FIGHT is not a bad word
by Calvina Nguyen and Janet Rogers
The sun breaks through the early morning mist, promising a new day and illuminating the fragrant pyramids of spices Samadini is measuring as she prepares to cook some of her favorite dishes. Goats have nestled on some still-warm ashes from last night’s fire, while a hen gathers her brood of chicks under her wing. The morning air is still chilly in the open courtyard behind the simple mud house where Samadini lives with her mother, father, three-year-old daughter, and her unmarried sisters.
Samadini takes each ingredient one by one, just as her mother and grandmother did before her, as she begins to reflect on her life’s journey.
Duck is cut into small pieces and marinated in masala. Onions are finely chopped and sautéed in mustard oil in her kadai, a traditional cooking pot. Garlic and ginger are pulverised before being added to the bubbling aromatic golden curry. The clay stove, made and used in India for centuries, is fueled with discarded stalks from the latest crops harvested by Samadini’s father.
Nothing is wasted here; there is a use for everything. Leftover oil from cooking is poured into a bottle—the little that spills outside the bottle, taken by Samadini and rubbed into her long dark hair.
Before we married, my husband was in love with someone else. I used to be their messenger and carried their love letters to one another. Instead of her, though, he had to marry me.
Samadini is the oldest of five daughters. With seven mouths to feed, her father’s meager income as a field laborer was not enough to feed the family through the year. Her family found the best solution they could think of to alleviate their financial pressure: Samadini was sent off to marriage at the young age of 13. Looking down, she reflects, “Before we married, my husband was in love with someone else. I used to be their messenger carrying their love letters to one another. Instead of her, though, he had to marry me.”
Their relationship was strained from the start. Her husband was not educated, and his parents pressured her to stop school, as it is not socially acceptable for a wife to be more educated than her husband. “I know this is not a good quality to have,” she admits, “but whenever I feel that something is not fair, I protest!” Instead of quelching her education, her natural fighting spirit inspired her to work even harder—and soon her grades soared; she went on to finish high school at the top of her class. Seeds of possibility were planted in her and her eyes opened. She started to think about what she was capable of, and dreams started taking shape beyond the perceived boundaries of her life.
As she continues her story, her daughter Sindhu comes in, crying and upset. Samadini scoops her up in her arms and soothes her with kisses and soft whispers. She proceeds while holding her daughter close to her…
I finally ran away, because I could not live where I was not respected.
Living with her husband and in-laws was never easy. She was mistreated in both actions and words. Though Samadini refrains from delving into the details, her story is punctuated with pauses and there is a tension that now runs through her voice as she decides how much to tell. “I finally ran away, because I could not live where I was not respected, “she confides. “I took my daughter and ran to a friend who took me in for a while.” To this day, Samadini has never revealed the identity of her friend for fear that her husband’s family will press charges.
After weeks of being alone, afraid, and far away from home with her small child, Samadini’s sense of uncertainty and desperation finally led her to contact her mother, who embraced Samadini’s pain and hurt with gracious and unexpected compassion. Defying traditional practice, her mother welcomed Samadini back home and promised never to force her daughter to return to her husband. While many in her community would have responded to a runaway daughter with shame, Samadini’s mother answered with courageous love and acceptance: they endured the leering glances of their neighbors and scraped whatever money they had to feed the now two extra mouths in their household.
Shortly after her return, as chance would have it, Samadini was introduced to Freeset Fabrics. Her sister-in-law was offered the opportunity to train and work with the new freedom business, producing handloom fabric and scarves, in a nearby village. Hearing that Freeset Fabrics provides employment to those who are most vulnerable, Samadini applied and, telling her story to compassionate ears in the process, was later offered the opportunity to join as a trainee.
It has been two years since Samadini joined Freeset Fabrics, but not without a tumultuous start. In the years she lived with her husband and in-laws, she unknowingly discovered—and honed—her fighting voice until it became instinctual: she was ready to fight whenever anything displeased her. Born of frustration, then maturing to anger, it led her to stand up and proclaim, “Enough!”—whether truly justified or not. She began her journey at Freeset Fabrics in the same combative attitude, fighting through—and sometimes against—learning, understanding, adjusting, and fitting in, creating tensions with her cohorts but also generating an energy that enabled her to overcome her adversities. For better or for worse, her strong, fiery nature molded her first years at her new job.
Through time, Samadini learned to trust and work collaboratively with those in Freeset’s safe environment. This, along with her tenacity and hard work, has set her apart and allowed her to flourish at her job. She not only learned to weave, but her years of schooling equipped her for the complex processes of production: preparing the warp for the loom, drumming, and drafting. Soon she was promoted to Production Assistant to the Master Weaver and most recently to the role of Trainer, in which she has demonstrated her ability to teach and lead others. Never one to shy away from a challenge, Samadini says with a big smile on her face, “Seeing everyone so ready to learn, trying their best, and progressing gives me real job satisfaction. The new trainees are competitive and want to do well!”
Freeset Fabrics has given Samadini—a young woman ready to fight—something to fight for.
Samadini’s instinct to fight for herself has also turned into a passion to fight for justice for all those around her, as she has become a voice for the women she works with and routinely speaks up on their behalf. Freeset Fabrics has given Samadini—a young woman ready to fight—something to fight for. And it has also given her a group of people, as well as a resource, she can depend on. No longer a burden on her family, she is now the chief provider—earning even more than her father and is supporting the family who used to support her, the family that loves her so unconditionally.
As we finish the last of the duck masala and pulao, the spirited shrieks and laughter of children pour in from the courtyard and fill the upper room, our retreat for lunch and intimate conversation: Samadini’s younger sisters and little daughter Sindhu are playing together with some other kids in the village. Inside the room the air is thick with silence as we soak in every word, tears filling our eyes—except for Samadini’s, whose eyes remain clear with a sense of steadiness and determination.
We make our way back down the mud stairs, the hot afternoon sun now beating on the veranda where Samadini was preparing food only hours ago. She begins packing up. She turns to tell us that she and Sindhu are headed to visit her husband and his family. He has recently been asking her to return to him, and while her initial response was “no”, she wants her daughter to know her father and grandparents. He has been persistent and remorseful, so finally she agreed to visit him on weekends only. “The only way I will go back to him is if he and his family give me the respect I deserve,” she maintains, her voice steady with resolve. “And most importantly, I must continue to work at Freeset Fabrics.” She goes into another room and changes out of her house dress and puts on a flowing red sari trimmed with gold. She emerges fresh, beautiful, and dignified. Whatever she does from this point on, she does on her own terms.