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Shinjini Kumar Is Road Tripping From Mumbai to Mukteshwar: How She Reaches Ahmedabad

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Careers are like journeys. Very rarely are they executed as planned. Most of the time, they are full of surprises; pleasant and unpleasant. They involve making choices as you go, having fun, signing up companions and sometimes, ending up with frustrations and regrets. This is what I was thinking, in March when I completed thirty years in financial services. Mine was an accidental foray into FS. I started as a wide-eyed English Literature student, with the ambition to be a truth-seeking journalist (no irony there), but when I found myself in RBI in the heyday of India’s economic liberalisation, it was too heady to say no. The learning was phenomenal and after meandering through institutions ranging from consulting to startup to multinational banks, I was thankful for a memorable trip. But also, I was ready to disrupt myself again and start a new journey. While that is a story for another day, let’s get back to me in March. I did feel a bit like a good carpet that has been in the same place for a while. I needed a good dusting and bright sunshine. And nothing does it for me like a long road trip! After seven months of running everything from my avocado orders to bank branches from home, I needed to sit in a car, wear sarees, sunglasses, sneakers; everything that was locked up, like me and needed its share of the sun.

Also Read: TravelHer: Of Road Trips Pre And Post The Offspring

Travelling During A Pandemic

Travel for sightseeing has never been my thing. And this time around, I was very clear I wanted to feel a connect deeper with people I would like to continue to work for. It’s clear to me that whatever I will do will have something to do with women, money and technology. Also, anything we will do will need to lead to behavioural change to expand the market. So, I wanted to meet people who have done this in their own ways; people who have inspired me. Why, even people whose stories have inspired me! I wanted to meet women who have worked on the field to change attitudes (especially of women) towards health, nutrition, finances or using their phones to access useful information. What works when you are trying to change behaviour? What is the role of an influencer? What does money really mean to women? How has COVID-19 been for their families, work, handing of money? Simple questions. And we put some stuff in the car and looked for a destination. Or more than one destination, if the first one goes well.

Road Trip: Mumbai to Mukteshwar

Mumbai to Mukteshwar is the first part of the road trip. I will do this one with my husband because his work in rural livelihoods has been causing me much curiosity and admiration in the last few years. We will stop on the way in Ahmedabad, Udaipur, Ajmer, Delhi and we will continue to meet people while we are in the hills. Since a couple of days will be spent just driving and sleeping. I will write up a four-part series. Or five, if I have an eventful one!

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Reaching Ahmedabad

We will spend the day in Ahmedabad today. We have the most gracious hosts. I started this journey to satisfy a curiosity about how women deal with their finances in the current age in general and during COVID-19 pandemic in particular. And I am a sucker for stories. My day starts well with the story of Amita’s mother, a parliamentarian who married her father, a minister in Gujarat who had left his studies to join the national movement, inspired by Gandhi’s speech for which he walked overnight. This much younger woman heard the speech and decided she wanted to marry him. He, on the other hand, had pledged to not marry and not earn any money….

Also Read: What A Long-Distance Cab Ride Taught Me About All-Women Road Trips

Once in the car, worries around COVID-19 fade quickly, as heavy traffic hits us in Dahisar. Our tech-savvy driver consults his app and announces that we will be stuck here for an hour because there is construction work going on ahead. All around us are trucks of different shapes and sizes. Trucks are on the roads, all is well with the world! We eat our breakfast, I get onto a call and life seems normal. All three of us (our driver and us) did a COVID-19 test before leaving, so we feel comfortable enough to sit in the car without our masks. I give us a thumbs up.

It’s striking how male our highways are

I look out for women everywhere, find some running food and toys stalls when we get close to Surat, but they are still a small minority. So, when a car breaks down and three women and a man come out to push the car, it feels good in a weird way.

I confess to being an unorganised traveller this time. After years of travelling with family, when all your mental bandwidth is taken up by logistics, I now yearn for a little unpredictability. So, we decide to make a detour at Udwada and go see the famous fire temple and one of the first homes of Parsis in India.

Perviz at Udwada

Four hours from Mumbai and the sun begins to become kind and wintry. Perviz sits in her breezy verandah with her well-arranged hair and welcoming smile. There is solid, old furniture and the trademark wooden plank on a swing. Inside, I can see a hall full of chairs, like a hostel dining room. This used to be a place to train young priests, a Madrasa, but now the children do not want to become priests. “They want to have fancy jobs, so there is no one to teach”, she says. This is a guest house/Dharamsala and she has been running it for the past seven years. COVID-19 does not seem to have impacted her and her regular clients, although she herself spent the first four months of the lockdown in Mumbai.

The women outside the fire temple have a different story to tell. As soon as my car drives into the lane, they surround me to buy papad. I tell them I can only buy one or two and not one from each one. But they are full of their woes. They make the papad at home (seems like a suspicious assertion given that all the papads look exactly the same) and sales are very poor since COVID-19 and they need to feed families, etc. I buy some. No digital payment here. It’s all cash. I wonder how much time it will take for this economy of tourists and papads to get back to ‘normal’ and leave Udwada. I wish more of our small towns and places were as clean and well maintained, resisting the temptation to bring down the old and create ugly structures instead.

In Ahmedabad, we always manage to lose our way, thanks to Google maps. But we finally reach the home of our gracious hosts. Not bad timing at all, considering all the stops we made on the way. And here, we meet Sonal.
Sonal came to Ahmedabad from Mumbai when she got married. She says her father was the one who took care of the money in the family and was the wealth creator. “Have you realised how hard it is for us to manage money, because it’s that one more thing to do?” She says. “Also,  this whole messaging that somehow you cannot do it. That it is too complex.”

Sonal in Ahmedabad

When Sonal got interested in correcting the excessive toxicity in clothes in this city of myriad chemical hues, she decided to learn more about it on her own. “It occurred to me that it was weird that on the one hand humans wanted to invest in making self-driving cars and talking gadgets to improve our quality of lives, and on the other, we were eating, drinking and wearing all this toxicity. It did not feel right and I decided to do something about it.” Ironically, Sonal’s husband was in the business of chemicals. But once she started in this direction, they both set up a company to make sustainable dyes and fabrics and find the market for such products.

Also Read: Citigroup’s Shinjini Kumar to step down, Plans A Startup

I like how Sonam challenges the stereotype of the good businessperson doing good for the craftspersons. “If you keep saying they are poor and need support, all you will get is charity. And how long is that going to sustain them? So, you have to actually talk about how bright and smart and wise they are and that also happens to be true. And once you begin to understand how much they (the traditional artisans and dyers) know and what that can do for the world, the game can easily change.”

Sonal believes attitudes towards sustainability are already changing and COVID-19 will change them faster. “People are already more willing to listen when they realise toxicity impacts immunity or lungs. As she readies to launch her brand and scale and raise money, she emphasises the importance of wealth creation and learning how to do things like taxes or regulatory compliance. “It is not always easy to figure out whom to ask. I depended on my Dad, but now he is not in a position to do this for me. And if I ask an accountant or a family member, I feel like I need to validate and cross-check that, so sometimes I ask not just my accountant but a friends’ accountant also.”

Also Read: Women Discuss The Importance Of Taking Charge & Chance With Money

The last question I ask her, is about how she is ensuring that her 27-year-old daughter does not have the same challenges with money as her. She says she has been very particular that her daughter started to save and invest ‘right from the start’…”So, who did she learn from”, I ask her. “Oh, friends, one of our friends who works in this field”, she answers with some discomfort. I chuckle inwardly and move on. For someone so smart who can teach herself the mysteries of chemical dyes and natural colours and what is good for the earth, leaving the learning of money in the hands of a man, just any man, seems too ironic, but not at all unusual!

Picture Credit: Shinjini Kumar

The views expressed are the author’s own. 

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