Monday, June 22, 2015

The Paper Tigresses of Kochi

To help a friend overcome financial woes, Diwia Thomas began Papertrail, an outfit that makes paper bags and products. Now it is helping hundreds of troubled women to earn a living  

By Shevlin Sebastian 

Photos by Ratheesh Sundaram

One day, in November, 2008, Diwia Thomas dropped in at the home of her friend Susan George (name changed) at Kochi. After a while, she asked Susan for a cup of tea. Susan said that there was no milk. So Diwia replied that she was okay with a cup of black tea. When Susan returned from the kitchen, she said, “You are my closest friend. Why should I hide things from you? We have not had milk for a while. George's business has failed. We are in financial trouble.”

Susan belonged to an upper middle-class family. She could not go for work, because her son went to school at 7 a.m. and returned at 12 p.m. The daughter left at 9 a.m., and returned at 2 p.m. “This meant she had only three hours, from 9 to 12 p.m., to do something,” says Diwia.

An upset Diwia went home and wondered what to do. Then she suddenly remembered that she had learnt paper bag-making in Bangalore, while on a visit, several years ago.

The next morning, she told Susan about this. Susan agreed. Diwia taught her to make them. Within a few days, Susan was able to make 60 bags in three hours. She was paid Rs 2 per bag. And that was how Diwia's outfit, ‘Papertrail’ began.

Today, there are hundreds of women who are making different products: newspaper bags, gift bags, lanterns, gift boxes, coasters, cards and pens made of paper. The products are supplied to restaurants, boutiques and corporates. For example: a leading Japanese car company gives a custom-made art paper bag to their customers. This is made by Papertrail.

Today, we make about 15,000 bags a month,” says Diwia. She has units in different parts of Kochi. But what is most interesting are the women who work for Papertrail. “They are the battered, abused, and abandoned,” says Diwia. “When a woman is thrown out on the streets by the husband, literally, with only her clothes on her back, she needs money to feed her children. So, we train them to make bags, so that they can earn quickly. ”

Sadly, abuse cuts across all strata of society. Meera Raghavan, 55, (name changed) stays in a tony neighbourhood in Kochi. However, her affluent businessman-husband is estranged from her, even though they are living in the same house. “He does not give any money to Meera,” says Diwia. “So she secretly makes paper bags to get some spending money.” Her only child, a married son, who is working in Australia, is unaware of this.

Asked about the advantages of an all-women workforce, Diwia says, “They are focused, trustworthy and responsible with finances. All the quality control is done by them. I tell them that the customers are theirs, not mine.”

But there are disadvantages, too. “They have mood swings,” says Diwia. “They become easily depressed. They feel a constant pressure from society. For centuries, women have stood beneath men. So they have a social conditioning which tells them that they cannot achieve anything without a man's help. But by doing this work, they develop self-confidence, courage and optimism.”

And Diwia is happy to do her bit. Her grandfather KB Jacob and her grand uncle were freedom fighters and Municipal Chairmen of Fort Kochi, while her father, Santhosh Burleigh, was a councillor of the Cochin Corporation. “We were taught that if you can do something for society, then you are doing something worthwhile,” says Diwia, a web strategist. “For me, Papertrail is my contribution.” 

(A slightly different version was published in Sunday Magazine, The New Indian Express, South India and Delhi)

No comments:

Post a Comment