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#10|Suma — Kirana Chronicles

It is our choices… that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities— J. K. Rowling

With pots of rose plants, hibiscus and tulsi decorating the doorway, the small cemented house at the end of the road was different from the rest of the houses in the lane. The house had one room, the corner of which was converted to a space for cooking. At one end of the room, facing the unfinished cement wall sat a sewing machine, with a saree left on the end of the machine. Sleeping on a wooden cot next to the machine was Suma’s husband Ram. Suma took me to the spare cot placed outside; we sit down.

Short story

Suma, a 32-year-old homepreneur, has been running a home-based stitching business in her one-room kitchen (1RK) home for more than a decade now. Suma’s stitching ability, timeliness and dedication towards work have helped her gather a good number of customers, mostly comprised of local nearby residents and few from the neighbouring areas.

Image Credits: istockphoto

Business

  • Suma grew up in a village in the north of the Indian state of Karnataka. As a way to pass time, she took up stitching classes from a lady who lived nearby. However, unable to grasp any basic techniques or keep up with the classes, she quickly dropped out. ‘Nothing got into my head’, she giggles.

“I used to go for stitching training. I went to one person for 6 months but nothing entered my head. I left that place and sat at home for 3 months. Then my parents said this is not right, you should continue and not leave something in between. They said go learn somewhere, why are you sitting at home?”

  • A few weeks into spending time at home, her parents insisted her to take up classes with a new teacher. She was soon visiting a house far away from hers, spending 2 hours a day at the new teacher’s place. With the help of her new teacher, Suma started to get the hang of stitching. As months passed by, she got better at it and took up a few orders from friends. In a few months, she was even teaching the basics of stitching to two enthusiastic young girls in the neighbourhood.

So I went to another person, she taught me so well in 3 months. Her house was really far away from my house. One day she told me you don’t need to come all the way everyday. You sit and stitch at home, if you have any problems you come to me. So, in the next 3 months I learnt everything and bought a sewing machine and started stitching in my house. In the next 2 weeks whenever I faced problems I used to go to him.

  • Her marriage to Ram brought her to the big city — Bengaluru. With Ram’s meagre salary, the husband and wife had to live on an extremely tight budget, accounting for every penny that was being spent. As their kids grew up and started to attend school, the financial burden on Ram was more than what he could handle. Soon, Suma took up stitching as a means to earn more money for the household; an additional source of income.

“I started small. Back then, I used to stitch jackets for Rs. 10. After I came to Bangalore I started to charge Rs. 50 for a jacket. When I started, I used to charge Rs. 50 total for 2 blouses. Jackets (Refers to a shrug/sweater worn over a saree) and blouses are the ones that are mostly stitched here. Salwars and petticoats are rare.”

  • Suma starts stitching from 11 am in the morning and her work goes till 6 pm in the evening. Before 11 am, she is occupied with household chores like washing clothes, vessels, arranging the home and sending the kids to the school.
  • Suma occasionally receives help from her sister, who helps her with minor tasks during the day for stitching.
  • A few years into the business, Suma got to know of a job at a nearby garments factory. The job required her to work in the factory, stitching clothes from 9 am–5 pm. While the job did provide her with a fixed monthly income of R. 7000 — Rs. 8000, a considerable amount of her time was being utilized on travel alone.
  • After hearing our Suma’s struggle, the women in the neighbourhood insisted that she continue her business from her home with the required flexibility to allocate time for family, housework and the stitching.

“I used to get some salary. That too they cut money for PF and all. They cut your salary if you apply leaves too. People in the layout convinced me to leave. They told me — You’ll be better off here, just work from home. My husband was ok with me going there for work, but the layout people suggested that I leave and continue my work. I thought I don’t know anything and went there, I went for a month and left.”

  • Suma now stitches clothing for many women in the neighbourhood. Other women also travel from the neighbouring areas to get their clothes stitched by Suma. On days when Suma is overloaded with work, her younger sister who lives nearby sometimes gives her a hand in the smaller work like hemming and stitching hooks.

Apoorva: Do you like to stitch?
Suma: Even if I don’t like it, I need to do it to feed my family. Without this, we don’t have a life. If I don’t do this, we won’t survive. That is the situation what to do. Our parents did not give us anything, no land or house, this helps us earn and live. I could have gone for some jobs like daily labour at construction sites and all. If this was not there, I would have probably been doing that I think. Once the kids are born you have more mouths to feed. We should do it for them and for us. That’s why I consider this as my job.

Payments

  • Suma’s customers pay her in cash. Money is paid as and when the stitched items are delivered to the customers. The money she gets is spent on buying daily groceries and other miscellaneous items for the home.

Accounts

  • Suma inability to read or write leaves her with no option but to rely on her memory to keep track of customers, orders and payments.

“I just have to remember. The good people pay, but there are people who will try to cheat you thinking you won’t remember. Even if they have not given they say we have given. I can’t do anything about it.”

Customer management

  • As the years went by, Suma’s skills improved with every new blouse she stitched. Word started to spread; people in the neighbouring layouts came in search of Suma to get their blouses stitched.

“People get to know about me through word of mouth. One person tells another, that person tells another person. If aunty comes she’ll get 4 more people, if another lady comes from other areas then again 4 more will come through her. I have been here for many years now, so everyone knows me and my work.”

“The price of stitching completely depends on what they want me to stitch. Everyone doesn’t want the same, they all have different things to get stitched. Some like one thing, others like something else.”

Procurement

  • Suma visits the nearby store to buy materials for the lining, saree false, lace and other accessories like buttons, hooks, etc.

“Customers get their material. The shop sells at a fixed price for everyone, there is no discount. I go to the same shop. But sometimes if I don’t get something in one place or the colours don’t match, then I go to a different place.”

Technology

  • Suma does not have a phone. She uses her husband's phone to call and receive calls from family and friends.

All that was not told

Observations of the researcher that were not covered as a part of the research.

Suma remembers her teacher who taught her to stitch. The same skills that are helping her family survive in today’s world. She thinks of it as her responsibility to pass on these skills to others as well. However, the lack of time, space and energy hinders her from passing on her skills to others.

“After coming to Bangalore I haven’t taught anyone. There’s no space at home. I have too much work, no time to teach anyone. Even if they come, they might go back disappointed. So to avoid all this tension, I did not take it up. Not for money, but to leave my mark. Just like how I remember who taught me, they will also remember me.”

“Namdu naave katkondu munde hogbardu”, she adds.

Along with providing the family with an additional source of income, stitching takes a toll on Suma’s physical health as well. Hours of sitting at the machine, with her bank hunched over, puts pressure on her back and hands. “I get all kinds of pain. In Bengaluru they say women should not be stitching; it is not good for their health. But I can’t listen to all that and actually stop. If not for this, I would be at a construction site doing jobs for daily wages.”, she says.

A lady appears at her doorstep with a few sarees in a plastic bag. Suma thinks for a minute and says, “If you’re going near Shanthi’s house, can you hand over these sarees to her? I have to get them done by today; I have no time.

About the research:

This documentation is a result of the in-person interview, along with the participants’ consent. The interviews might be conducted in their native languages and translated to English in the best possible way to reach a large audience.

Disclaimer: The identities of people and places in this documentation have been changed to honour the privacy of the participants.

About D91 labs:

This research was executed and documented by D91 labs. D91 labs is an open-source initiative by setu.co to help Bharat build great fintech products. We organise and publish user research, insights, and frameworks for fintech in India. Please follow us on medium for more exciting stories and insights on Bharat.

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