-in-law, and later when all the roofs collapsed, they went under plastic sheeting that was still their home two months after the deluge. Work stopped for both of them when the rain began in late July.
She said her husband worked as a construction labourer and there was no activity during the rains. Even in November, all work was on hold. As for herself, she and the other artisans were so hard put to save their unfinished work and their materials from the deluge that they simply could not get any work done. There was no income, and the couple were living off the little saving Kalavanti had kept aside for just such an eventuality.
I was dismayed. How was the house going to be rebuilt? It will be rebuilt, Kalavanti stressed with great confidence and her beaming smile. If their house had collapsed, so had those of other people who will now call for builders and her husband will get back into his old work routine. “I only don’t have a roof. But I have everything else to restart my work,” she added.
The festive season of Diwali was at hand. That’s when women want new dresses. Also, orders are coming in from Karachi and there will be money soon to start rebuilding, said Kalavanti. She was vehement that even in this adversity, her boys would not be pulled out of school. I asked why and she said that she and her husband were illiterate, but they knew the value of education. She wanted her sons to be better than their father, and she would see to it that they went to college.
The first time I met her, I found Kalavanti’s smile and laughter contagious. It was a smile genuine and true that never left her face and I attributed it to her newfound monetary advancement. In November, the smile was still there. And she talked with the same confidence as before. There was no lamentation about the injustice of Nature, no complaint of the government not having helped them. There was that admirable confidence that back in work, she and her husband would soon be rebuilding their collapsed home.
When I first met her, her positivity and urge to get ahead in the world had made a deep impression on me. A year after that meeting, adversity had not dampened her spirit. The smile, the laughter and the confident conversation were still there. If there is an unbeatable woman I know, it is Kalavanti of Khararo Charan village.
The writer has authored several books and is a fellow of The Royal Geographical Society. He tweets @odysseuslahori