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People of Bharat: Revaben

The bustling streets of Kamla Nagar market in Delhi are a riot of colors — sporting stalls that sell everything from knockoff shoes to fancy phone cases. I finally push through the crowds to reach a cart heaped with distinctly colourful bags and shiny junk jewellery. This particular stall is owned by Revaben who has agreed to meet me here and talk to me. It’s a busy afternoon and the throng of customers seems never-ending. Revaben pulls out two low plastic stools from underneath the stall. She seats herself on one and motions for me to do the same. With a wave of her hand, she juts out her chin as her she says confidently, ‘Let’s start. Ask me whatever you want’. Her husband stands within earshot and interjects on income and expense figures.

Revaben tells me she came to Delhi 25 years ago as a newly married bride; she is a native of Jamnagar in Gujarat and has been to school. ‘Main Gujarat ki beti hun. Yahan mera sasural hai’ (I am Gujarat’s daughter. This is my in-law’s place), she says. Revaben moved in with her husband and his parents in a single room which they rented.

Initially after marriage, domestic life was Revaben’s primary occupation. She mothered two children, a girl and a boy, cooked and kept house. Her husband worked as painter. With her husband being the sole earner, money problems started to crop up. Her in-laws started taunting her. ‘They would tell me every day that I just eat, sleep and laze around. They wanted me to go out and work,’ she says.

Revaben’s husband bought her a small hand cart and she pushed it around the neighbourhood selling plastic cups, spoons, household items and few vegetables. She earned very little money and the scorching heat made it difficult to move around; especially during summer. Her knees also took the brunt and its ache made her give up on the idea. Once back home, Revaben decided to make and sell papads(thin, crisp flatbread) and pickles. Her income was meagre — around Rs. 1000 per month and she decided the effort was not worth it. She returned to keeping house once more.

Three years ago, both of Revaben’s in-laws died within an interval of three months. Revaben, her husband and their two children moved to another place in Old Gupta Colony which was close to the Kamla Nagar market. Revaben felt the nearby market was a good place to try and sell fashion goods as it was primarily being frequented by women and young girls. She knew of a Gujarati shop-owner who sold handmade embroidered bags in Paharganj. Revaben approached him and bought around twenty bags at a price of Rs. 50 each. She then returned to Kamla Nagar and tried to lay out her goods, but the fiercely competitive shop owners tried to shoo her away. ‘I stayed put and shouted all day to attract customers. I was able to sell almost all the bags. No other stall sold bags like these.’ This continued for about three weeks, after which other venders offered her up some space on the sidewalk to set up her stall with their goods. ‘Pheri lagata lagate baithne ko mil gai. Aaj ijjat se roti khaate hai’ (Wandering around for a sale earned me covet a spot. Today I make a respectable living), she says.

Revaben makes an average income of Rs. 6000 a month. Her husband earns Rs. 15,000 working as a painter. The couple spend Rs. 4500 on rent, Rs. 3000 on groceries and another Rs. 1500 on utilities. Transportation costs them Rs. 500 each month. Revaben and her husband save Rs. 1–2000 on an average every month which they keep at home in cash. Mostly they use the cash for extra expenses such as when guests come over. The rest they re-invest into the business. Any extra cash after expenses the couple deposits into their Jan Dhan bank account. The family has no insurance, no land, gold or cattle and no debt. Revaben has not taken any loans from either banks or from friends and relatives. She believes in spending only what she earns and wants to stay out of a debt trap at all costs. When her daughter got married, Revaben turned to her savings of Rs. 60,000 and used it up for the festivities. Revaben does not own a smartphone.

Revaben’s children completed their secondary schooling but did not apply for college. Her daughter is married and lives close by with her husband’s family. She sometimes helps her man the stall as her husband doesn’t mind her working. ‘Her in-laws are good people,’ says Revaben ‘they didn’t ask for dowry and even paid some part of the wedding expense’. Revaben’s son is 23 years old and is looking for work. He is also willing to try his hand at a business selling things like his mother but has no capital to start with.

I ask Revaben if she has gained from any government schemes. ‘I have a Pradhan Mantri bank account now, that’s all. I want something to be done for women in the country.’ Revaben goes on to explain how women work at household chores and also go out and earn money. Yet they are disregarded and discriminated against. ‘I feel the government should help women to set up their own businesses. And women should also be given free education. If they are to get good jobs, they need to be educated. Otherwise, we can only rise to the level of street vendors’ she finishes, with an uncomfortable reference to herself.

Revaben is the only female stall owner in this lane. She hopes to inspire other women to start up on their own. ‘I keep telling my friends that they should also come out of their homes and support their families financially. But their families don’t allow it. I have been lucky in that case.’ Revaben aspires to expand her business in the future but she is determined not to borrow any loan for that. Her strategy is to re-invest her savings into the business. ‘We are Gujaratis; business is in our blood!’ she quips in optimistically.

As the sun sets, the lights of Kamla Nagar market come on and make the goods on Revaben’s stall sparkle as she negotiates prices with a determined customer. In Revaben, I see a woman — driven, determined — with a natural knack for business. As I leave, I hope the sparkle in her eyes sees her on through better days.

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