In order to grow a forest, one must first start by planting a seed.
Purkal Village, a small hamlet in Dehradun, is leading a social revolution.
It all began in 2001, when Chinni Swamy and her husband G.S. Swamy decided to move to this scenic little village in the lower Himalayas. G.S. Swamy, a retired economist from Mumbai, within months of settling in the village, realized that village children were grossly behind in their education and had far fewer job prospects than urban children, and began an after-school tutoring programme for four children in Purkal, holding classes in an empty cow shed to accommodate his young pupils. From his dedication towards furthering the education of these village children was born the Purkal Youth Development Society, which has given enormous opportunity to these rural children and enabled them to match the career aspirations and educational benchmarks of their compatriots in urban society (Check them out at https://www.purkal.org/).
His wife, Chinni, had a different calling. A woman with a passion for patchwork, Chinni immersed herself in helping the women of Purkal to gain autonomy and respect. It all began with a quilting project she undertook to help one poor woman in the village. When the quilts gained appreciation, Chinni decided to scale up, and Stree Shakti was born.
“Stree” is the Sanskrit word for “woman” and “Shakti” means “power,” and this non-profit organization has made enormous strides in the direction of empowering rural women. The organization enables women to produce textile products such as quilts, cushion covers, stoles and shawls, bags, woven jewellery, cloth-covered notebooks, and much more. Over 130 women are employed by Stree Shakti, and the market for their products has expanded, with steady business to both their on-site store in Purkal as well as on their online store and at exhibitions around India (See https://purkalstreeshakti.org/). And what made me most happy was Chinni’s explicit reassurance that the seed money put into these projects by donors and the organization was not paid back by the women. Their earnings were their own to take to their homes.
In Stree Shakti, business and welfare go hand-in-hand. The organization faces a money crunch in their welfare programme, which includes a daycare service for the children of these working women who are too young to attend school. In order to allow the women to work, the organization has a creche for these children. When I visited Purkal in 2014, I peeped into the creche to see three women singing songs to an enchanted crowd of little toddlers, all under the age of five. Their mothers sat in the next room, sewing away and chatting quietly among themselves. Stree Shakti, along with providing much-needed autonomy and employment, also provides these women with a safe space, a community where they are wholeheartedly committed to supporting one another. The women are given regular health checkups and medical support as needed, all thanks to the funds raised by Stree Shakti. This organization, run by women, serves its women well.
All movements must begin somewhere. Just like the Ganga, flowing out of a glacier deep in the Himalayas of Garhwal, Dehradun’s rural women are making waves and carving a new path for themselves.
My trip to Purkal opened my eyes to the power of grassroots movements. The children in Purkal School were bright-eyed and spoke intelligently about their career aspirations. Both boys and girls spoke of dreams of becoming scientists and accountants and pilots and teachers. The seventh-class students led me and my friends on a tour of the building. The classrooms were neat and organized, with desks and benches for every student. The blackboards were pristine, with plentiful chalk and dusters. Colourful posters adorned the walls, both in English and in Hindi. The labs were clean and had adequate supplies, including a microscope for the biology lab and a centrifuge for the chemistry lab! I was amazed at the care the students gave to their school, at the pride they clearly felt for this revolutionary village hidden in Uttarakhand’s Doon Valley. Children from nearby villages also attended the schools and many of them had mothers employed with Stree Shakti.
The creche was full of round-cheeked babies who toddled up to us and tugged inquisitively on our kurtas. Three girls from the primary school sat with me and asked me question after question about my friends and about life in the city. They took my hands and led me to the school volleyball court and asked me to join them and their friends in a game, which I declined hastily, having had a history of bloody noses thanks to the sport. The village kids, like urban kids I have grown up with in Indian cities, asked to take selfies with us and posed blithely for photographs. We sat down to eat lunch with them, at Chinni’s behest, and the children diligently served us and offered to wash our plates after we were finished.
Then, Chinni took us for a tour of Stree Shakti.
What I remember best about Stree Shakti is the electrifying colours of that room. Cloth and string in all possible shades, from scarlet to cobalt blue to ochre to teal, were draped over tables and on the floor. Women were everywhere – it felt as though I had gone back in time to the women’s zenana of the Mughal palaces, where women flitted behind curtains and whispers and the scent of perfume dotted the cool air. Here, the women chattered away in low voices, which died away immediately when Chinni cleared her throat. She leaned over the handiwork of a few women, reprimanded one for uneven stitches and then proceeded to sit down and show her how to embroider a rose more perfectly. She was utterly at home among these women, managing them yet guiding them with a firm and effective hand. The women proudly displayed their creations to us – my favourite was a patchwork quilt with tiny embroidered dancers in flared floor-length skirts. Quilted bags hung from hatstands at various corners, and an elderly lady with gold-rimmed glasses busily hemmed embroidered kurtas at the far end of the room. Soft laughter emanated from a group of women sitting around an enormous quilt; it was clearly the product of many days of friendship, mutual respect, and dedication to perfecting their craft. My friends oohed and aahed over the colourful textiles. This was a slice of the real India, the India that they could never quite capture at the busy street markets of Mussoorie where retail stores are becoming increasingly popular over small businesses.
Perhaps one day women across India, from all strata and educational backgrounds, will receive the dignity, respect, and appreciation that they all deserve. But until that glorious day arises, it is small non-profits like Stree Shakti which provide India’s women with opportunities to raise themselves out of the pits of poverty, indignity, and illiteracy.
You see, a forest cannot grow strong without deep roots. Planting seeds of change goes a long way in ensuring that the roots of this new movement – one of hope and equality – remain steady against all odds in our patriarchal society.
Purkal is one such forest, its branches and roots reaching far beyond its dot on the map. This is a forest that no man can uproot. It is here to stay.
P.S. Please visit the website links in the article (https://www.purkal.org/ AND https://purkalstreeshakti.org/) if you would like to read more about their wonderful work, volunteer, or donate to the cause. While I do not advertise, I do advocate for grassroots movements that are actually creating change, and this is one of them.