About midway through the month of February the Chhipa caste began to build a wall which will surround the land they use for all of their printing work. For those unfamiliar with block printing in Bagru, which I assume most of you are, there is a giant piece of land in the middle of all of the printing houses which is used for drying fabrics. The process requires fabrics be washed several times and thus this land is incredibly important to the Chhipas; however, they are not the only group that lives on it. The wall will separate them from the Kadhik caste that lives on the boarder of the land. Although they do not need it for work their children still run around on it and the adults use it casually as a place to meet. Before the wall was built there was quite a bit of tension between the two castes about it being constructed. After about a week of discussions an agreement was reached and a few weeks later the wall received its inauguration ceremony. As always in India, it was a colorful ceremony filled with prayer and dancing and some more prayer. I watched as everyone celebrated and as per usual I couldn’t help myself from having mixed emotions about something I did not and still do not completely agree with.
Although the Indian government no longer recognizes the caste system, it is without a doubt alive and well here. It does not exist to the extent it once did, but it most definitely has an impact. Today there is undoubtedly more room for social mobility than there was fifteen years ago. The more I think about it the more I realize that my own reservations about the caste system do not lie with its hierarchical structure. Instead I take issue with its classification of individuals. Human beings are born with the ability to choose to do or not to do something. It is the basic concept behind the idea of the soul. Moments in which we make choices we do not fully understand or believe are illogical can be attributed to this phenomenon. So what happens when you are born into a world where the structures that surround you limit your ability to make choices?
We often use the phrase “running into a wall” to create a metaphor for objects in life, both tangible and intangible that hold us back. In India all around us there are physical and psychological structures that limit and diminish the value of an individual. Imagine running into a wall and not being able to go around it or jump over it. This wall exists from the moment you are born. At first you accept it. One day you might rebel against, odds are that you lose this fight. Eventually you grow accustomed to it. Then one day you find that you depend on this wall. You cannot live without it. Your soul is destroyed. Things that once made you do and think differently are no longer there and you slide slowly into the grayness of the crowd around you and blend in.
The other day I learned that while pregnant, disclosure of the sex of the fetus is strictly prohibited by law in India because of Issues with “female foeticide.” This means that before the implementation of this law couples would abort their children if they new it was going to be female. Indian culture and the dowry system dictate that the value of a son is much greater than the value of a daughter. I have to wonder what the implications are of both needing a law such as this one, and the ramifications of implementing it. It means that women are born into an environment and immediately molded into whatever preconceived images are created for them. Value is existent only in view of the group as a whole. There is no identity, no choice, and no soul. Their wall is made of steel, layered with concrete and encompassed in Kevlar. The same can be said of India’s education system. Almost all schools in India have a system that is strongly rooted in memorization. For their General Knowledge curriculum kids will memorize titles of books and the authors who wrote them, but never read the actual books or discuss the themes they explore. This “chalk and talk” mindset stifles creativity and creative thinking. When I discovered both of these things I had to stop and ask myself if I was living in an Ayn Rand novel.
While the caste system is an easy target to identify it is much more difficult to defeat. It seems to me that its tradition stretches beyond the simplicity of a name. Around here people are so quickly identified and grouped that they rarely if ever have the opportunity to think of themselves as individuals. So what happens in a world in which people are consistently classified into groups? The walls are stronger and change is slow, possibly even non-existent. I’m not completely sure what this means for India’s future because I don’t come from this place. As much as I am a part of it and it a part of me I don’t think I will ever know what it means to not be able to have a choice.
“There is neither happiness nor misfortune in this world, there is merely the comparison between one state and another, nothing more. Only someone who has suffered the deepest misfortune is capable of experiencing the heights of felicity.”
- Alexandre Dumas
If nothing else, at least I have this
The first time I saw my father cry I was a sophomore in High School and my world was turned upside down in an instant. It was difficult for me to understand how the man who spent an entire childhood telling me to “quit crying” was now doing exactly that, crying. For myself, and I think really for all men, we spent a good 10-12 years believing that our fathers have superhuman strength. In fact I didn’t even think twice about telling my friends that my father was almost a professional baseball player simply because I would go and watch him play softball every Friday night. I think if I had known that the pros in the MLB were not going to Pancho’s after every game to pound shots of tequila I would have thought a little differently. Throw away the homeruns, heavy lifting, and marathon running and you still have a pretty incredible guy. So when I first saw his head buried in his hands a little dose of reality set in. It is a moment that is unique, unforgettable, but above all humanizing. It humanizes the one man who until that point was more than a man. My experience changed me forever, but I won’t get into it right now because this is not about me. It is about Yash. About a week ago he saw his father cry for the first time and I was there to hold his hand through it.
December and January have been incredibly busy and productive months for Bagru Textiles. We have completed and shipped our biggest order ever. We are planning a website re-launch that will include our very own custom printing application. Andrew McLain recently came to Bagru to film a documentary/commercial that will help spread both the wonderful traditions of Block Printing as well as the social goals of Bagru Textiles. We held our first ever health clinic at the end of December. We are preparing to make finished products available to individual consumers all over the world. We are also restructuring our printing society to better fit the needs of community development. All in all it has been a privilege to watch and take part of the company’s growth.
Last week the company’s founder Jeremy Fritzhand came by to help with our video and touch up on the roots he had planted and watched grow for the three years that he spent here. I have written about how sometimes I feel as though I am constantly living in Jeremy’s shadow, but seeing him in action was a pleasure. In many ways it turned his shadow into a blanket. Watching him interact with his endless supply of friends here made me realize that the only reason I have the possibility of accomplishing anything here at all is due to him. Bagru Textiles is like a ball of clay that each fellow helps to mold, and none of us would have had the chance to hold it if it was not for Jeremy’s crazy idea. To be honest I don’t think any of us really knows the first thing about running a business, but we figure it out as we go. There is a lot of ready, fire, aim that goes on here. Four years after Jeremy’s first steps in Bagru and the company is now a legitimate competitor in the textile market. Not only is it growing its client base, but it is doing so without having to give up on the one thing that makes it different. Giving back.
Cooperate social responsibility is a term that has been thrown around a lot recently along with sustainable growth, and wealth inequality. It is one thing to have money and throw those terms around for good press. When this happens I don’t think they carry much weight behind them. It is another thing to start with nothing and have these concepts serve as the base for your business model. In other words, Bagru Textiles is dependent on giving back in order to keep growing. Scholars from several different schools of thought have defined these terms. However, I think that the poorest people on earth are the only ones who can understand them. Their understanding comes from what seems, to me at least, to be the goodness of suffering. It takes someone who comes from nothing to understand what it means to have anything at all. Vijendra and Bagru Textiles are slowly becoming the helping hand.
The night before we held the health clinic Vijendra and I spoke about how proud of him his father would have been for helping so many people. From what he has told me his father was a pretty big figure in the community of Bagru back when it was a simple village. He has shared with me the story of how growing up he and his eight brothers and sisters lived in a small hut on the same plot of land where his brother’s three story house now stands. They cooked meals over an open fire and slept on the dirt. There was also an unending uncertainty as to weather or not there would be enough food to feed the whole family. As he grew older he and his brothers worked the streets of Jaipur to afford an education. They ran a chai stand together flipping work daily to turn the tiniest of profits. Vijendra had another job working at the front desk of a hotel to learn what little he could about running a business. At the very same job he would occasionally receive a free meal from the hotel restaurant to hold him over until the morning.
When the time finally came for Vijendra to start his own printing unit he struggled. B.K. Printers was started with the same business model that printers had been using for years. Working on his own was not easy and it even led to some tension within his family. His father, who wanted more than anything for him to succeed, offered him 20,000 rupees (at the time roughly $100) to help him with business. Vijendra refused not only because it was unlikely to make any significant changes to his business, but also because he wanted to make it on his own.
Fast forward a few years and enter Jeremy Fritzhand, global entrepreneur and professional loveable human being. Jeremy arrived in Bagru on a mini term during his senior year. After discovering the source of the same goods that he saw being sold on Fifth Avenue for hundreds of dollars, Jeremy was driven to provide more for the artisans of Bagru who for years had been mistreated by those driving the fashion industry. He immediately connected with Vijendra and the two developed a unique bond that is somewhere between brotherhood and parental. The next year Jeremy was awarded the first fellowship grant for Bagru. He and Vijendra often had no idea what they were doing, but were constantly testing the waters to see how they could get these goods onto the market in the right way.
Four years later Bagru Textiles is bigger and better than ever. So when Jeremy returned for this past week he was blown away at just how much the business had grown in the short year that he had been gone. One evening Vijendra, Jeremy and I were sitting down to dinner discussing the unbelievable growth that BT had been experiencing in my time here. Slowly the conversation drifted from growth to the companies beginning. From there it drifted to Vijendra’s beginnings. Then the emotions in the air became overwhelming. Vijendra began to share his story with Jeremy, the one I had heard about a month before. However, this time his voice was wavering. I think seeing Jeremy in person served as a reminder to him of just how far he has come. Although he tried to compose himself, when he began to talk about his father the tears began rolling down his face. He finished his story with whatever strength he had left. We ended it talking about how he was changing the lives of so many people in Bagru and would continue to do so. And with that we embraced one another in one great big brotherly hug.
About ten minutes later Jeremy and I decided to go on a walk in an attempt to process what had just happened. It is not often that you are able to share a moment that is so honestly human with someone like that, so naturally we needed to walk it off. At the last second Yash decided to tag along and I am glad he did. It took all of about one minute for him to ask us why his father was crying. Jeremy and I immediately began to say that they were tears of joy. They were evidence of just how far his father had come not just in business, but in life as well. All of his hard work is done to benefit his family and his caste, and to provide his children with a better life than the one he knew as a child. This moment must have been as confusing for Yash as it is for any young boy. Vijendra is especially hard on Yash, I rarely seem him share an emotion other than anger with him. So to see his stern father breakdown into tears must have been more than confusing.
We then explained to Yash that because of his father’s work he has opportunities that no other child in Bagru will ever have. If he works hard enough he will be able to go to college in the States. He does not have to live the life of a printer in Bagru. I always jokingly introduce Yash to our guests as Yash the future doctor, but it is not without a hint of hope and truth. It is a career path that would fit this endlessly curious child, and becomes more tangible with every book he reads. Along the walk he thanked us for “showing him the way” to which I abruptly replied, “we can show you the path, but you have to walk it.” If he keeps his head on his shoulders I have no doubt that mera chorta bahi (my little brother) will go far in this life.
This lesson that Yash learned on our walk carries significant weight. India’s role as a leader in globalization has allowed its younger generation of adolescents to have more access to capital than their parent’s generation. The exaggeration of cool in Bollywood has, in my opinion, corrupted the minds of India’s ever expanding youth. Although as foreigners we see Ghandi Ji as the figurehead of India’s ideals, the establishment of Bollywood’s macho-man-egotistical-ninja-warmongering-hopeless romantic-misogynistic male lead has overtaken Ghandi, and in many ways Lord Ram as the epitome of what it means to be a man in India. In the same way that young American girls idolize a Niki Minaj to the likes of a Rosa Parks, India’s youth is slowly losing that romantic allure it once held in the hearts and minds of those around the world. Yet despite this trend, and despite the difficulty with which people fight against it, here Jeremy and I were winning the fight. Yash will be able to take the unforgettable experience every boy has of seeing his father cry for the first time, and will forever remember it as symbol of where he should be heading in life. So if I fail at everything else I do in Bagru, if all the plans we have backfire, if nothing else comes from my time here, at lease I have this to keep with me for the rest of my life. The knowledge that the work I have put in, along with the work of the fellows before me, has helped change the life of one person for good and forever.
Every year as the hot heat of the summer fades only to be directly proceded by the cool Rajasthani winter, thousands of children across this northwestern state of India flock to the local market places to purchase their kites or in hindi ‘patang’. The shop owners, who could also be considered merchants of death (you’ll understand in a few lines), deal new kites to the children who immediately rush home for lift off. Kite flying, like most things in India, is not as casual as we know it to be in the United States. It is a vicious game played at the end of every day where children of all ages and even grown men crowd the rooftops of their respective homes to cut down the kites of those around them. With hundred of kites slicing and dicing through the air, these master kitemen engage in what can only be called a dog fight.
Kite wire begins with a 20 meter stretch of rope that is lined with tiny shards of glass, which is followed by however many meters of normal rope are needed for the kite to fly. This is what allows the kitemen to cut the wire of those around them. The aerial maneuvers some of these pilots pull of are more than impressive. Years are spent honing their technique and with each practiced flight their swiftness and striking accuracy improves. The tension that builds up from a good fight between two kitemen is only fully relieved by shouting “BOKATA!” after cutting the kite of your opponent. The satisfaction felt when shouting this word, which means you’re kite is cut, is reflected in the faces of those shouting it.
Pilots are not the only character’s involved in these battles. Looters litter the grounds below the houses and await the bodies of kites whose strings have recently been cut. Groups of ten to twenty kids scurry across the dirt chasing the kite as it takes its unexpected twists and turns plummeting towards the earth. Just one lucky person in this group will emerge victorious in the cloud of dust and be able to keep the kite for himself. The next day he will likely fly and lose this kite, but for the moment he is the second happiest boy in the area. The first one is sitting atop his roof with a grin still stretching from ear to ear having just defeated his opponent.
Daily fights like this are a site to be seen. However, every year on January 14th India celebrates Makar Sakrantri, or Sakrat. After they have stocked up their supply of kites, every child in India flocks to their rooftops and it looks like WWIII has taken to the skies. This year, I was lucky enough to witness the war. A clear blue day set the perfect canvas for these artists in the air. Thousands of kites of all different colors and sizes raced in different directions for as long as the day would allow. No matter what your age, if the sun was still up you were more than likely flying a kite. It was an incredible day and I spent it going to a few different houses trying my luck at each one. Despite my practice in the weeks leading up to Sakrat, I was pretty much a sitting duck for all of the veterans around me. I managed to cut two kites, but around here that is a pretty atrocious statistic. As the amber red sunset faded out of site, fireworks were set off from several different rooftops around us. I stood there until the last one went off. I took in the images, smells and sounds and once again reminded of just how special my time here has been. I have a little less than three months left in Bagru and now matter how much I try to capture each moment here, I’ll never be able to recreate this once in a lifetime experience.
A unique feature of my placement for the Minerva Fellowship here in India is that I have the distinct privilege of joining the Union College mini term during the winter. For three weeks in December I joined up with the trip and was able to see some old friends, make new ones and explore India with all of them. I was immediately spoiled by the presence of American accents, warm showers, and cold beers. It was truly a pleasure to live like this for however short a period of time it was. My favorite part of the trip by far was our time spent in Mumbai. Recently Mumbai has attracted a significant amount of attention from foreign media because of its massive wealth gap and economic inequality. There are existing structures that allow for eccentric billionaires to build skyscrapers as houses that are surrounded by some of the most impoverished areas in the world. As you can imagine there are several thousands of beggars who roam the streets of Mumbai day and night. These beggars actually often make a pretty decent amount of money in a days work. However, it is impossible to ignore just how little these people have to live off of. It’s one thing to view this life on an episode of HBO’s VICE from the comfort of your own home. It is quite another to walk through it and capture the sites, smells, and sounds first hand.
The tour of the Dharavi slum in Mumbai was my favorite part of our three days spent there. With over one million people, the Dharavi slum is the largest slum in all of Asia and one of the largest in the world. Its four major industries are plastic recycling, cardboard, pottery, and leather. Residents of the slum work 10-12 hour days for a mere 130 rupees. Throughout the tour we were exposed to the harsh realities (even if only glances) of what life is like in a Mumbai slum. From inhaling the thick pollution of the industry areas, to walking past the river of trash and feces that funneled out of the slum we got to see a few images of life in Dharavi. However, we were unable to get to know the people there. No matter how many questions I bombarded our guide with I would never get to know the difficulties of what it means to be a slum-dweller. After a two hour-long tour we boarded the bus and prepared to return to the hotel. Filled with the contagious energy that had taken hold of me in Dharavi I turned back to discuss the industrious labor of the people we had just encountered with my fellow tourists. Instead I saw several faces that seemed exhausted and somewhat depressed.
It was at this point that I realized just how much my life has changed over the past five months. In my time here I have grown used to witnessing first hand how life is lived in India. Although I do not live in a slum, I have witnessed the behaviors of a culture that does not need much to survive. Where my companions saw an impossibly difficult way of life, I saw inspiration. This inspiration came in comparison to the beggars we had been encountering during our first few days there. Where one party worked through depressing conditions to earn a living, the other had resorted to asking for a living. Often times we sympathize with beggars because they come from the deepest darkest places in the world, but here we were in that place and there were people who refused to cross the threshold in to the life of a Mumbai beggar.
For all of its shortcomings as a habitable environment, Dharavi was as much a living organism as the human body. Its industries served as the major organs that carry out some of the basic bodily functions. The people served as cells flowing through the countless alleyways and streets to get to somewhere they were needed. Schools, no matter how rundown they may have seemed, provided the motion to the joints that kept this body growing. Still one question remained. Where was the heart? What was it that served as the pulse for all of this madness? What was giving life to this incomprehensible way of life? These were questions that would go unanswered for it is impossible to discover in just two hours.
However, it did spark another question that I have been contemplating ever since; at what point does an individual forgo their dignity for the sake of survival? It is a fine line that differentiates the life of a beggar, from that of someone working in Dharavi. I can sit here and spew some philosophical nonsense about this line, but it would be just that, nonsense. I cannot pretend that I know the stories of these individuals because I don’t. All I can do is say that how close you are to the line is heavily determined by poverty, but it does not determine what side you live on. How much can you live without before you sacrifice the ability to make an honest living, for just making a living? My longing for an answer to this question immediately brought me back to Bagru.
My journey was finished after about five more days and although I was sad to see the faces of my friends leave, I was excited to get back to work here. I arrived greeted by the countless “hellos” that I receive every time I walk through the town. There was an enormous hug from Chehika waiting for me at the door, which made me feel right at home. I returned to work the next day eager as ever to improve the lives of those around me. Every day I shake the calloused hands of printers, washers, and carvers who work day in and day out to provide for their families. These are the individuals who I do know, even if only at the surface. For all the male dominance that exists in Indian culture, especially Bagru culture (and yes there is a difference) there is also an immense amount of pressure that rests upon the shoulders of these men. It is their responsibility to provide for their family. After all, a man cannot get married until he has found a steady enough living to support his future wife and children.
Perhaps this is the bond that dances along the line. It determines just how breakable or unbreakable this dignity is. Although I have experienced difficulty, I have yet to be brought to my knees by the unforgiving realities of the world. Even so, the familial bond it is one that everyone can associate with, and has emerged several times throughout this blog. The individual determines just exactly when this dignity is lost, but its strength is found in the eyes of those around him/her. Do those people care how you are making a living? Or do they simply care that you are making a living? Both of these questions imply that this is still a choice. Most people reading this blog, myself included, are fortunate enough to live in a place far removed from the line thus making our decisions much easier. However we still make choices every day that are determined by how we are seen in the eyes of the ones we love.
On December 29th, 2013, Bagru Textiles held its first ever health clinic for members of our company and all of their family members. Our biggest client Block Shop Textiles sponsored the clinic and it was nothing short of a huge success! Doctors from Marudeh hospital in Jaipur came and provided routine general, dental, and eye checkups for over 200 people right here in Bagru. We are proud to say that treatment will be provided for corrective lenses and cataract surgeries for everyone who is in need. This will amount to eight surgeries, and over 35 lenses that will undoubtedly change the lives of countless artisans who will now be able to print, wash, and carve more accurately. It was an incredible day for everyone involved. It was especially so for Vijendra, who in a country that is hindered by its roots in the caste system, has sought to benefit everyone around him.
Over the past four years Minerva Fellows have come into and out of Bagru searching for ways to adapt this traditional printing technique to fit a modern business model. It began with two simple ideas. First, remove the middleman from the international trading process. This would save the producers a ton of money by providing them with an export license of their own. Secondly, we would seek to educate our consumer base with knowledge regarding where their good is coming from and who is making it. With the money saved we would be able to do two things. Pay our workers 30% above the average wage rate, and provide funds for community development. It has taken time and patience from everyone involved, but last week we were finally able to accomplish the latter. For the first time we will be making a difference and giving back to the entire community.
All of the fellows have added our own unique flavor to the ingredients that make this company what is. Its evolution over the four year period has been astounding and I am still trying to make my lasting mark in the same way that my predecessors have. A little part of me felt guilty for being the only one here to witness the health clinic. I know that my efforts here contributed to just a portion of what made the clinic possible. If Emily, Jess, and Jeremy could have been here to see the many smiling faces that flowed in and out of Vijendra’s household the entire day, I’m sure they would have experienced the same array of emotions that I had. For the full six hours that the clinic was held I had a smile stretching from ear to ear.
A unique difference between my placement and the placement of other fellows is that Bagru Textiles is more business oriented than others. Where almost all of the other fellows work for NGOs, I am here working for a private limited company that is a social entrepreneurial venture. Organizing and partaking in the health clinic made me acknowledge the distinct difference between them. Where NGOs receive donations from generous people around the world, this company seeks to provide benefits to its employees through the fruits of their labor. Many of the comforts that we experience in the developed world are simply unheard of for these workers. Day in and day out they rise at the crack of dawn and work until sunset printing, carving, washing and dyeing to create what is widely considered as some of the most beautiful fabric in the world. The people who purchase and wear these goods rarely have an idea of how much effort and love goes into these pieces. I have mentioned in previous posts the immense amount of pride that Indian people take in their work and I would like to stress it again here. Bagru Textiles seeks to ensure that our buyers know their source, and know just how much time and effort goes into each unique piece.
Too often have I witnessed what happens when a company does not acknowledge the effort of its workforce. I have previously posted about work in the Riico industrial area here in Bagru, and the disturbing images I had seen in my visit. Although those workers are happy to have work, we here at Bagru Textiles do not believe it is enough to just give work. As a company we seek to do much more than that. A unique characteristic of the printing community is that in one way or another most people involved are related. The Chhipas all belong to the same caste, and many times the same bloodline that runs one factory will exist in another. The familial bond created within this community strengthens the responsibility they feel for one another. As any descent human being can imagine this is a concept that is easily empathized with, but rare to see on such a large scale, and even rarer to see in an industrial format. I do not want to call it communism because as a for profit company that is most definitely not what is it. However, plenty of communist rhetoric regarding brotherhood most definitely comes to mind. I’m not a Marxist by any means but the traditional folk roots of the labor movement in America would definitely be able to draw parallels to what we accomplished here the other day.
We hope that our consumer embraces this message and takes it to heart. With every piece of fabric sold we move towards two things. Eradicating the naivety of a consumer who does not care where their product comes from, and changing the lives of those who make this product. As the company grows we accomplish both tasks simultaneously. In the process we disrupt the status quo of a supply chain that takes its employees for granted. We are the disruptors, here to reshape the textile trade for good and for better. It is capitalism done right. In my very first blog post I asked the question, “At what point does a company sacrifice its moral conscience for the sake of increasing its profits?” Bagru Textile’s answer to this question is…never. Our business and our social conscience are bound together. Without one the other does not survive, and together they thrive. We finally saw the value of spending a bit of extra money on our community rather than keeping it for ourselves. There is no formula, regression, or excel spreadsheet that can quantify how spending your money on helping those around you has a greater value than keeping that money for profit, but it does. It was an incredible day for everyone involved and I was lucky enough to be a part of it all.