The atmosphere hung heavy in the dimly-lit concrete room as I focused entirely on the slow expansion and contraction of my tiring, groaning chest; it was the only movement sighing from my aching body as the stickiness of the air latched on to my skin, the fragile fabric of my body, with the dampness of my kurta sticking to the perspiring patches of sweat on my back.
Blooming landscapes of lush trees and verdant hillsides, refreshing, cool blows of wind through my hair, replenished, lively creeks and streams flowing swiftly with running water… all of these anticipated scenes of a fully revived Madhya Pradesh during monsoon season, now running gravely late, leaving the ground coughing up gravel and dust, dry and cracking under an insatiable desire for rain. But the people here are some of the strongest and bravest I’ve ever seen. Their entire lives revolve around cycles of uncertainty and pushing limitations, but they fling themselves at it with the strength of their straining, muscular bodies, lifting up their survival by their rough, tattooed forearms pulsing with river-like veins.
I slowly craned my neck upwards and looked around the dark, windowless box of a room. The power had gone out (as it often tends to do so) and the group of new recruits and I sat around in a lumpy-shaped circle surrounded by many curious women, sitting in their colorful saris, draping eloquently along their dark frames, caressing little waterfalls of sheer fabric swooning to the floor. The weather had teased us for a while, it had me believing the rain was a few days away with the cool gusts of wind and (slightly) lowered temperatures we had received, but again we faced unbearable kinds of heat, especially in this tiny little room in the bhawan. It was the first time since I had arrived in India that I felt the intensity of the heat reaching inside and robbing my body of all energy and excitement, as I rubbed my fingers against my temple and winced my eyes, feeling a little lightheaded and weak. I finished off the last bit of the tepid water in my bottle (unfortunately, liquids don’t stay very cool for very long here!) and considered leaving the group of women to spend the remainder of the afternoon waiting in the car. But as I gazed across the room and looked at each woman sitting timidly in the circle, I was greeted by a roomful of beaming smiles and warm eyes encouraging me to stay.
We were in sitting in a bhawan in the town of Satwas, which was more than an hour’s journey away from our center in Neemkheda village, to meet the women behind Kumbaya’s third production center. Since “Hindi seekh rahe ho” (I’m learning Hindi) still, I sat with Seema, one of the new recruits to the Kumbaya team, in hopes of getting live translated summaries from her. Similar to the story of Kumbaya’s beginning, the origin point of the Satwas bhavan starts with a theme of limitations and scarcity. A dam project on the nearby Narmada River had displaced many residents, and the government built new homes, relocating them to Punarwas – an area that stands for “immediate housing”. This “immediate” housing, however, immediately faced issues as residents were placed into a disconnected and challenging location where there were no sources of income available. So, in an area where women have traditionally been excluded from the generated income of the largely agrarian economy, despite being the ones who perform all of the duties associated with farming, Kumbaya created an alternative form of livelihoods by teaching women and the differently-abled how to stitch; and in Satwas, the women from the Self Help Groups (SHGs) were the ones directly requesting this ability to learn stitching when they had no other means of generating income for themselves. Therefore, they birthed the third Kumbaya bhawan in Satwas from nothing; creating livelihoods out of a barren, dry womb.
In an essence, Kumbaya is so much more than learning how to stitch; Kumbaya stands for empowerment, sustainable livelihoods, courage, respect. The ability to earn for themselves -in an area where women have been continuously excluded in a male-dominated society- has provided producers a sense of independence and confidence unknown to them before, while simultaneously creating marketable crafts in an area desolate of such traditions.
So, Seema continued whispering into my ear, relaying the history of the Satwas bhavan and personal Kumbaya stories from the producers back to me, and the message became clear to me in that dark, stuffy room, that these women epitomize strength. From having to combat incessant jaunts from men when they leave their villages for work, to spending hours traveling on slow moving, sardine-like tins for buses on reeling, wobbly paths, to returning home after a day of stitching to continue laboring over cooking, cleaning, caring for children, and other housework that is absolutely indispensable but not valued in their homes, women here have faced and continue facing considerable hardships in this unkind environment. But they persevere. They awaken during the raw, silent hours of the early morning to cool, light blue hues of a snoozing sky still filled with twinkling stars to fetch enough buckets of water to be used for drinking, washing, bathing, cooking for the entire family, tend to the livestock and fields, tidy their humble mud homes, cook all of the day’s meals, care after their children, and prepare themselves for a day of stitching, only to return home, rinse, and repeat.
After having recognized and seen the unforgiving nature of the rural areas of Madhya Pradesh, the impoverished, crude places which Indian author Aravind Adiga describes as “the Darkness”, places of seemingly insurmountable challenges for women, places that families flee in search of imagined opportunities buried beneath mounds of filth in the slums of the cities, I’ve also been shown the far-reaching light of empowerment. And in the stuffy darkness of the room in the bhawan, brave producers like Rekha, who wakes at four in the morning every day and travels with her young son more than four hours by bus to learn to stitch, or Saroj, a young eighteen year old inflicted with polio as a child who pedals on her tricycle more than two hours to work on patchwork designs…they beam radiant rays of hope and strength in India’s most deprived drylands. In this little moment of weakness, these women showed me true strength; they exhaled a breath of fresh air into my lungs as I realized their incomparable vigor and unrivaled beauty. Seema turned to me and made a quick joke that she would never complain about “feeling tired” after speaking with Rekha, but deep down I realized the unforgettable lesson in our interaction with this fearless, hardworking producer.
Recently, many of my friends have been spreading an online video like wildfire about what it means to “[do anything] like a girl”. In this advertisement/simultaneous social experiment, Always asks a variety of young men, women, and girls to show what it’s like to run, throw, and fight “like a girl”. Interestingly, the women and men all reacted by flailing their arms and prancing around goofily, but when the young girls were asked the same question, they sprinted back and forth, threw mean karate kicks and shot intense punches at the screen… so…why such dramatically different interpretations? Unfortunately, there’s a point in time during puberty that young girls experience plummeting self-confidence levels, and doing anything “like a girl” is heavily stigmatized and considered… bad? But why?!? Why should young women be forced to bend down to gender stereotypes and accept this as an insult, while we should be embracing the power of doing anything “like a girl”? After learning about the lives of these incredibly tough women in Madhya Pradesh, the idea of doing anything “like a girl” gets completely redefined, and we can all gain a good lesson in what it should mean to do things “like a girl”.
To me, I’ve seen that being “like a girl” means acting with an unbreakable passion, rigorous work ethic and invaluable sense of tenderness; it means lifting thick bands of branches by your hardened, cracking hands and balancing them delicately on top of your head, and with the same tanned, muscular arms, it means soothing your groggy, teary-eyed children to sleep on a packed, jarring bus ride.
Through Kumbaya, I’ve met the women who are taking charge of their lives, the women charting their course by providing their own livelihoods through stitching. I’ve met women who have gained newfound confidence and respect; women who have proudly been able to provide for their families, save for the future of their children’s educations, and even purchase their first set of bangles; here in the challenging rural drylands of Madhya Pradesh, where women are too often denied any sense of value and reduced to objects for transaction, I’ve been shown the light, the joy, the impact of empowerment.