Sunday, August 3, 2008

Bobby Heena

I had walked around Jaisalmer in the morning, and it was starting to heat up in the afternoon. At one point, one of the people in a house sitting in front of a fan saw me walk by and said "Afternoon is too hot for walking! Time for nap!" I was inclined to agree, but I had nowhere to nap, as I had checked out of my hotel.

I was thinking about where I could go to sit down and cool off until my train at 4pm, when I happened upon a woman at the door of her shop, recruiting me to enter. This made me pause, since it was so, so rare to see a woman conducting business in India. And what she said made the pause into a stop: "Please come and see my store. I am a woman business owner and the men don't like me, they don't want me to succeed and they try to ruin my store. I sell things made by village women to support them."

Was it true? Or was she just as good of a swindler as everyone else? She had the incessant talking habit that they all had. I hesitated, but then I decided that a woman salesperson was so rare that it was worth investigating, even if it turned out to be a pain in the ass. I went into her shop, and she continued her breathless speech for a while: "Women are forced to marry here so young, between 9 and 12 years old, latest at 14. I am 28 years old and I am not married. I am an educated women, I have a business degree, and the men don't like this. They threaten my store, they slashed my fabric yesterday, I can show you. They don't like me because I am trying to help the woman, the village women, I buy their needlework and pay a fair price. I don't pay commission to the touts because I don't want their help to bring customers. I want the customers to find me themselves and see my store, but they don't like this, and they don't like me because I am a woman..."

Gahhhh okokokOK! I was very sympathetic to what she was saying, of course, but it was coming out in a rapid stream of words (the Indian sales pitch, I have learned), and I just wanted her to stop talking already. I finally got her to stop by interrupting in feminist agreement and looking at some of the garments. After that she actually calmed down, and she was quite interesting. She told me she was 28 and unmarried (and her bindi was, in fact, black as opposed to the red bindi worn by married women). Her father was educated and her mother was not. They were from a small village, but her parents had managed to educate all of her many siblings, some of whom had since died. She did not want to marry yet (I have to say, this was very surprising for her circumstances. I wanted to know more about this, but I didn't want to pry).

I looked at the quality of her textiles, and it actually did look quite good. And her prices seemed fair, at least to me (they were significantly less than the prices quoted to me in Udaipur for the same kind of textiles of poorer quality). I looked at many specimens of needlework. She explained that some were from pakistan (we were not far from the border, less than 100km I think), some from villages in India. She explained the work that was involved in different types and why some were more or less expensive than others - the difference was obvious. All were beautiful, but some were obviously labor intensive. I loved the ones with gold embroidery on black cloth, but they were too expensive for me. Another tourist came in to buy some bedspreads she had looked at earlier, and these were beautiful too.

The store owner's sister came in, and turned out to be her business partner. The sister was married (red bindi) and had her 10-month-old daughter, Princie, with her. She told me she named her Princie because girls are not valued in India and most people did not want a girl, but she loved her daughter ("she is my princess") and was very happy to have her (she also had a son, a few years old). The baby was very cute and active. I had a nice time talking with the women, and looking at fabrics. They seemed in no rush and I decided that the prices were fair enough that even if the women's-lib thing was not true, the purchase would not be a rip-off. As it turns out, the same sisters also run a massage center for women that is recommended in Lonely Planet (I noticed the name, Bobby Heena, on their business card and made the connection). They have a DVD about their business that I guess they give out to interested customers, although they had run out of copies and offered to deliver a copy to my hotel or let me come back to pick it up that afternoon after they made more (I wish I had gotten one, although the heat in Jaisalmer makes you forget everything but the present, and by the time I was ready to leave I couldn't think about it).

It would be interesting to know if their business model is true. If so, it's a great business, and their fortitude is impressive. It's easy to believe what they told me about the threats they get, having seen the status of women in India. They told me that one of them always sits outside and one inside with customers because they have to watch the fabrics displayed outside the store so they are not slashed again. They said that when they first opened the store, someone smeared cow shit all over the door one night. I kept thinking that if I worked for NPR, I'd go back there and look into it, and if they are really helping the village women with their business, it would make a great public radio story.

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