I hover inside the dilapidated house. The aroma of flavourful curries intermingled, with lingering whiff of cow dung escaping from the cakes left to dry on the rooftop, welcomes me. Seema comes out of the kitchen to greet me with an enthusiastic smile; her hands are soiled in dough. ‘Aap baitho, main bas do minute mein aayi (I will be back in two minutes, kindly take a seat till then.)’ Dressed in yellow, her saree rustles against her slender physique and the smile never seems to fade from her face. Bringing me closer to a cook’s chores, we settle in the rickety charpai to chat. I begin to hear the 35-year-old go on about all she needs to spoon and spice for a feast being hosted in the evening at one of her employers’ home.
Born in Hardoi, a village in Uttar Pradesh, Seema was five years old when she migrated to Ludhiana with her family. Her father took the job of a rickshaw puller to sustain the family and educate Seema and her brother. Her mother worked as a household help in multiple homes in the locality. However, the family’s finances continued to deplete and Seema had to drop out after the fourth grade; her elder brother continued with his studies. She helped with the household chores while trying to teach herself from her brother’s books but soon lost interest. Once 18, Seema was wedded and she moved in with her husband’s family. Initially it was pleasant with the in-laws, but soon abuse and torment became an everyday story. Pondering on the past she confides in me, ‘Woh mujhe manhoos chudail bulate hain (They would call me names, and say that I was a cursed witch.)’ Things escalated when her husband defended her against his parents. Finally, the in-laws told them to leave and never return.
Seema’s husband, an electrician by profession, used to hand over the entire salary to his father every month. So when the couple left, they left with no money and no roof. After roaming on the streets for a few days, they finally asked a friend for help. He took them in, gave them a few vessels and a small loan. Her husband’s employer-supported them to move into a tiny house in rural Ludhiana. It was during these days that Seema took the job of a domestic cook to support her new life. Her first few houses praised her meals, winning her more work in the locality. She took up full-time jobs in two homes and offered additional catering services for small events.
Seema’s monthly income amounts to INR 7000 with an occasional surge during the festive seasons. Her husband who offers financial support of INR 10000 every month, is also supportive of her cooking endeavors. She adds with pride, ‘Teenoh bacchho ko school bhejne ke baad bhi 3000 rupaye bacha leti thi (Even after sending all our three kids to school and I would manage to save INR 3000.)’ Seema’s younger daughter who is 14, shares her love for cooking and manages to help her out in the kitchen after her classes. However, Seema is adamant that all her kids graduate from school, and hopefully get enrolled for college. ‘If they study and get good jobs, my children will never be at the mercy of anyone. My daughter will find a good husband too,’ she continues. She thinks sending them to a sarkari school saves on the school fees. Thus the expenses on books and additional resources amount to around INR 2500, same as the rent. The other household utilities add up to INR 3500. But despite all other miscellaneous expenses, Seema manages to save about INR 2000 every month. However, she has not invested in any financial product, nor has the couple purchased any insurance. She quips in, ‘Jitni bhi bachat hoti, woh saareh seedhe bank khaate mein jama hota tha (All our savings would directly be deposited in the bank.)’
Probing her further, I ask her if she has plans to borrow a loan in future. She confesses, ‘Udhaar nahi lena. Mere pati ke dost ne bhi udhaar liya tha par jab woh chuka nahi paya, toh usko gundo se pitwaya gaya (I don’t want to take a loan. My husband’s friend had taken a loan from the moneylender once; he was beaten up by the goons when he failed to pay the interest.)’ Hearsay has kept Seema from borrowing; she doesn’t know anyone who has successfully procured a loan either. On pestering further, she shares that she is aware of a women’s committee system in the colony that gives loan at a nominal interest rate. Breaking it down, for me she elaborates on how it works. The women contribute an amount each month towards a common fund. She gleefully adds, ‘Pehle hume woh saath nahi letey theh, par hum unke ghar mein kaam karna chalu kiye, toh phir uske baad, hume bhi bula letey theh. (At first, I wasn’t allowed to participate. But after I started working for them, they started inviting me for meetings.)’ She feels more comfortable borrowing from a reliable source. Seema lives a debt-free life with no loan or mortgages and has never bought any assets or gold.
Money offers her family the social security they need; their annual household savings, amounts to INR 30000. But for Seema, the dignity her work brings is priceless. This constantly motivates and helps her to continue working the same way. She had longed to be respected as a daughter-in-law; she now enjoys it as a cook. While her husband desires to go back to his parents’ home at some point in time, Seema has made up her mind to never return. ‘Mujhe apne kaam se izzat mili hai. Main ab us ghar wapis nahi jana chahti jahaan mujhe manhoosiyat ke taane dete hain (I have found dignity in my work. I never wish to go back to a house where I was ridiculed and insulted),’ she says. Our conversation gets interrupted as my voice competes with the whistling pressure cooker; she rushes to turn off the gas. Her gas connection is a new addition to the modest household and unlike the old and slow chulha, it helps with the catering service.
As she busies herself in the preparations, completely forgetting the stranger seated outside, I know it’s time for me to leave. Looking over the tiny window, I bid her farewell. She smiles and waves back. I hear her yell ‘Aate rehna!(Keep coming!)’ as I walk away.
About the Author:
Shrishti Abrol is a Research Associate at CIIE.CO, India’s foremost entrepreneurship centre housed at IIM Ahmedabad.
Simran Panesar is an economics student at Miranda House, Delhi. Her research interests include legislation, economic policy and child health.
About Bharat Inclusion Initiative (BII):
Bharat Inclusion Initiative (BII) is an incubator platform at CIIE.CO 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 email@example.com or ask your questions in the comments section below.