Working joyfully at the WELL paper company, a women's cooperative.
“Good morning! How are you?” I call when I step barefoot into the workshop every morning. “Good morning, Tayka!” the chorus of women's voices greets me. I then go and sit down; they try to offer me a straw mat and to turn on the fan which I always refuse. The defining interactions for the next three hours are the smiles that we constantly exchange.
My name is Tayka Hesselgrave. I am an American university undergraduate who came to Auroville on a study-abroad programme. I was assigned to WELL paper (Women's Empowerment through Local Livelihood) a project of the Auroville Village Action Trust.
Nineteen Tamil women are part of the WELL paper company; a small cooperative that recycles wastepaper and makes utilitarian products for sale. They come from three different villages to work together. To me they are the most beautiful women in the world.
Aurovilians Danny and Orly started this project. They taught two groups of women a variety of skills – making long paper rolls from newsprint, product development, lessons in spoken English, production management, yoga practice, health and hygiene, parenting classes, group discussion, and counselling. The company is theirs and they make all decisions collectively. Now that the women have completed the training, the social programmes are fewer and the emphasis is more on running the company together. However, a woman from the Auroville Health Services still comes by every week to share information informally – like yesterday when she taught the women how to use their extra kitchen water to grow a home vegetable garden, how to compost waste, and the many uses for cow dung.
I have never met such a happy, playful, and light-hearted group of women who are in reality not all that care-free. Village life is a hard life. The women are always worried about how to afford their children's education, how to put together their daughters' dowries, how to care for their extended family, and how to get all they need to get done each day while sitting on the floor and bending over for hours. Some women even walk forty-five minutes each way just to come to work.
As we work, we talk and they teach me Tamil. I've learned a lot, but we still communicate in a mix of English, Tamil, hand gestures, actions, and drawings. They go about their business as usual, which makes me think I've done fairly well in fitting in. I just roll, and be present, listening and smiling all the while. Though I have only the most basic Tamil language skills, it is amazing how much I can pick up about their group dynamics from just watching who does what when, observing body language, and listening for the emotion in their words.
Our relationship deepened as they invited me to stay longer with them and join them for lunch, digging out of their own lunch pails or buying extra food to share. I began to bring photos of my family, and get cookies and cool drinks for snacking. My relationship to the group was finally cemented when I was invited to a wedding of a relative of one of the ladies. The experience was incredibly intimate and turned out so well.
At first I felt like an outsider but now I see myself just like a young child who doesn't quite understand all that's going on, but is very much loved and belongs.
The beauty, which I have found here, is the grace with which these women live despite everyday hardships. The beauty is in the friendship and sisterhood they have found in each other.
At the end of my stay, I spent time asking each of the women about the changes in their lives since they created the company; and my last question was what it is she most cherishes about the experience. The unanimous answer was “Being able to leave home and come to this loving group of women every day.” And they are indeed full of love! Laughing, teasing, and singing everyday, they work hard to improve their lives, all the while living with an unshakable faith in god.
This is my new beauty.