By Richa Hingorani:
Waking up to unfamiliar walls, I glanced at the watch clocking away my time. Reaching out for my notebook, I tenderly flipped the pages and drew to a stop when I read a familiar date. ‘SUCCESS STORY’, it said under today’s date with thick blue ink boxing it, silently telling me it was the priority of the day. Minutes later, I walked to the reception area and saw a pair of wandering eyes gaining assurance as I walked closer.
Following Gandhi’s principles, Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) Katihar began an initiative of cleanliness aptly christened ‘Swachh Katihar, Swasthya Katihar’, ensuring door-to-door cleanliness drive, street sweeping and cleansing of the drainage system. A SEWA employee, Pooja, works as an organizer managing a municipal ward and a team of 4 entrusted with the task of maintaining taintlessness.
“Good morning”, I greeted.
Coyly smiling, she turned to the exit, “Chalein?”
Posing questions, I set afoot in her comfort zone. As we walked through the crowded rude roads, she forewarned me about potholes, held my hand, carved the way for me and repeatedly offered to take a rickshaw. Declining each time, I was enamored by confidence she exuded. Upon probing, I learnt she was all of 20 years old, Sociology graduate and nurtured dreams of pursuing B.Ed.
Gesturing towards sparklingly clean households, she smiled and said
“Yahaan kaam ho chuka hai.”
Strolling up to the accumulation point of waste, she beamed as she saw a dustbin that read SEWA Katihar. Fearing improper retention and citing a distant bench, I asked if we could take a seat. Her response came in the form of hurried steps towards our destination.
“Garmi nahin lagegi?” she inquired.
Squinting my eyes to look at her, I nodded and she began marching towards the cool shades. Sitting on the steps, I dug out my notebook and began jotting down. Through the route of my questions, I saw her inhibitions collapse and proceed to be engulfed by a certain ease. Answers became more personal, my stimulation decreased and her participation quadrupled.
My findings fastidiously took me away from the purpose of our meeting. On a monthly salary of 4,000/-, she hoarded savings of 50,000/- . How? I posed and prompt came her reply
“Do saal se SEWA ke saath kaam kar rahin hoon”
As though responding to my disbelief, her eyes twinkled with pride as she repeated the savings she had amassed. Unfolding stories, she narrated how her greatest achievement took the shape of a Johnson & Johnson’s baby kit she gifted to her brother and sister-in-law. Ah! The innocence of her all! She was barely 5 feet, a face that harbored a smile rather frequently, how could anyone have taken her seriously? She nodded even before I finished asking, making it seem like a familiar obstacle.
“Mai unke saamne itna smile nahin karti, mai inke saath bahut strict hoon”
Pausing for a while as though she’s time-traveling, she adds,
“Woh sab (the team) nahin chahte ki mai kissi se kuch kaam ke bare mein sunoo isiliye woh apna kaam achche se aur imandaari se karte hain.”
Having created a feeling of togetherness among those who have been traditionally oppressed is not easy. Called rag-pickers ordinarily, SEWA addresses them as ‘Saundarya Saathi’ aimed at bestowing dignity and reverence. Tough row to hoe!
She glances at her wrist watch and exclaims she loves shopping for clothes, nail paints and dotes on Shahrukh Khan. Rubbing off the dust off our clothes, she looks at me egging me to move faster. As she saunters and gains lead, I look at her admiringly and realize the odyssey she has undertaken, the crests and troughs she encounters, the self-reliance she represents, the relevance of the savings she hoards, the Johnson & Johnson’s kit she proudly gifted.
Leaping over and beyond merely being a success story, she traverses on a road less traveled and becomes synonymous with being inspirational.
Hats tip to you, Pooja!
Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) is committed to strengthening the Movement of women in the informal economy by highlighting their issues at the national level and building its member organisations’ capacity to empower them.