How Marwari women in Kolkata are asserting their independence in a conservative community
The new Marwari woman in Kolkata has one foot in modernity, and another in tradition
Lata Bajoria has cows and goats in her own estate in Kolkata and adopted a fishing cat at the local zoo. She also has rabbits, guinea pigs, turtles, peacocks. She once had two rescued ostriches but they were males and prone to fighting with each other. It’s an animal lending library she says with a smile. You can borrow our guinea pigs and try them out as pets.
“My (Marwari) community is taught to hate animals,” she says. “We do naga panchami puja but they would grimace at my python. When I tell them Ram’s favourite food in the forest was deer and Sita wanted a deerskin they are scandalised.”
Sometimes you get a sneaking suspicion that Lata Bajoria, very soberly dressed in a no-nonsense printed sari with a strand of simple pearls, her hair pulled into a pony-tail, is not at all averse to scandalising her community a little.
“I was a typical head-bowed Marwari housewife,” she says. Her husband Arun Bajoria was known as the jute baron of Bengal. He once controlled 25 percent of the country’s jute production. After growing up in Mumbai where she learned to drive, life in Kolkata’s Marwari community was a bit of a “golden cage” she says. But she lacked for nothing materially. Then Arun Bajoria died in 2008 and everything came crashing down. There were no sons to take over the empire. Legal squabbles broke out. Lata was forced to take over a beleaguered business in an industry beset with labour problems and shrinking demand, a world she knew nothing about.
“The first thing I did was buy a laptop and start getting the Economic Times,” she says. “When I went to a party and met a jute person I would ask him how the jute bazaar was doing. His wife would not be happy about it. She would think why is she talking to my husband about jute instead of talking to me about servants, kids, serials and upvaas.”
These days Lata Bajoria leads a very different life. She has gone on a trip to the Amazon. She okayed an Electronic Dance Music event in their warehouse. She presides over the family’s jute mills. Her office in Kolkata has no pictures of Gods and Goddesses, mostly artsy black and white photographs of the family jute mill by a German photographer.
“At the age of 65 I still want to learn,” she says. “You just have one life.”
At one level someone like Lata Bajoria can be regarded as the prototype of the new Marwari woman in Kolkata. She does not just preside over the philanthropic wing of the family foundation and have schools named after her. She is an entrepreneur in her own right.
At a time when Mamata Banerjee talks about bringing new businesses to Bengal she never mentions that small business ventures started mostly by Marwari women keep popping up all over the city. Organic food. Eco-luxe lifestyle stores. Boutiques. Specialty restaurants. Cafes. Patisseries.
“There are more patisseries in Calcutta than there are people to eat in them,” laughs Madhura Lohia, the founder of Organic Mandi. But there’s a reason for this proliferation of Marwari women-owned businesses in Kolkata.
“Women need an outlet. In our community girls got married at 22,” she says.
Women in their mid-thirties and early forties can find themselves suddenly at a loose end. The children are older and don’t need that much attention. The husbands are busy with the family business. The family business traditionally goes to the boys. The women wonder what’s in it for them. Voila, boutiques.
However Lohia says ruefully old attitudes die hard. Lohia who did an MSc in Kolkata, a PhD in the US and wants to do R&D with herbal medicine, returned to her hometown and started her organic vegetables businesses in five acres near the family’s jute mill on the banks of the Hooghly. The acreage soon doubled in size. She bought one cow for cow dung and now has 16. She planted fruit trees, started keeping bees. “Then someone I thought of as a friend, a man my age who runs a business for his father, said ‘Is this like your hobby till you get married?’” She says because her work relates to food and cooking and the kitchen, he did not see the science she was putting into it.
Lohia cannot fault him entirely. The boutique boom can easily go bust. “I know women who are going to have a baby and just shut down the business,” she says.
“Women seem liberated but do they have control over the family wealth? The father is still happy to give his money not to the daughter, but the son-in-law,” says Ruchira Gupta, founder of Apne Aap, a leading anti-trafficking organisation. “Compared to older generations, they got perfectly good educations. But they are literally social
secretaries for their husbands.” Gupta ticks off the assets of the New Marwari woman. “They know their Pierre Cardin, Louis Vuitton and a little bit of organic. But when a girl gets married it’s still about how many ‘files’ she has to her name. They are setting up bakeries and boutiques, not car factories.”
Indeed it’s one thing to run a boutique, it’s another to break into the old boys club.
Lata Bajoria says even though she took over some of the oldest jute mills in the region, she was never asked to go to the IJMA (Indian Jute Manufacturers Association) meetings. She was told she would not understand anything. During litigation when she went to meet the lawyer, he would tell her “Bhabhi, why have you come? Your people can handle it.” “You are just not taken seriously,” she protests. “Even if his father owns a paan ki dukaan a boy, even a dud, learns the ropes. Women are told whatever you need to do, go do it in the sasuraal.”
And in the sasuraal, they can find that the old values are still going strong despite a veneer of new lifestyles. Lohia says she knows friends who have gone abroad and then returned home to the joint family system. The society has changed. “Women work. Men and women are out partying till 2 am-3 am in the morning,” she says. “But there’s also the expectation that at 4 am-5 am, the wife will take a shower, put on a sari and do pooja. The man is not expected to get up.”
It might feel like two steps forward and one step back but change, even if it sometimes feels like boutique change, is inevitable and unstoppable. You have to mould conservatism to suit the modern frame of mind says writer Alka Saraogi.
Her father, she recounts, was a relatively modern man but with set ideas about modernity. He taught her to drive but she says with a smile, he never actually let her drive. She says for her to become a writer was a bolt from the blue in her in-laws' home, an old-fashioned Burrabazar Marwari family. But her in-laws adjusted to the daughter-in- law who wanted to get a PhD. At 30 when she was going to go get her Sahitya Akademi award, there was discussion about whether to send a chaperone.
“There was no precedence of any woman going out of the house on our own,” she says. “My daughter has been living outside the house since 18. She still wears jeans and t-shirts post marriage. No one scoffs at love marriages anymore.”
This is not unprecedented. A community known for its conservatism is also known for the likes of Sitaram Seksaria, a champion of women’s education. In the 1920s he begged conservative Marwari parents to send their daughters to the Marwari Balika Vidyalaya. In her book on the Marwaris of Calcutta, Anne Hardgrove writes about Indumati Goenka who was imprisoned for civil disobedience during the Independence movement, supported widow remarriage and campaigned against dowry.
Lata Bajoria acknowledges that the times they are a changing. She points to several successful businesses helmed by Marwari women. A sari printing and export business. Lakhotia computers. But she laments too often it’s happened because a woman had to step up due to a family tragedy.
“Excuse me, but you should not have to have death to make women aware of their potential,” she says. “You have to support each other. And I am not talking of a group of rich women doing high-end events for each other at 5-star hotels about Botox, film stars or past life transmissions, just to be in the society pages.”
And as for the men? Alka Saraogi jokes a good friend has a suggestion on how men can learn to relax and thus let the women do their own thing. “She says Marwari men should drink one peg at night. They have too much desert-wala tension – that paani khatam ho jayega (the water will run out). We are not in the desert anymore. We will be fine.”
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