Most of our grandmothers are gentle, soft and have put us to bed narrating mythological stories. My father’s mother, or Amma, as we fondly called her – was a fierce lady. The stories she narrated were also that of adventure and courage, but they were true stories of herself and her business. I always imagine that if I had a symbol to represent her, it would be that of a lioness.
Amma’s real name was Krishna Jain. She was born in Hathras, Uttar Pradesh. Perhaps that partially explains where the toughness comes from, although I wish I had more information about her maternal family. I am her youngest grandchild, so by the time I reached an age where I could understand much – she had already passed the prime years of her business. As a 4-5 year old child, I sat with her workers while they stitched colourful clothes and entertained me with their stories on many hot summer afternoons in Jaipur. When I looked at her from wherever I sat in her busy workshop, I didn’t know how extraordinary she was at the time. But I did know that she was the boss, at home and outside.
Amma’s business was called Jaiswal kutir udyog, which essentially means cottage industry. She ran a garment business for 40 years where she stitched clothes using Jaipuri prints that were sold across the country through exhibitions, a shop in delhi and to celebrities, royalty and foreigners who visited her workshop that was set up in the garage at our home. For many years, I thought our home was called deetu. In retrospect, that is a very odd name for a house but as kids we don’t really judge what is odd and what is not. It was only when I grew much older did I realize that the house number was D-2, and hence the name.
To describe why I think of her as a lioness, the first thing that comes to mind is the story of how someone tried to steal her ring. It makes me smile as I think of it, because it’s funny that anybody even tried to mess with her. She literally slapped him hard across his face until he admitted his theft and returned it. Such, was Amma.
She often had to travel to different cities during her exhibitions, her sons tell me that the other sellers used to fight to get the counter next to hers because it would always be the counter with the most crowd. During one such travel, while she stayed alone at a hotel – she got a call from a stranger through the intercom threatening that he would come into her room at night. Instead of fleeing, Amma asked him to dare come inside and countered his threat by claiming she has a gun on her. Such, was Amma.
At the time that there was no paytm or card machine, Amma’s team collected cash for the clothes they sold. She used to tell me the crowd was so insane that they had no time to count their sales. They would stitch the money back into their pillows and safeguard it under their head while returning by train.
Her business had a humble beginning, as she started by knitting designer sweaters for a shop in the neighborhood. Many of their clients would cut out photos from magazines and ask for custom-made designs that were not easily available. These were difficult to stich and most people refused to make them. But Amma knitted them exactly like the photo and the shop keeper would pay her a portion of the sale value for her work. One day, someone from the royal family came and asked for a particular design which Amma quickly knitted herself. The customer was so impressed with her work, that she insisted she meets the maker. Of course, the shop keeper refused to introduce them because he would lose his business if they started buying directly from her. So, the customer went lane by lane around the neighborhood asking to meet Mrs Krishna Jain, she bumped into my uncle who was a young child at the time and he took her to deetu. After that, there was no turning back.
Amma’s Prime Time
Her main sales started through the Rajasthan Emporium managed by the state government to provide a platform to local handicrafts. One year, the government decided to change to a bidding system to get a counter and gave the highest bidder monopoly in their category. Previously, they used to have many sellers in each category and each individual counter wouldn’t make that much money. In the new system, the seller was supposed to give 10% of the promised revenue amount to the government as a minimum guarantee to get a counter.
She desperately needed the counter so she bid that they would make 4 lac rupees that year. In all the previous years they had never made more than Rs 40,000 – so this was a HUGE risk. At the end of the year, theirs was the only counter in the whole of Rajasthan that was able to pay the minimum guaranteed amount from the sales. There were stories of other sellers shutting their businesses or even committing suicide because their debt was so large due to the bidding system. But, she knew there would be no reward without taking a risk. Such, was Amma.
Amma and I in 2004
I haven’t mentioned that she raised 4 children while doing everything else that she did. Her children and their children learnt and adopted some of her signature habits. If I think of her at home, I think of abundance in everything she did. I remember once my mom mentioned that the green peas in Jaipur were sweeter than Bangalore, so she hand peeled 5kgs of them and sent it along with us to freeze and enjoy throughout the year. She knew I liked bhindi and chole bhature, and wouldn't eat breakfast without Bournvita and Chocos so there was not a single vacation that I spent in Jaipur without eating that in her house. When she sent us greeting cards, she would send someone to the shop and tell them, “get the biggest card in the shop.” Another time she was visiting us during my birthday and her instructions were to get me the biggest teddy bear they could find. She was already aging and had health problems by then, but that never stopped her from living the way she wanted.
By the time I knew her, she never settled for anything less than fabulous. She had an exquisite collection of sarees. She not just had the best of the best utensils to cook, but also had so many of them. As we prepped for my grandfather’s funeral lunch in their kitchen last week, my mother remembers an incident when someone asked Amma why she had so many huge vessels. She laughed and responded saying, “When we die, our children will need something to serve the guests during our funeral. Mere bacho ko kabhi pareshani nahi honi chahiye.” Such, was Amma.
For as long as she was healthy, I remember her calling the parlor ladies to get a pedicure done at home. Every night, she always used the Shehnaz Hussain face cream because that was the best during that time. And why not? She was a self-made woman who had earned the luxury she enjoyed.
Her sister’s husband was an IAS officer and during the time she spent with them, she realized how great their life was in a big bungalow, servants to do all their all their work and all expenses paid for. Although it didn’t go that far, perhaps that was what she was seeking to create for her family too.
She always wanted at least one of her grandchildren to join the civil services and enjoy the same life, but none of us took that route. None of her children took over her business either, so eventually she had to wind down and close. What we have left is a few photos and her spirit.
But I take solace in the fact that she was proud of me for choosing entrepreneurship. Her last year of consciousness was the first year of my business and she had just read in the newspaper that a chef received the Padmashri award for the first time. Now she didn’t quite understand that I was not a chef, but she always said, “beta hum rahe ya na rahe, tujhe bhi milega.” Which means – whether we are alive or not, you will also gain the same recognition. When she talked about me, she would beam with pride and say, "Megna is a business woman like her grandmother."
The last account that I had heard about her was when she was being discharged from the ICU. The doctors were taking time and making the family run around for paperwork. She was still sharp enough to realize what was happening so she called one of the nurses and threatened, “If you trouble my children, I will call Rajasthan Patrika and complain about you.” They didn’t want an 85 year old calling the leading newspaper in the state – so they wrapped up her discharge super quick. Such, was Amma.
She left us on my 24th birthday and my father believes she passed on her path to tread to me. Now those are very big words, but I know I stand on the shoulders of giants. From a time when she didn’t have the money to buy scissors to make a sweater, Krishna Jain built a garment business that flourished for 40 years.
She left us with the spirit where her children are not afraid to work hard or dream big. I can only attempt to carry on her legacy the way she deserved.
In my father’s words, “Amma lived a life that was big, bold and benevolent.” And that is exactly why, she’s my inspiration.