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People of Bharat: Veena Kalita

‘He’s my keeper…my friend…my protector. He is my Lord — Shiva’. Veena’s eyes glistened as she gestured towards the picturesque temple in the backdrop with folded hands. She is a woman of faith; her attachment and devotion to Bholenath easily palpable. Veena, 45, sells worship material from a small makeshift stall in front of the picturesque 60-year-old temple at Pulibor. The temple is located besides the busy National Highway-37 in the western part of the city of Jorhat in Assam. At present, she lives with her son (23), daughter-in-law (21) and granddaughter (6) in Haahpiya Gaon, a small village about two kilometers away from her workplace.

It’s a sunny Wednesday afternoon. ‘Devotees hardly come at this time of the day unless it’s a Monday’, she said shifting her stock to one side of the small and wooden table. She explains to me the importance of worshipping Lord Shiva on a Monday for all Hindus and offers her chair for me to sit while she insists on standing. ‘Aapuni e bohouk atieya, moi tu gutei din tu bohi e thaaku’ (Please be seated. I sit all day).

Veena is slim, petite and healthy, and speaks with a sense of calm assurance. Her thin, wavy hair is showing visible signs of age. Draped in a white mekhela chador [1], she resonates with the image of a good mother and a strong woman who has stood the test of hard times. Veena was born in Mothiachiga-a small village in the Sivasagar district of upper Assam into a poor family. Her parents were farmers. She studied till the seventh standard,‘I know how to read and write in my mother tongue -Assamesemiya and can do some basic accounting’. Following village tradition, she was married off at the age of sixteen and had three children — a son and two daughters. Her husband who worked as a driver took to alcoholism leading to health issues and his eventual death 20 years ago. Reminiscing about her life, she shared some fond memories of this village and its people when she first came here as a newly-wed bride. She regales me about Bihu [2] and Na-khua [3] celebrations with her relatives and speaks with helplessness about her husband’s addiction. ‘My world came crashing down when he died, (I felt like) everything was over’.

Veena stepped up to fill in the shoes of her husband, the sole bread-earner, and started looking for work. Someone from her village recommended her as a housemaid for an upper middle class family in the city of Jorhat. She was promised a salary of INR 1200 — an amount enough to sustain her children in those days. Veena joined the work but returned after a single day! ‘I felt uncomfortable working in a household where the woman went to work and I was alone with the man at home all day.’ About a month later, she was approached by a ‘bhaal manuuh taeu‘– a good human being. A man from her neighbouring village who knew her situation suggested opening a small pooja upakaran (worship material) shop in the temple precincts. ‘When God can’t come in front of you, he sends a messenger’ she says. With faith in the Divine and conviction in her abilities, she started her business. Veena sells incense sticks, coconuts, flowers, bel leaves, areca nuts betel leaves and earthen lamps from a small stall — a rickety, wooden table with a plastic canopy. Veena arrives at the stall at 7 AM and she works till 2 PM. Mondays are longer — she arrives at 6 AM and leaves at 5 PM. ‘How do you commute every day?’, I ask. ‘On foot of course. Women of our generation women are strong!’ she laughs.

Veena and the other shopkeepers buy their daily stock from a local vendor who comes daily to the temple premises. She purchases only a limited stock of perishable items such as coconuts, betel leaves, flowers, bel leaves and areca nuts and aims to sell everything by the end of the day. She tells me this is important — as non-perishables such as incense sticks and earthen lamps can be stored. During the holy month of Shravan devotees throng the temple and her stall assumes an elaborate look with a larger number of items of each variety on display. On an average business day, she makes a sale of INR 350–400 with a profit of around INR 250–300. Her average monthly earnings amount to INR 9000. During Shravan, her earnings go up to INR 12–13,000. The lockdown imposed in Assam owing to COVID-19 badly impacted her earnings. For four subsequent months starting in March, the temple was closed for devotees which also stopped her source of income. During this time, she cultivated vegetables in her kitchen garden to supplement the family’s food sources. ’Ki ba aibilaak bemaar aahisile naajanu’ (I don’t even know what this disease is) she says and then listens attentively while I explain to her the causes and symptoms of the coronavirus. In mid-August, the temple-management committee decided to open the shrine to devotees. But people are still hesitant to step out. ‘I earned around 12,000 rupees last year during the month of Shravan; this year I hardly earned 4500’, she says dejectedly. With restrictions by the committee on pooja offerings, Veena’s daily profit has fallen to INR 150–200.

Veena doesn’t own a mobile phone but wants to buy one in the future. She has a savings account in a government bank across the highway from the temple. She visits the bank at the end of every month to deposit her savings which amount to INR 4000. ‘I cannot manage more than that. Things have become expensive these days’ she mentions. I agree. Three years ago, Veena took a loan of INR 80,000 from a local women self-help group to build a pucca house and pays INR 930 as her weekly installments. Her son earns INR 12,000 per month and helps with household expenses. Veena is a beneficiary of the Orunodoi scheme launched by the Government of Assam in December 2020. Under this scheme, the adult female member of a household whose composite income is less than INR 2 lakh per annum receives INR 830 as a monthly benefit. She is happy as the amount for the month of December has been credited to her bank account.

Three years ago, Veena’s present business came under a threat due to the onset of construction work for widening the highway. She was asked to close down her shop but she managed to get permission from the temple’s management committee to shift the stall backwards by a few feet. When the highway construction is complete, she hopes to start an additional shop selling Assamese handicrafts from the side of the road.

It was half past two when I stood up to thank her for the invaluable time and she started packing up her unsold stock into a bag. I lifted the wooden table and moved it to a corner within her small stall and helped her cover it with a sheet of polythene. She smiled and thanked me for my assistance.

[1] A type of Saree comprising two pieces of cloth, draped on the top and bottom which is the traditional attire worn by the women of Assam. [2] Bihu is a set of three important Assamese festivals in the Indian state of Assam — Rongali or Bohag Bihu observed in April, Kongali or Kati Bihu observed in October, and Bhogali or Magh Bihu observed in January. [3] Na-khua festival is a community festival celebrated in Assam as thanksgiving to nature for the new harvest.

About the Authors: Nipen Dutta is Specialist — Insights at CIIE.CO, India’s foremost entrepreneurship centre housed at IIM Ahmedabad.

Valerie Mendonca is a Research Associate at CIIE.CO, India’s foremost entrepreneurship centre housed at IIM Ahmedabad. Her research interests are women, entrepreneurs, society and storytelling. She tweets @ValerieHood17.

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