Out to Survive

When her father died leaving behind a family of ten to feed, people offered help. But Ara Jan, daughter number seven, said no and started working to see her family come out of penury. Rahiba R Parveen reports.

 A young girl from old city of Srinagar, with light complexion, bright eyes and sharp features explored the extra-ordinary within the walls of her house.

Born to an artisan, Ara Jan, 32, is among those few women entrepreneurs of Kashmir who were felicitated with a state award for the outstanding performance by Chief Minister Omar Abdullah.

It was the government’s Sher-e-Kashmir Employment and Welfare Programme for Youth (SKEWPY) scheme which supported her with finance.

In her teens, her mother rolled the wool, spun into the yarn like the dough is done before making the chapatis. The silky smooth shawls of Pashmina wool charmed her in the way a bookworm is mesmerised on flipping the pages of a book.

But it was not until her father’s death in 1997 that Jan took Pashmina as a way of sustenance for herself and her family. Her father was in the business of Pashmina shawls.

Till then Jan was involved in the business, only by looking into the accounts – now she runs the entire business.  “I was interested in the minute details. I loved the way shopkeepers weighed the yarns. I would accompany my mom who used to work on a Charkha (spinning wheel),” said Jan who completed her graduation in Science while taking care of her family financially.

Her courage pushed her talent to make a mark in this field. She invested by taking the sales of shawls to a level where raw material was bought, distributed, collected and sent for embroidery work till it was ready for sales.  “The only saving our father left were some gold ornaments, we invested them into it. I took the call and bought the raw material. Then distributed it among the women of our locality and slowly by word-of-mouth many women started coming,” Jan explained.

During peak militancy there remained an economical clamp down and the fortunes of people irrespective of their trade or social status dwindled drastically. It was the time when men feared to venture out for work even during daytimes. It was the time when women, who by working on the spinning wheels, ensured two square meals for their families. They earned for their families by doing handmade embroidery, stitching and majorly by spinning the wool on their Charkhas. Though Charkha was always there but it sustained many families afresh during 90s.

The Pashmina and Shahtoosh wool of the Tibetan antelope which was later banned as the animal is on the verge of extinction was taken in bulk by workers. “Buying the material from us got even easier for women. We became a source of income for them,” Jan said.  She says even today about 50 per cent households have a Charkha at their homes in Srinagar.

Jan is at the seventh number among eight sisters and a brother. When their father passed away four of the sisters were still to get married.  “I was in class 12 that time. For my family there was no support but I knew this is the source, our income would come from,” says Jan.

As she narrates about the period of her struggle tears roll down her eyes. “Since we were a family of five women (mother and four unmarried sisters including Jan) and our brother was quite young there was a change in the attitude of our peers. They started contributing money for our marriage,” narrates Jan who stood by her family and said a ‘big no’ to all such help.

Jan did not only involve herself but all her siblings are running the business independently today. However, the most successful among them is Jan. “I took it as a challenge. I wanted profit leaving no room for any loss.”

In 2009, Jan parted her way from handicrafts after her marriage and handed over the business to her brother. But at her in-laws place, a day didn’t pass without her thinking of returning to the business again. Jan credits it for helping her family to stand during the tough period of their life. “I am emotionally connected with it.”

It was either her hard-work or fate that helped her revive the ties with it through the SKEWPY scheme. Her husband informed and supported.  “She was meant to be there. I am proud of her,” says her elated husband Aiyaz Ahmed Wani.

She applied in Entrepreneurship Development Institute, and after some time was sanctioned Rs 8.57 lakh for her project. She is yet to complete a year and her turnover has spilled over Rs 45 lakh already.

After availing finance, she rented a space, raised hand-looms, and hired workers for weaving cashmere. Today she is supplying products to the major cashmere dealers. Jan’s next concern is the Pashmina as a state industry on a whole. “The market is huge for us but our profit is limited. There are many channels through which the raw material reaches us. It is adulterated,” Jan says.

She adds that the state of these handicrafts can only be saved if government comes to their rescue. “They should promote it extensively by setting exhibitions and helping us to deal with customers directly.”  She believes that the rates of their products which they work the maximum on are doubled in the market outside. However, they helplessly sell it at minimum rates.

Jan sees a lot of scope in the Pashmina business. She says it can help support many households if backed by the authorities.

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