Artisan Spotlight: Najma Bhatgar, GU 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.

The Ghar Udyog (Home industry) Cooperative is located north of Mumbai in Bhayandar. The social worker and I take the train and an auto-rickshaw to visit it. The cooperative is in the same building as UKK, a fabric dying unit and where Zia, the Manager, lives with his family. The village is small and rural, and it feels much quieter than where the MarketPlace main office is in Mumbai.  

Zia’s daughter, Zumana, Najma, and I sit on the bed in Zia’s flat—the only room with air conditioning.  Zumana interprets for me since Najma only speaks Hindi. Najma is nervous as she talks; she looks at me expectantly as she waits for the English translation. She tells me that she was born in Bhayandar, and has been working with MarketPlace for the last six years. As a child, she had a lot of responsibility at home because her father was injured at work and couldn’t support the family. She would help her mother every day. They’d travel far from the village to the mountain to get water from a well and bring it back to sell in their community.

Before joining MarketPlace, she stitched her neighbors’ and her own clothes at home. When I ask her what she likes about the job, she says that she likes working with the other women and being able to talk to them about what’s going on in her life. She likes that they’re all from the same village and it helps her forget the problems she has at home. It feels familiar working at MarketPlace, she says, like family.

Like many of the women with whom I spoke, Najma had barely traveled on the train or explored the world outside her home. She was shy at first, she says, unsure that she could spend so much time away from her family. Now she goes all the way to Mumbai on her own and has learned how to be around people outside her community. Najma has one twenty-one-year-old daughter and two sons, aged seventeen and nineteen. Both her sons love to play cricket and she wants to help them make their careers in the sport. Her daughter used to work at an amusement park, and now Najma wants to find her a husband and a new job.

At first, when I ask about how her family has responded to her working, she says that her husband doesn’t restrict her and is happy that she’s able to make money. He was unemployed when she first started at Marketplace. Now he does some fishing work, she says, but it isn’t very stable. There’s a pause after she speaks about her husband, and she looks down. A few moments later, Najma reveals that he hasn’t always been supportive of her working outside the home.

She got married young, at nineteen, and she tells us that he was very possessive of her from the start. He was always “doubting her,” a phrase Zumana uses to express his jealousy. Najma’s voice starts to break as she speaks about her husband. She uses the pallu of her sari to wipe her wet face and nose. She says that he would come to the MarketPlace office and wait outside for her, wanting to find out exactly what she was doing because he didn’t believe that she was actually working. She tried to convince him, but he’d get angry and hit her. A year after she started work, she tells us, she attempted suicide because she couldn’t take it anymore. She was cooking for her family when suddenly she lit herself on fire with the oil. She reveals her upper arms and part of her chest, where the burn marks are striking. Her first thought when the fire came to her, she says, was “save me.”

Her children took her to the hospital. She was in the hospital for fourteen days, and Zia and his family came to visit her often. She lights up when talking about Zia and reaches out to touch his daughter’s hand. Najma’s husband took care of her as well, and became much more supportive of her work after the suicide attempt, she tells me.

“I realized that killing myself wasn’t the right thing,” she says and wipes her face again with the pallu. “You have to have patience that time and friends will make things change.”


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