A Closer Look at Kalai

Kalai

We at Aruna Designs who work with Kalai think she's a wonder! Unfailingly organized and cheerful, she is our contact person at Shanthimalai Handicrafts in Tamil Nadu, India. She facilitates all the orders that are exported from the women's craft cooperatives to Aruna Designs in the US.

This past December we gathered at her "Mission Control", a bright spacious room above the Premalaya gift shop on a bustling street in the town of Tiruvannamalai. Kalai has a very large desk with books and ledgers, pencils and a phone and a computer, but you can rarely find her sitting behind it. You will more likely see her sorting through piles of hand-embroidered baby onesies, or meeting with a group of buyers from Germany going over specifications for a special order for an upcoming Fair Trade fair in Stuttgart. She might be soothing a frustrated tailor who charges in waving material and instructions and exclaiming in Tamil, or calculating prices for new products.

Calm and persistent, always busy but never flustered, with an encyclopedic memory for every detail of every design ever produced over the past 13 years, Kalai greets us with a big smile and open arms. Tea is quickly produced and crisp, spicy samosas. We gather around her, seated on the floor where all meetings take place, to look at the latest design ideas, share news of family and give updates on sales in India and in the US, before we get down to the business of discussing samples for this year's order.

We are honored that Kalai has shared with us some of the joys and challenges of her work, as well as her life story.

Celia Jackmauh, an Aruna Designs Coordinator

Temple

Kalai's full name is Kalaimagal Krishnan. "I was born to a good family in the town of Tiruvannamalai, the youngest of 7 children. My father was a farmer and moved from the country to the town so that his children could get a better education, - the boys, that is. I was the only girl to be educated. I went to college where I majored in math. My sisters left school at 13 and 14 to be married, but in my case, my father supported me through college. This was very unusual. Everyone asked him why spend so much on a girl? But my father wanted me to study."

"I had a happy childhood in an extended family. We were comfortable and had all we needed. My family was very protective. I never went out unaccompanied, never handled money or had any money of my own, but I wanted for nothing. When I was 25, quite old for an Indian woman from a traditional background, my family arranged a marriage for me. My husband was a friend of a work colleague of my father, who was employed in the cashier's office at the big temple."

According to tradition, Kalai lived with her husband's family. From the start, the marriage was strained. She felt dominated by her mother-in-law who took away her jewelry, her only form of independent wealth. Her husband had no steady work and came and went, disappearing for weeks at a time. Her husband's family kept asking Kalai's family for money. Her brother, knowing how unhappy she was, suggested she look for a job in a handicraft center that had opened up recently. With no independence, no resources of her own, Kalai thought, - why not?

Building

At first, Kalai had no idea why she was hired. The woman who was supposed to be training her was getting married and was too busy to show her what to do, so Kalai set about figuring it out for herself. She visited the different craft societies to see what they produced. She reviewed all the files and learned how the billing was done.

"I came here in 2004 and, step-by-step, I learned about the people, this business, and the world. Before I came here, I knew nothing about the world, but everyday I learn and I continue to learn."

Six months later, Kalai's brother died in a lorry accident. He was not the oldest, but he was the one who held the family together, and it was a terrible tragedy. Within a year, heartbroken, her father died. Her mother became a recluse and would not leave the house. Her marriage went from bad to worse.

Kalai had stayed with her husband's family for 16 years. Eventually, she took a very unusual step for a traditional rural Hindu woman: with her two young sons, Vigneshwar (Viki) and Eshwa, she moved out. Kalai quickly found that living on her own was very hard. "As a single woman, everyone wants to cheat me, and take advantage of me. The landlord charges too much, people do not respect me and they gossip about me as soon as they see that I do not have a husband with me."

More difficulties were ahead. In 2008, her mother died. Distraught and afraid, Kalai stopped working and returned to her in-laws' house. She had fallen into a deep depression and was convinced that no one wanted her at work. After 6 months, she finally contacted Mr. Manoharan and Lioba Flaig from Shanthimalai Handicrafts.

She wasn't sure they would take her back. "I thought no one should hire such a depressed person," Kalai explains. "Who would want me? But they said they did want me, and now my life is totally different. I learned that I have to face life as a woman. For the children's sake, I must go on. I used to cry if someone said something unkind about me, but not anymore. I had a class on how to be happy when anything happens, if a man is not good to us, how to handle it. After counseling I feel happy with my job, not worried about status."

"When I came to Shanthimalai Handicrafts, I came to my real home. The strength and support here helped me to survive. I am myself here. I feel safe. Since I can work, whatever my family needs, I can provide. I will keep working until my sons have grown up and are independent. Mr. Manorharan is like my brother and Lioba, my sister. They care for me like family."

Kalai is a practicing Hindu, and goes to the big Shiva temple in Tiruvannamalai whenever she has time, which has not been a lot lately. She always goes for the big festivals, and she goes to the little Murugan temple near her house every day. "When I leave my job, I leave any stress behind. When I go to temple I feel relaxed. All the people around me are so happy, I feel my problems are lifted from my shoulders, I feel all will be well, my children will be well."

Kalai at her desk

Today Kalai is an important part of the Shanthimalai Handicrafts team. Her office is usually a beehive of activity. She is in charge of quality control and setting prices, which she calculates by looking at the costs of the raw materials and the time taken to create a product. She produces all the bills, meets with buyers, and is comfortable communicating with international buyers by email and phone. One order can involve an exchange of 20 - 40 emails with sample pictures and corrections as well as phone calls.

Loganathan, the village coordinator, goes out into all the villages and patiently translates instructions into Tamil for the women who create the handicrafts. If there are questions, Loganathan works with Kalai to fine-tune the details. Kalai and her assistant Meena check every single piece at least once, and often more than once, as corrections need to be made. Every item that is made at Shanthimalai Handicrafts goes through Kalai's quality control department, an estimated 25,000 individual pieces per year.

"My biggest task is managing the work," Kalai says. "This is a great challenge. Our work is seasonal. Shipments are between June and September. Buyers come from November to February to make samples and orders. When there are no orders, people suffer. But there are times when all the buyers want everything at once. When there is a lot of work, we work everyday, holidays and weekends, but if people do too much overtime, they will get burned out. Now I ask for more time from the buyers, otherwise mistakes are made, stress is coming, tension is coming. Sometimes when there is a large order, we all have to work overtime, which can be hard, but I make sure we deliver on time and produce good quality."

"Common sense is most important," Kalai observes. "Sometimes there are misunderstandings, sometimes we need to adjust pricing. If there are mistakes, we need to fix them." Kalai is responsible for producing all the bills. "I need to make sure that people are paid enough, but the buyers need to be able to sell at a good price - so it is all a balance!"

Kalai works with seven sections, or independent craft societies: weaving, tailoring, crocheted nylon bags (Aruna Bags), leaf cards, palm-leaf weaving, embroidery, batik, and doll-making. Over 200 people, many of whom are widows or destitute women, receive enough piecework to sustain their families. Most take the work home and then bring it to Premalaya (the handicrafts center) when it is complete. This way, the women can be in their villages taking care of their families while they work.