When I recently performed in Jodhpur in India we happened to visit a spice shop. The shop was called MV Spices and it sat in the shadows of the city’s famous clock tower. The various guide books all mentioned that this shop sold the best spices, but it wasn’t until you heard the stories of the women who actually ran the shop, that you realised that MV Spices was no ordinary spice merchant.
Taking a look around the shop, you weren’t quite sure what was different – but then it dawned on you. Unlike pretty much all other shops in India, this shop was entirely run by women, who were taking the centre stage of this amazing place. The story of MV Spices and what happened when seven daughters inherited a business (in the 21st century) is as much a testament to the women’s courage, as it is an indictment on the often enormous male/female division that still separates the country as a whole.
Go to Jodhpur and you can see this living story at first hand. If you can’t get to India, then the story of MV Spices and the Verhomal family has now also been captured on film. Mitu Bhowmick Lange’s The Spice Girls of India has been shown at several festivals around the world and I hope that we will soon get to see it again here in the UK.
The film shows a family of normal sisters – they like dancing, cooking and Youtube. They all have normal sisterly relationships with each other. They live in Jodhpur. It could be in London, or Washington DC or…anywhere in the world. The normalcy of their everyday lives is abruptly ended however, when we learn of a dowry killing; their friend is murdered when the final financial transaction proved unsatisfactory to the groom’s family. Marriage in India is not all about the designer dress and the colour of the wedding favours – it’s a (sometimes) brutal business deal.
The Verhomal family comprises seven girls. Their father (like all “normal” Indian men) wanted a son. After his wife gave birth to their seventh daughter it became pretty obvious to them both that this was never going to happen. Mr Verhomal knew that this meant he would have to work hard, but instead of demonising his girls he called them the “seven wonders of the world.” He strove to give them a good education (they all speak several languages) and he established his spice business from scratch to ensure their financial well-being.
When their father died suddenly, the women were under immediate attack. Not only from fellow spice traders, but incredibly, also from family members. The men around them attempted to wrestle control of the business from them. Slurs on their name rapidly turned to threats and physical abuse. The eldest sister Usha left university to work and had to watch as her father’s old employees left the business, one by one, stealing her father’s trade secrets and setting up in competition close by.
An (unsuccessful) acid attack on sister Nikki, as well as the threat of prison – it’s all been hurled at these women – whose only crime was to want to carry on running their family business. Fast forward and things are a lot brighter. Now the locals refer to the “head sister” Usha as the “Spicy Lioness of the Clocktower” and the younger sister Nikki dreams of opening a shop in Paris. In 2011 the girls explained to BBC World Service how finally women are becoming more visible in the work place as they are now joining their husbands in the city’s shops. Their own (female) cousins are now all asking to join their family businesses. The girls explain how in the large part it was down to their mother who strongly defended their right to work in the face of vociferous opposition from their own “uncles and aunties.” The family fought and they survived. In 2005 when the girls’ father died he had two spice shops. Now they have five. If you ever go to Jodhpur then do stop off for tea!
It is stories like this that inspire me and give all women the hope and courage to fight against what we call politely “gender equality” but what is in reality the brutal and uncivilised discrimination against women rights.
Karen Ruimy is the founder of the GREAT Initiative. Her new show, in part inspired by her travels in India is entitled ZIK’R. Catch it at the Lilian Baylis Studio at Sadler’s Wells on June 18th. For tickets please visit http://www.karenruimy.com
Follow Karen Ruimy on Twitter: http://bit.ly/1fE6YWc
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