During the course of a field visit and amidst the back to back meetings with borrowers, one finds a familiar pattern of life stories emerge, each unique in its own way. Yet, every once in a while, there’s a life story, a meeting, a person that stands out and their magnetic story deserves a more nuanced telling. Our meeting with Selvarani was one.
Selvarani is a member of the Varatharajanagar JLG that is headed by Prabhavathy. We were unable to meet Prabhavathy but we managed to arrange a meeting with Selvarani. I have to make a correction here – it was Selvarani who was brimming with enthusiasm and excitement to showcase her paper jewelry creations and had been pressing for a meeting with Emeri, the loan officer from GMF’s (Milaap’s field partner in Trichy, Tamil Nadu) branch office.
No sooner had Selvarani gotten wind that Emeri and I would be in the neighbourhood visiting other borrowers, than she gathered all her items of hand-crafted paper jewelry and travelled half an hour to another borrower’s home to showcase her creations.
In the first few minutes of our meeting, I put forward standard questions about the loan's usage and prospects for the microenterprise. Some go unanswered, while others just elicit a short, soft reply from Selvarani. After a series of monosyllabic answers, I offer a few compliments on her elegant creations and Selvarani begins to qualify her answers about her techniques and designs. Picking up a pair of earrings, she draws my attention to something I seem to have glossed over – earrings made from wheat and paddy. “These are my fastest moving products,” she says. “It takes me the better part of one day to make a pair of such earrings that retail at Rs.50. First, I treat the grains of rice and wheat with varnish, to give them longevity, and then I glue them together. It’s a laborious process.”
Puzzled, I enquire further, “But didn't you undergo training in making paper-jewelry?”
“Yes, I did; but these are my own ideas.”
For a while, I’m a little lost for words.
Sensing that we must be thirsty from the midday heat, Selvarani excuses herself and goes into the kitchen to bring us some water. In the intervening break Emeri fills me in with a few more details – Selvarani is aged 32, unmarried (an unenviable social position for a woman of her age), she worked as a farmhand, did not complete her schooling because of financial difficulties and she’s presently undertaking a few orders as a tailor. “She had never been out of the house much until she attended GMF’s 2-day workshop in the manufacture of paper jewelry. Starting her own small-scale business is a huge step for her. She was so excited to start her own business that on the very day she obtained her microloan, she went to the wholesaler and bought raw material worth Rs.3,000,” Emeri informs me. “Now, that’s an entrepreneur right there,” I thought to myself.
Handing us a ‘chombu’ filled with water, Selvarani discusses some of the challenges she faces in growing her small scale business. “Finding customers is always a challenge. Young girls in school and college buy most of my products but examinations are on this month and therefore business is also slow. Most of them like the rice and wheat earrings for its novelty and uniqueness,” she adds with a faint smile. We exchange ideas on how she can market her products even as she continues her tailoring. “Maybe a display board in the tailoring shop to showcase the jewelry,” chimes in Emeri with an idea. Selvarani promises us that she’ll look into it and that she’ll make a greater effort to cultivate friendships with customers. Ever the supportive friend, Emeri gives her a recap of how far she’s come since her days as a farmhand, applauds her for her creative skill and tells her that she’ll acquire people skills just as easily as she acquired her jewelry-making skills; then she’ll be able to sell her products faster.
“Prabhavathy wanted to be here but she had to take a relative to the hospital,” Selvarani explains the absence of the group leader. I glance at the names of the other group members and an interesting composition of members comes into my awareness. “Two of us in the group are Muslim, two Hindu and I’m a Chrisitian,” says Selvarani matter-of-factly. In ordinary times, this would have been an unremarkable detail, but in a time when religious intolerance is on the rise, this little detail held out the hope that we’d eventually see that the bonds that hold us together are greater than the forces that seek to drive us apart.
Pressed for time, we prepared to leave. Still enamoured by the beautiful rice earrings, I decided to buy a couple of them for my mother and my aunt. I hoped they’d be glad that there’s a less scandalous way to ‘wear’ food than Lady Gaga’s famous/infamous meat dress! Lady Gaga could learn more than a few fashion tips from Selvarani, I wondered.
Though Selvarani didn't say so in as many words, I sensed that she was glad she arranged this meeting. She takes away ideas and a little encouragement that we were able to proffer. I take back a memorable encounter and a compelling story of hope and braving the odds - a story whose best chapters are yet to be written.
[stag_button url="https://milaap.org/fund?focus_area=enterprise-development" style="green" size="large" type="stroke" target="_blank"]Lend, Share, Inspire[/stag_button]
We were able to bring you this inspiring story because of your continued support to women entrepreneurs like Selvarani. Continue the cycle of giving and lend to more women entrepreneurs so that we can bring you more such stories.