Radhika Kavathkar, who lost her vision at the age of 22 to an undiagnosed complication, has not only made herself independent, but has helped over 10 women earn a living by founding a self-help group.
“Please come inside Aditi, give me 10 minutes to finish this and I’ll be right with you,” she says even before I could announce my arrival. I oblige and take my seat in the corner as I observe her at work. Tall, slender and quick, she is working fast at the paper folding machine. Within 10 minutes, she finishes the bunch of wedding cards next to her as promised and comes to sit next to me.
Her name is Radhika Kavathkar. As I am observing the little shop and the things kept in there, she sets two cups on the table and fills them with tea from the thermos. Then she leaves the shop and returns in five minutes with a packet of biscuits in her hands.
She sets the packet down on the table and smiling, asks me what I want to know.
I go silent, rewording my questions in my mind. For the past 15 minutes, I have seen this woman break all the stereotypes about being a visually impaired person. She is an entrepreneur, a social leader and an independent woman. That’s her only identity that I have seen so far. Sensing my silence, she takes the conversation in her own hands.
“It is a new business. I only bought this machine a month ago and I am still trying to find a steady customer base. But I am sure I will get more orders with time,” she informs.
“And what were you doing before that?” I inquire.
Forty-year-old Radhika worked for over 10 years in a machine repair shop in Pune. She got the job through an acquaintance and confesses that she had a hard time convincing the owner that she could do it. The shop worked with machines like paper cutting machines and the job also required the ability to operate the machines besides repairing them. The nature of the work was rather dangerous for someone with visual impairment and the owner didn’t want to risk it. Finally, when Radhika took the entire responsibility in case some accident happened, she was allowed to work.
“It took me a bit longer to get used to the machines. But after about 15 days, I was a pro! I can repair this machine and any similar machine for that matter, in no time, you know,” she says, pointing towards the paper folding machine that stands in the corner.
Radhika lost her vision to an undiagnosed complication that occurred during her pregnancy. Born in a middle class family in Pune, she got married at the age of 19. For the sake of marriage, she had to leave her education after completing second year of BA. It was during her pregnancy that she started having some trouble with her vision.
“It wasn’t very noticeable at the beginning. I thought it was because of the stress or that I needed spectacles! My entire focus was on the baby to come and therefore I didn’t pay much attention to the vision issue. I was still able to see after the birth of my daughter, but then the rate at which my vision was fading increased and within a few months, I couldn’t see anything,” recalls Radhika.
It was a sudden challenge for her. Having lived her whole life with perfect vision, it took her a long time to adjust to the new reality of her life. The bigger blow came when her husband decided to separate from her. Radhika was back to her parents’ home with her newborn, struggling for direction.
“I didn’t know what to do. I searched a lot for a job before I started to work at the machine repair shop. Nobody was ready to employ me, even when I wasn’t expecting any favours. I just wanted to work- I was ready to toil and earn my bread,” she says.
She worked at a jewellery shop, in a PR agency as well as in the sales department of a company before landing the job at the machine repair shop. An acquaintance of hers, Mrs Kadekar, once suggested she turn her talent of making pickles into a business.
Radhika readily brought together ten women from her neighbourhood who were in need of money and formed a self-help group called Swami Samartha Bachat Gat.
“All of these women were my acquaintances- most of them were working as domestic help in the neighbourhood. I taught them my pickle recipes and started selling these homemade pickles. We’d also sell different items of Vaalvan like kurdai, papdi, mirgund and sandge (the Maharashtrian variants of fryums). Our Bachat Gat recently completed its second cycle of 10 years and was resolved. In June, we’ll be starting with the third cycle and this time, we will also start making some textile items like quilts and cloth bags along with pickles,” says Radhika.
When I ask about her dreams, she smiles and informs me that there are many. A natural at cooking, she wants to start her own catering business with the help of the Bachat Gat members. She also wants to involve them in her current business of selling packed chopped veggies and develop a self-sufficient enterprise out of it.
“I feel that everyone goes through some or the other trouble. Someone has an alcoholic husband, while some other girl has abusive in-laws. Problems truly are unending. What matters is how you deal with them, isn’t it? I tell anyone who comes to me with their domestic problems- don’t cry, make yourself stronger. Become financially independent and stand your own ground,” she says.
At this point, Sangita, who helps Radhika run the veggies business enters with a load of vegetables and sets it all on the floor. Radhika gets up quickly, settles down on the floor and starts chopping the vegetables with the same ease and quickness that she worked with on the paper folding machine. As I say goodbye and walk out of her shop, I am quite sure of how an empowered woman looks!