People of Bharat: Neeta

By Valerie Mendonca

I stand outside the door of her flat and ring the bell. Then I step back and see pictures of both Christ and Ganesha on the door. This is Neeta’s house, a woman who sells sprouts in a local vegetable market in the southern part of the town of Surat in Gujarat.

Neeta welcomes me and we sit on a bed that also serves as a couch in the living room. She is small in build, thin and talks nervously fast. I feel like I am talking to a child though she is at least 10 years older to me. Neeta Fernandes was born in Surat to an extremely poor Gujarati Hindu family. She never went to school and started working even as a child. “Ekdum angotha chaap” (I am completely illiterate) she says wagging her thumb. She doesn’t know how old she is; I estimate her age to be close to 45. She lives with her second husband and eldest daughter in a 2 BHK apartment that she bought 3 years ago.

Neeta’s business involves buying pulses from a local grocer and then soaking them overnight. She purchases 4 to 6 different pulses such as green mung, channa, akha masoor, [1] etc. from a local grocer as and when she needs. She buys them at different rates ranging from Rs. 60 a kilo to Rs. 150 per kilo. Then she soaks them overnight. In the morning she drains out the water and wraps them in a moist cloth and leaves them to sprout. Each kilo soaked overnight absorbs moisture equivalent to its weight. Neeta sells them at the local evening market. She charges Rs. 30–40 per 250 grams (fixed for different kinds of sprouts) but the cost price (of pulses) varies from day to day.

Photo by Pablo Rogat on Shutterstock.

Neeta does not know how much profit she makes and does not maintain any accounts. Roughly though, buying a kilo of pulses and selling them at almost double rate, she earns about Rs. 100 in profit per kilo of pulses bought. She purchases high quality pulses at a high rate so that her customers don’t suffer due to poor quality. She tells me that she weighs the sprouts but then puts in some extra for her favourite customers. On an average business day she makes a profit of Rs. 400–500.

Neeta saves her spare cash after expenses by depositing them into a galla [2] at home. After every three months, she opens the galla and deposits the entire amount into a Fixed Deposit in her account in Central Bank. She also saves in post-office schemes. I ask her if she knows about any microfinance savings schemes. “I was cheated by one such company,” she says, her voice turning deep with regret. “The collection-man ran away with all my savings, almost 3 lakhs.” Neeta had saved Rs. 30 everyday which she handed over to this microfinance representative. She doesn’t remember the name of the company but has kept the book (with accounts). “Maru etlu badhu jeev bali gayu (I suffered from such a heart burn[3]) she says with tears welling up. Her tears, however are quickly re-absorbed. They never really leave her eyes. She has those kinds of eyes — watery ones.

I ask her how she first got into this business. “I have not told this (story) to anyone” she says. So I sit up cross legged, ready to listen. Neeta fell in love with a boy in her neighbourhood and married at a very young age. Her first husband sold bun-omelette at a street stall. He was also addicted to alcohol, as was her father-in-law. They sold their house in a decent locality and came to live close to the slums because alcohol was easily available here. She had two daughters. Her younger daughter was just a few months old when her husband got into a drunken brawl with a customer over money. He was exiled by the police and went to live in Mumbai with his relatives. Her father-in-law ran the household for a while. Her husband returned but soon fell to drinking and one day, he died of alcohol poisoning. Neeta was devastated and soon afterwards, her father-in-law, the only earning member, fell ill too. Her brother-in-law and his wife did not work and soon they ran out of money.

One day Neeta requested her sister-in-law for some money to buy her older daughter Glucose biscuits. She refused. “My younger one was still at my breast but I needed biscuits to feed my elder one. That night I cried a lot. Then I knew I had to work.” A woman from the slums took her to the textile mill close by and Neeta worked at the machines, replacing empty bobbins with fresh ones. She got Rs. 50 a day. “1500 rupees was not enough. I had to pay the bills, buy the groceries too. (The) whole day I would be inserting bobbins but my mind would be working on ‘what else can I do to earn more money’? Somehow God put it in my brain to sell sprouts on the festival of randhan chatt [4].”

With money from her first salary, Neeta bought a tagara [5]; from the second she bought weighing scales and with the third she bought some pulses — 500 grams each of green mung and brown and 250 grams of chickpeas. A day before the festival, she soaked her pulses; in the morning, she tied them up and went to work. She got late while returning. She put the tagara on her head and took the rest of the stuff in a bag. Her sister in law abused her. “You have no care for what people will think?! How can you go into the market like that? People will laugh at us.”

Neeta was not swayed. “Amne khavu to pade ne. Jene je kevu hoy te” (I didn’t care what people would say. We had to eat), she remembers thinking. She reached the market at 6 PM. She did not know where to sit. She caught a corner and sat there and sold everything the first day itself. “Bhagwan na ashirwad ti badhu vechay gayu! Pachi mane himmat avi” (By God’s grace, everything was sold. Then I got some courage). The next day she took half the quantity and went again and everything was sold this time as well. This was the start of her business. Initially, other vendors would bother her and try to chase her away. She would simply get up and sit somewhere else. Gradually they took pity on her and left her alone.

Three years back, Neeta and her husband applied for a bank loan of about Rs. 18 lakh to buy their second-hand apartment. Her previous employer for whom she used to baby-sit, loaned her Rs. 2 lakhs. She mortgaged her gold jewels at a local moneylender’s. She sold off her first husband’s house in the slum and her sister-in-law agreed to let go of her share from the property for the time-being though she still expects to be paid in future.

(I wondered how they could afford a 2BHK flat and later discovered that the previous owners were desperate to sell it off because the house was unlucky for them. Two men had died within two years and a priest had told them the house was inauspicious. The same source told me that Neeta’s father had also died shortly after moving in with her there. “He absorbed the curse; you see, bad things always happen in threes.”)

Neeta tells me her (extended) relatives have never looked after her. Some nuns had helped her with uniform and other clothes for her daughters through the years. The nuns at the convent school where her daughters studied did not charge school fees from her. Her daughters completed a beauty parlour course for which the nuns loaned her Rs. 10,000. When her elder daughter was 16, Neeta remarried. Her husband sells purses, umbrellas and raincoats at the same market where she sells her sprouts. “I had no one (to fall back on).” Her parents had died when she was yet a child. Her brother who was mentally unstable, walked out of the house one day and never returned.

Neeta may have been alone in her life’s journey, but she always had her pride. “As God is my witness, I never went to beg (anyone) for food or money. I went to the Sisters (nuns) only when they called me.” When the hard times came (aapdaa na divas), sometimes they ate only chapatti [6] and tea for dinner. At times there was nothing to eat at night. Those nights she kept the empty utensils on the stove and covered them with a piece of cloth. If neighbours popped in to ask if they had eaten food, she pointed to the vessels and said yes. “My daughters remember this.” She says nodding in the direction of the young girl attending to us.

Life has been a hard fought battle for Neeta, but it was not a battle that left a trail of bitterness. Today, Neeta is hopeful and compassionate. From the very difficult days she has had to brave all by herself, Neeta has found meaning in reaching out to those who are today where she was then.

[1] Types of pulses

[2] Piggybank

[3] An expression that means feeling deep regret

[4] A Hindu festival when women take a break from cooking and prepare pakoras made from soaked sprouts a day in advance.

[5] A deep aluminium tub-like utensil.

[6] Flatbread


About the Author:

Valerie Mendonca is a Research Associate at CIIE, India’s foremost entrepreneurship centre housed at IIM Ahmedabad. Her research interests are women, entrepreneurs, society and storytelling. She tweets @ValerieHood17.

About Bharat Inclusion Initiative (BII):

Bharat Inclusion Initiative (BII) is an incubator platform at CIIE that provides entrepreneurs the domain knowledge, training, financial support, mentorship, and market access they need to bring inclusive, for profit-business to life. BII’s core design is to promote technology driven entrepreneurship towards the delivery of affordable services to the “Bharat Segment- the poorest 200 million households in India who survive on less than $5 per person a day” through programs, fellowships, and funding where possible.

The program focuses on solutions leveraging technology, especially the India Stack. It integrates financial inclusion research with entrepreneurship and training to transform these solutions into scalable, viable and high impact businesses. We are keen on partnering with entrepreneurs who are driven by building next-generation digital services for India. Reach out to us at bharatinclusion@ciieindia.org or ask your questions in the comments section below.