It was like a game of musical chairs in reverse, only with no chairs. And no music except for the chorus of cheerful namaskaars that erupted each time another woman entered the shop, causing whoever was sitting on the one cushion to shift over onto the floor, imploring the newcomer to sit on it. The resulting volley of refusals led to a second chorus of laughter, the whole round beginning again when the next woman arrived.
This was the beginning of my meeting with members of the Kullvi Whims Self-Help Group to debrief with them after our first round of developing knitwear for sale in the US. We gathered in the small shopfront from which one of the members teaches sewing and custom tailors clothing for local women. When I arrived before the meeting, Kusum was assembling coin purses made from tailoring scraps while her youngest sons tried their hands at the sewing machine.
After all nine women had arrived, we passed around my phone to show photos of the craft booth I had set up last month, discussed customer feedback, and planned for future orders. Tea arrived from a nearby snack stall, and talk turned to a proposed day trip up the mountainside to harvest dye plants. The conversation unwound into multiple strands of chatter as Lata outlined the medicinal uses of a tea made from tree bark that also produces a salmon pink dye, Sapna schemed to collect a particularly prized mushroom while we were up in the jungle, and Mamiji mused about what refreshments to bring along.
Eventually, everyone got up to leave–they were needed at the temple, where preparations were underway for an evening celebration. On the way back down to my homestay, I stopped to snap a few more photos of them, now circled around hot griddles flipping roti after roti and laughing just as much as before.
I returned a few hours later and squeezed into one of the rows of villagers seated on mats, waiting to be served by men and boys roaming the area with kettles, pots, and ladles. My out-of-practice fingers struggled to scoop up soupy kheer (rice pudding) and tear off pieces of roti with which to enfold bites of aloo and chana. I thought about the skilled hands of my friends, grateful to be included in their circle and looking forward to learning more from them in the days to come.
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