22-year-old Shanti Mahli was very young when she lost her mother. Being the eldest daughter in her family of two younger sisters and father, a brick kiln worker, from a very young age, she had to do household chores. While young children cry for candies and toys, Shanti cried because her father beat her up for not cooking meals well, or when she did not feel like doing certain chores.
"I did not feel bad about moving away from my family. In fact, I was happy that I wouldn’t have to go through the agony that my father put me in every day," said Shanti
Hailing from a small village of Dulmi, which is an administrative division of Ramgarh district near Ranchi in Jharkhand and belonging to the Mahli tribe, Shanti told SheThePeople.TV, “Main bohot choti thi aur papa bohot torture karte the toh ek bhaiya the wo mujhe ek aunty uncle ke ghar chord diye phir main 2002 se unhi ke saath rehti thi.”
This meant that Shanti was hired as a house help to work at the house of Rae Bareli-based Vinod Gupta and Sarita Gupta. “I did not feel bad about moving away from my family. In fact, I was happy that I wouldn’t have to go through the agony that my father put me in every day,” she expressed how she felt when she moved out with the Gupta family.
Her job at her new home was to do household chores and it was there that Shanti first acquired an interest in cooking. “I learnt cooking from my aunty (Sarita). I watched her cook every day and helped her in the kitchen and that’s how I started learning cooking.”
While she wasn’t treated badly here, she wasn’t allowed to study. She did whatever was asked of her to do like cleaning and dusting the house, dishes etc for a small amount of Rs.250 a month, which went to bank account only accessible by her father.
When asked how she felt about working so much and not even keeping a single penny for herself, Shanti replied, “Mujhe toh accha lagta hi tha ki papa ki madad ho rahi hai. (I felt good that I could help my father in some way). ”
She toiled for 13 years, working at the couple’s house. Shanti used to play a bit with the couple's two daughters. But as they grew up, the elder girl got married and the younger one went off to college in another city. Now, Shanti started feeling alone in the house with no one to talk to, and so she expressed a desire to return home in 2015. By that time, Shanti’s income had increased to just Rs 1,000. Also, in the 13 years that she was with the Guptas, she could only go home twice to meet her sisters. The rest of the time, she had no touch with her family whatsoever.
“Main akele rehti thi toh isliye accha nahi lagta tha, aur aunty ko thoda bohot gussa aata tha toh, isliye aur accha nahi lagta tha (I was left alone which is why I start disliking it there and then aunty used to get a bit angry too, which is also why I didn’t I like it),” Shanti said about her later years at the Gupta house.
Shanti's story is quite common among the underprivileged and is a reflection of the state of labour in the unorganised sector. It also shows why despite laws, child labour continues in the country.
As Shanti returned to her house in Dulmi in 2015, again the looming sword of unemployment was on her head. She went around asking for employment and met a small NGO named Asha, where she started cooking meals every day for Rs 4,000 a month. This was the first time Shanti gained financial independence and kept the money for herself, instead of giving it to her father.
“I love making momos. I can make other delicacies too -- both in vegetarian and non-vegetarian. But now I want to learn different cuisines,” said Shanti
She worked there for a year. Then another NGO, Aahan Foundation, approached her after hearing about her culinary skills. Aahan encouraged her to pursue a career in cookery. About a year with the NGO, Shanti has gained courage to dream of becoming a chef and opening her own restaurant.
“I met Rashmi ma’am there (founder of Aahan Foundation, Rashmi Tiwari) who asked me why I was working for Rs 4,000 when I could open my own catering business if I enrol for a cookery course. That way, I can help others from my community too and improve their lives. I understood what she was trying to say and happily accepted the idea of upgrading my skill,” Shanti told SheThePeople.TV.
“I love making momos. I can make other delicacies too -- both in vegetarian and non-vegetarian, but now I want to learn different cuisines,” said Shanti.
Recently, Shanti has moved to Varanasi with the help of Gurugram resident Shilpi Sharma who she met through Aahan Foundation. In fact, it was Sharma who funded Shanti's admission in Granny’s Inn, where she is getting trained in hospitality. She is studying in class 2 to learn how to deal with guests, and acquire various skills related to the hospitality sector.
Shanti's life has been one of hardships, she does not consider herself as a victim. Though the road ahead is not easy, Shanti is ready to take life as it comes. It is this vivacity and spirit that sets Shanti apart and makes her an achiever in her own right.
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