Artisan Spotlight: Heera Bai, Arpan Cooperative

Heera Bai and I sit on a mat at the Arpan office for our interview. The other women from the cooperative surround us, chiming in with their thoughts and opinions. Many of them wear red and pink saris, their hair pulled back into braids and buns. Their bangles clank together on their wrists. I ask Jyoti, the social worker, whether the artisans are dressed up because they knew I was coming to take photographs. “No,” she says. “This is how they always are. They dress up to see each other.”

It’s the beginning of June, and the electricity in the area has gone off. The ceiling fans don’t work, and the heat fills the room. An artisan folds up an old MarketPlace catalog and, even though I tell her I don’t need it, uses it to fan me. Heera Bai sits cross-legged in front of me, listening intently to my questions. She often answers them in Marathi, and another artisan translates her answers into Hindi, which Jyoti then translates into English for me.

Heera Bai tells me that she grew up in a village outside of Pune, a city north of Mumbai. She was married at eighteen to someone her father found for her, and two years later, she moved to the city. She was afraid of the crowds and the number of vehicles because it was much quieter where she grew up. She didn’t like living in a new city where she didn’t know anyone. Her husband became an alcoholic and had trouble finding steady work. He’d borrow money from the family to drink, and after ten years of living in Mumbai, he went back to the village and committed suicide. I am struck by Heera Bai’s tone as she speaks about her husband. She’s very matter-of-fact and doesn’t become emotional. She instead tells me how she managed to support her family after he died.

She tailored from home and borrowed money from her family to support herself and her children. Soon after her husband’s death, she heard about MarketPlace from another friend in the community. She joined the Arpan cooperative and learnt embroidery, and was glad to be independent and not have to borrow money anymore. Her children are supportive of her work and can see the changes in their situation. She gives them money for their education and buys them things they need.

She says that her favorite part about working at MarketPlace is the social programs because she says she learns things about the world that she didn’t know before. She feels more confident to leave home and travel to the MarketPlace office in Santa Cruz for workshops and meetings. She was afraid of traveling on the train at first, she says, so she’d go with the other women in her cooperative. Now, she can travel on her own. “Before I started working here,” she says, “I thought I can’t do this. But now I know I can do this. I have done this.”

Heera Bai goes back to her village once a year to visit her mother, but she finds herself bored there. Her mother waits on her, cooks her favorite food and tells her to relax, but Heera Bai says she can’t do that. When I ask her what she would do with her time if she didn’t have to work, she cannot understand my question. She looks concerned and says that she’d have to beg for money if she didn’t have work. I try to explain that I mean what would she do with her time if she didn’t need to work, but Heera Bai is so used to spending nearly every day working for MarketPlace or working at home, that she doesn’t understand what I mean. She does say though that she’s tired and looks forward to when her children can fully support her.


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