The story of Heeya

This story is about my encounter with a lot of love and some loss.

 

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Mediaperson Vasanthi Hariprakash modelling for a campaign for the Heeya’s Spring collection

It is about the love for weaving of the Mising women, and a special one at a centre run by a cooperative group in Dhemaji district of Assam. I started visiting the various co-operative groups in North East from August 2012 before I officially started with Heeya (a social business focused on creating sustainable livelihood) with an idea of being able to create new markets of discerning users for the products of these groups who have the talent and the raw material but often no-one to buy from them. It’s the eternal conundrum. Where does one begin? I decided to take the plunge – produce first. Find its lovers…love will find its way. Like it did for me when I boarded the rickety bus to go to Dhemaji, a place I only knew about, but never visited. Being a child of the soil, I had no compunctions. Alone in an overnight rickety bus of 15 hours was not a deterrent. I forgot my years of working with multinationals and traveling by swish cars and swish airlines to places around the world. But then, it was Heeya’s call.

 

Just a background on the place I am talking about. Dhemaji is the HQ of the district by the same name on the northern bank of River Brahmaputra in Assam, and ‘blessed’ with a lot of small and big rivers – and thus – as you can imagine, it has earned the reputation of being the most flooded place in the whole world. So although the main livelihood is agriculture, because of perennial floods, the other sources of sustenance, that is livestock and weaving, are equally important.

 

The Mishings – they are undoubtedly one of the best weavers of the country, but then who knows them? Sadly, very few people, as their work is mostly confined to Assam at the most if not their own villages. Thus, the need to expose the craft is huge, as also the livelihood support it promises. This is not easy as it is only women that weave (the men in Assam will not or cannot weave to save their skin). With household chores, looking after children, rearing the pigs and hens and then weaving… it is mostly a hobby. However, the group that we work actually does it in a more organised manner. The group, which receives some support from a local NGO, houses women and girls in its facilities with six looms where they weave uninterrupted.  Along with this, they also work with women across the village who choose to work from their homes. A real example of blended office/work-from-home we all are so familiar with. And we thought the MNCs brought this concept?

 

And here, amongst the ten odd women, was Nuhadita who lived in the accommodation with her little son and wove for a living. Her husband lived in the village, about 20 kilometres away.

 

When I first met her in my trip in November 2012, I sensed she was different. Slight, with a pair of small but sparkling eyes and friendly demeanor, she was someone who knows what she is doing, what she is good at. She wore chador mekhela like every married woman does in the village, without the gero wrapped around her bust. She was with her little son, about 4 years; a little elfin with a perpetually running nose, bare feet and an impish grin. He went to the school the NGO runs.

 

A teacher in a primary school earlier, she was the one I was introduced to as ‘our expert weaver’. Being a Mising tribe woman, she could also speak Assamese more fluently than all the others, quite obviously as she was a school teacher in an Assamese medium school.

 

But now she was an expert weaver.  One who could weave dreams.

 

And also help others weave dreams.

 

She was an organiser and a trouble-shooter.

 

She would organise the team with the tasks, choose the yarn colors, decide the motifs, lay out the warp and make it ready for weaving. Help others negotiate a difficult pattern.

 

Nuhadita Pegu. The last time I met her in May 2013, I had shared my big plan with her.  ‘Can I really be aiming for something like that, Baidew?’ She asked me. ‘Yes, definitely, it’s possible’. I had assured her – I knew she could do it.  Having seen her work in the earlier visit, I knew that Nuhadita had the makings of a Master weaver. Intricate motifs, tight weaving, choice of colors, clean float… everything had the making of a master weaver, an award winning weaver. A national award winner.

 

In Guwahati, before I left for Dhemaji, I had met the officials in Weavers’ Service Centre.  My objective was to ask for support in my work with helping market access for work of the co-operative groups: buy improvised looms, provide good quality yarn, etc.  Products that would be world class for discerning customers. And of course, also to be able to recognise the weavers for their craft, help them keep it alive and help it thrive. Give the women a voice.

 

After a somewhat lackadaisical approach and cynical view, they shared more about what it takes to get an award. The criteria were simple – an unstitched piece of woven cloth with exquisite, clean weaving, with the right choice of colors. Of course, everything about it had to be of high quality, starting from the yarn to the finishing. I knew I had to go for this, come what may!

 

The best of silk or cotton, whatever she was comfortable with. The rewards were good – a lakh or two of rupees and traveling around the country for exhibitions with the Ministry of textiles’ sponsorship. Not bad for someone who has not stepped out of her village. We decided we would do a sample first and then go for the final one once we were pleased, explored ways of improvising it etc.

 

And so the project started. I had an exquisite pattern in mind for the sample. The motif was there on a chador. It was a head turner when I once wore it in Bangalore – at least five women asked me for one with the same pattern. I discussed the pattern with her, the yarn and colors. We discussed the timeline. She agreed – it would be completed in three months.

 

That was May 2013. I waited. And waited… patiently. There was love being created by Nuhadita. I had to be patient. She was unwell, I was told and could not do as fast as she said she would. And of course there was other random work too, at times.  I did not worry too much, I knew something awesome was being created.

 

December 2013.  Finally the beauty was in my hands. And sure enough!!  When I received the couriered package, I was plain ecstatic to see the final piece. A masterpiece with 7 colours and a weave that felt like velvet to my touch.

 

I called her immediately to tell her how beautiful it was. I knew this was going to make an exquisite saree. And at that moment I knew this was it –  we would do the same pattern on natural dyed mulberry silk with natural dyed silk threads. The result would be gorgeous, I could envision it.

 

And then came the New Year. I called her to wish, as I do with all the others – however I didn’t get to speak to her, so I left a message with her husband. And sure enough she called back.

 

I was in the midst of something important so just wished her and hung up, saying I’d talk to her later. I did want to discuss her dream (and mine too) the big project with her. To help her weave a masterpiece that could compete for a national award.

 

Life is queer. I remembered her many a time but something was not right, so I postponed. I postponed for a whole two weeks. Little did I realsie it was too late. Too late to even tell her how much I appreciate her work. Let alone discuss a new project. I called Usha one fine day, the secretary of the group.

 

“How are things, Usha?’ I asked.

 

Silence. A good 5 seconds

 

‘Not good, Baidew’, she said. This was the first time she said this since I knew her.

 

I wondered what might have prompted her to say that.

 

‘Nuhadita passed away on 19th – today was the Tiloni’, she added. Tiloni is the third day ritual. Exactly three days after she passed away

 

Did I hear right? Sorry, Usha… who, what??

 

‘Nuhadita died…’

 

I could not believe it. Felt a lump in my throat. Felt a shiver down my spine. What happened? Images flitted in my head- her smile, my last conversation, our new project, her little son… her expert hands… everything became a blur….

 

What happened?

 

‘She was complaining of severe headaches;  she was at home , felt her head swoon,  fell to the ground and became unconscious – we rushed her to the hospital – took her to Silapathar, to the Dhemaji  Hospital, nothing worked.’ Usha added. She also went on to say that she had a persistent headache while weaving. Usha planned to bring her to Guwahati for an MRI scan but it was too late.

 

Nuhadita’s smile flashed. I remembered the day when I had left the last time I visited them, and how she came to the bus station to me off. And how we were discussing – her eagerness to start, her dreams of making it to an award.

 

Seeing this beautiful creation that she made,  which she took six months, with a severe headache, with possibly a tumour in her head, I realised that this is truly special.

 

I looked at the saree I put together with her trademark Mising weave in it. The colours seem more resplendent than ever before, the weave seemed like a piece of art. Worth nothing less than a national award in itself.

 

I remembered her son. He would be so proud of his mother if he knew she was such an artist. He would have been so proud if his mother indeed made it to a national award.

 

‘Baidew..’

 

I came back to the present. ‘I need to go now, Baidew. Lot of stuff to do. We have a meeting tomorrow to discuss who is going to replace Nuhadita since she was the accountant of our group too.’ Usha’s voice trailed..

 

She is really gone. This Nuhadita. A life snuffed out too soon.

 

An eerie feeling came over me… I couldn’t put my finger in it. Sadness, yes. Helplessness, yes. But more.

 

I felt guilty. For no apparent reason. I didn’t know she had a headache, I didn’t know she was suffering. I didn’t know she might be having a tumour. All I knew she was creating something with love. With her heart and soul.

 

Could I have done something if I did? Yes, possibly. I could have asked an immediate MRI scan to be organised and footed her bill. She could have been treated. And got better. We could have tried our best. We could have at least known.

 

And now she’s no more. I made a mental resolve to organise a medical camp this time on my visit in April. With prior experience of doing one in Bangalore, may be this will help in organising one there.

 

And her son. Her little son. One with the running nose, who hid behind his mother’s chador all the time when I met him. What better way to cherish her good work than to ensure her son’s future. So I decided – I will start a fixed deposit in his name. To seal it, I called Usha and told her. When I go in April. She agreed, it would be good.

 

Something that he will be able to use for his education. To grow big, strong and in good health. Well educated, academically or otherwise. A good citizen.

 

Rest in peace, Nuhadita.

 

Jonali Saikia Khasnabish is based at Bangalore and is the founder of Heeya, an organisation that connects the rich textile and craft heritage of the North East to the rest of the world. Heeya’s focus is to help build sustainable livelihoods and also preserve/revive the authentic art and craft forms of the region. Jonali is an alumnus of IIM Bangalore, Gauhati University and Cotton College. Prior to Heeya, she was working with a global multinational with a total of 16 years of corporate working experience. Jonali is also part of several social initiatives in Bangalore, working with several local organisations.