Artisan Spotlight: Sunita Sharma, Nirmaan Cooperative

By Aarti Monteiro

Aarti is the daughter of co-founder Lalita Monteiro.  She lived in India as a small child before moving to the Middle East. She has lived in the U.S. since middle school and just graduated with an MFA from Rutgers University. She visited Mumbai in May 2017

Sunita is waiting for me at the MarketPlace office when I arrive in Santa Cruz. She’s wearing a pink salwar kameez and her hair is dyed orange and red. She’s the youngest artisan who I’ve interviewed and she’s eager to talk to me. We speak in English, though occasionally Sunita gets self-conscious about her language skills and asks one of the MarketPlace staff to translate her Hindi for me. She smiles and laughs a lot, excited to talk about her experience with MarketPlace.

She’s been stitching for twenty years, joining the organization after her father died when she was fourteen. She had to stop going to school because they needed her to work. She was close to her father and felt lonely after his passing. Her mother also stitched for MarketPlace, and Sunita followed her lead. She didn’t like stitching at first, but she has gotten used to it and enjoys it more now.

Sunita tells me early on that she got divorced after only a month of marriage. Her mother was ill, and she spent much of her time taking care of her. Traditionally, women live with their husband’s family after they get married, but she wanted to spend more time at her mother’s home to care for her, which her in-laws didn’t like. Her husband didn’t have a job, and she was earning all the money through her work at MarketPlace. Her in-laws weren’t supportive of her working, so she decided to separate from him. Her husband was dark-skinned, she tells me, and his family accused her of leaving him because she thought she was better. It was a messy separation, but she knows that it was the right thing. “He was mentally unstable,” she says, and she didn’t want to be with him and live with his family.

When I ask her how her mother and community responded to her decision, she starts to laugh and says that she doesn’t care that it’s looked down on. She’s financially independent and her family supports her happiness.

Sunita has only completed eighth standard and wants to eventually pursue more education. It’s hard for her because she spends a lot of time at the hospital taking care of her mother. She also has to work so that she can pay for the medical expenses. “It’s hard to find time to study,” Sunita says, but she remains hopeful that she’ll be able to go back to school.

She remembers back to when her father died. Her young brother was in Kindergarten and they couldn’t pay for his schooling. SHARE, MarketPlace’s TK, contributed to his education for three years. He was able to finish his schooling and is now working. When she speaks of her brother, Sunita lights up. “He couldn’t get admission to Sacred Heart School,” she says. “After eighth standard, he went by himself to take the test and got admission.” I can tell she’s proud of him.

Like the other women I interviewed, Sunita loves the community aspect of the cooperative. “Everyone treats [her] like a family member,” she says. When she doesn’t come to work for a day, Sunita misses it a lot, she tells me and makes everyone’s life miserable at home. She laughs again, her eyes shining.

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