A journey of one suitcase to sixty five boxes comes with interesting stories that include new relationships, finding ones’ self, giving hope and more. Meeting Amita Sharma at one of the many coffee shops on the outer ring road in Bangalore was an afternoon of discovery. What unfolded in front of us was a story of a “conventional” defence wife who is anything but conventional. Skilled, empathetic, energetic and pleasantly social do not even begin to define Amita.
Born in the mid nineteen fifties in Sahranpur, a lesser know town in Uttar Pradesh, although fairly well known if you are a fan of Ruskin Bond’s short stories, Amita comes from what was then a traditional middle-class home. Her father was in the paper industry, working as the General Manager at Star Paper Mills and her mother was a home maker who was very talented in crafts, folk dancing and more, besides cooking. The youngest in a family with three siblings, Amita was well-removed in age from two of them.
In her own words, “Living in a colony I both learnt a lot and got to teach a lot. I am a Table Tennis player and represented UP, playing for both my school and college.”
She is told by most of her family members that her creativity and skills come from her hugely talented mother. Having finished her college in Sahranpur, Amita completed her textile design course at South Delhi Polytechnic. She also completed a graduation level course in Kathak, the Northern Indian classical dance form.
On asking her to narrate a mischievous incident from her childhood, she took a while to recall moments in her childhood that may have seemed mischievous, giving us the clear impression that Amita has lead a pretty straightforward life. We however got her to recall one comical and daring incident with her brother. Here it is in her words, “My brother and I would go to school in a rickshaw and it would be parked at home in the nights. One evening, my brother said let’s go out. I was very little and innocently asked how could we do that? My brother proposed to be the rickshaw-wallah with me seated at the back.”
Continuing she added, “I don’t recall where my older sister and brother were but I remember my parents were out. There was a big nalla with dirty chemical water from the factory and as we passed by it, the next thing I knew we had fallen into it, deep in dirt and grime. Immediately worried, I told him I would have to tell mummy you did this. He begged me not to tell her and promised to take me home and help freshen up before they got home.”
She concluded the story with a, “I don’t think my parents ever found out about that incident nor did my other siblings.”
Typical of a small town middle class family of the time, Amita’s marriage was to be an arranged marriage. She met her husband at a club with the family and got to know him better over a couple of game of Table Tennis. Although an arranged marriage, romance bloomed over the TT table!
She was married in 1976 and the life of an “army wife” began for young Amita. She found life in the army was very different, and with a protective youth for a husband, she limited her interactions and social life to the ladies club and the army wife’s welfare association. Life unfolded and she had her children and home to focus on which she was only too happy to do. Over a period of time, instead of finding life stifling, Amita saw an opportunity to pursue something close to her heart which would in turn go on to change the lives of other women who were lesser privileged in many ways.
She worked diligently to alleviate the lives of the wives of jawans and helping them become independent by having them join vocational training centres. Amita went beyond that by training each of them, some of whom remain in her memory and whom Amita considers part of her family even today, be it the cook’s wife who was trained to be a beautician and the orderly’s wife who was trained in stitching. Both the cook and the orderly are also retired today with their wives running a parlour and boutique respectively in their villages! We further got a glimpse into Amita’s empathetic nature when she related an incident about her husband’s ex-driver from the army. He left a family of one wife and three children unsettled when he lost his life to an accident. Amita shares, “I have been in constant touch with the family guiding them on what next in their lives. Of the three children, I am happy to say one is a Front Desk Manager in Hyatt Delhi, the second son has joined IMA Dehradun to be an officer and the daughter is preparing for her bank entrance exams.”
Amita began designing sarees in 1991 and set up a boutique at home when they were in Delhi. The idea was to do something she loved doing and was good at while getting a sense of financial independence. By 1996 she had already set up a workshop that employed skilled women (she had almost 50 employees at that point). She even had two highly skilled men from Kashmir who would work on the more delicate and intricate designs Amita would create. She also had them train the women in her workshop bringing up the overall quality of her products at the boutique.
She worked on her business diligently and as Amita puts it “I loved my family and doing things for them as well as being there for them so I had a very strict work policy. I would work hard and pretty much non-stop from 8 in the morning to 2 in the afternoon, with absolutely no distractions or visitors, including relatives.”
Things were going great when all of a sudden they had to move yet again, this time to Udhampur. Although she was part of the decision making, it still meant she had to close shop. Her father-in-law who had been extremely supportive of her (she was even fondly known as her father-in-law’s third son!) was livid with his son for making her do this when she was doing so well.
Moving to an altogether new city yet again didn’t hinder Amita’s spirit. Having grown from a life in two suitcases to 65 large boxes, she set herself up in Bangalore in 2006 and soon set up her little venture from home yet again building and catering to a very select clientele. She went back and set up her little workshop, although this time with fewer employees (all skilled women from rural areas) with one woman supervisor. Amita today runs her business continuing to do what she loves doing, designing clothes, and is in high demand especially with families when they have large occasions such as weddings.
There is joy in her face when she shares how the lives of the women who have been with her all these years have bettered. Little things we take for granted were big achievements for them and their family, introduction to pressure cookers, access to better clothes and makeup for the children’s weddings and more. These, she says, make the women immensely happy and confident to push their children towards education and breaking the poverty cycle.
The ten women in Udhampur who work for her today are experienced in exclusive crochet scarves and stoles, while the senior karigars do some amazingly intricate work on sarees (the work and style is Kashmiri embroidery) and are from Srinagar. Each saree they make takes 8 to 9 months to complete! Amita finds pride in seeing and hearing about the grown children of her workers who are slowly but surely bettering their own lives as well as their family’s one step at time.
As we moved on to discussions around current topics we asked Amita to share with us what she would like to advice the youth of today as well as other seniors. And we leave you now with these wonderful words…
Advice to youngsters of today, “You may have set up a professional path and set goals which are all great but don’t ever kill your passion. Don’t give up on your passion. If you are a woman who has left your job for family priorities, the best thing you can do for yourself is to set up a business at home based on your passion. This will help you in more ways than just financial independence.”
Advice to seniors, “You are never too old to do anything. You will pleasantly forget about all your medical problems, if any, as long as you are busy with something. Do something… even if it is playing a round of cards or a game of Scrabble. My husband and I play one round of Scrabble every day diligently. It is a wonderful way to keep your mind sharp and strengthening your relationship too.”