“Humko angrezi nahi aati…agar baat kariyega toh Hindi mein kariyega”.
She sets her preferences, right in the beginning. Pooja, 25, comes from Surouli, a village in Deoria, Uttar Pradesh.
“My father worked with Sahara as an agent, however, after Subrota Roy was put behind the bars, no one dealt with Sahara offerings. My mother is a home maker. We are 5 siblings – 2 sisters got married, one brother is an ITI student another works as RDBL agent”
We talk about her village, her life and I ask her about her education background.
“B.A. kiye hai Sanskrit se”, she says faintly.
“Par nakal karke. I can lie to you but it wouldn’t benefit either of us. You ask me to read one thing, I won’t be able to, toh kya matlab hai”, she adds after a brief pause, bringing back her concentration from outside the train window to the conversation.
Pooja Shahi is a on board with Jagriti Yatra, an entrepreneurial journey of India, this time as an organising committee member.
“Crowd management”, she says confidently of her role in Yatra this year.
“Last year, the organisers came to my home to convince my parents to send me to Jagriti Yatra. When I was asked, I hadn’t even bothered to ask them because I knew they wouldn’t send me. I should be the only girl from Deoria and near by villages to have stepped outside Deoria”, she says adding how on day zero she was almost ready to go back to the village before the Yatra commenced.
“Sab standard vale log the. I had a jhola and old clothes, my chappals weren’t good as well. I felt so inferior that I asked my Mosaji who had come to drop me, to take me back”.
Fortunately, she was asked to stay by Shashank Mani, founder of Jagriti Yatra.
Pooja is a handicraft artist.
“Macrame”, she says as spelling each word of the art and adds
“It took me three days to memorise this…My sister’s brother-in-law helped me with it.”
Pooja learnt the basics of art from her neighbour, a veteran who made knotted ropes for army. To make an earning out of it, Pooja decided to make aesthetics using the art.
“I found a didi in Deoria village who ran a beauty parlour where my sister was learning. She told me she could help me and would charge Rs. 3500. She was head strong on not negotiating on the cost. Rs. 3500 is a big thing for us even today. I asked my mother and she borrowed Rs. 1000 from a relative. I paid the advance and began learning. I am a fast learner and would learn things but seeing it just once”
Learning didn’t come easy to Pooja. Her mother somehow arranged for Rs. 40 a day that Pooja would need to travel to Deoria. To cut on costs, Pooja would walk 3 kms everyday. Time restrictions at her home just made it tougher.
“My amma arranged for Rs. 500 more to pay to the tutor in a month, but there was Rs. 1000 yet left to be paid. So I began making things and started selling them to everyone I met – I would carry my things with me every where, I would show it to people I would be travelling with in the auto, on the road, on a bus stop..everywhere. However the sales were meagre”, she says sharing how finding her first order too was a task. I would show my pieces to everyone in the village, everyone appreciated but no one bought it”
Finally, Pooja got her first order from her friend Meenakshi.
“I made Kaveri jhula, hanging mirror, teddy bear holder for her. I got more orders soon, starting from her neighbour”, she says.
Surouli doesn’t have a very encouraging culture working women.
“Humare waha log bhukhe mar jayenge, par aurat ko kamane nahi denge. I really wanted to make the women of my village self-reliant so I decided to teach them the art of Macrame free of cost. Their was a lot of opposition from their family but these women somehow made it to classes by lying and sneaking to their families to learn”, says Pooja who currently has 40 women working with her.
Amateur at business, Pooja decided to try alternatives to Macrame art to help women earn a livelihood. She brought them all sewing machines.
“Everyone pitched in Rs. 5000 each to buy the machines. I pitched in my own savings of Rs. 37,000 to bring them raw material. However, I didn’t streamline job roles and made everyone make everything eventually making a bunch of can’t-be-used petticoat pieces. It was my mistake and we made a loss of about 3 lacs”, she says adding that these women still get questioned about employment opportunities that didi was supposed to provide.
“I have a year more to prove my worth to my family or they will get me married”
Observing Pooja since last couple of days, she is usually seen interacting with fellow-yatris in her free time, sharing about her art and asking people to help her out with marketing and taking her products on the internet.
“Hum Google sikhe hai thode din se. I now see things on websites and try to make similar things with Macrame. I am expecting to meet people on the Yatra who can help me with exploring sales opportunities outside Deoria and Gorakhpur. I’ve also recently started making Kaveri Jhula, baby cradles and fashion accessories like jhumkas, bracelets”
Pooja has ambitious plans to venture into producing sanitary napkins once her current stint settles.
“I’ve named it Jeevika, because I want my venture to create opportunity for people in my village to earn livelihood”, she signs off with a confident sparkle in her eyes.
If you have to say anything to Pooja or if you can help her in some way or the other, please write to us in the comments below or email on firstname.lastname@example.org OR write directly to her on email@example.com
A story by Shruti Chaturvedi
Feature photograph by Pradnyesh (Saaku)