Married at 16 and Abused, Homeless Woman Rebuilt Her Life to Support 1000s of Kids
Shabnam Ramaswamy is a beacon of hope for thousands in the obscure hamlets of Murshidabad, West Bengal.
A survivor of domestic violence, the 65-year-old has risen like a phoenix from the ashes and scripted history on her own terms.
Today, she is the guardian angel for over 1400 women from impoverished families, empowering them through the traditional embroidery craft of Kantha. She also manages two global standard schools, educating over 1300 children with limited access to a decent education otherwise.
Born as Kazi Shabnam Ahmad in Murshidabad’s Katna village, the little girl was the apple of her parents’ eye. Her father was a doctor in the army and the first in their family to opt for a profession beyond farming.
“I was born into privilege. For a while in my childhood, I travelled from one city to another due to my father’s postings. Finally, when I was 9, I enrolled at La Martiniere in Calcutta (Kolkata) to pursue my education,” she shares.
Married off at 16 to a man of 34
During vacations, she would head to her home in the village and observe the stark difference between herself and the girls there, who were the same age as her.
It was the difference delineated by privilege. While she had the chance to explore the treasure trove of English literature, listen to The Beatles or wear fancy dresses, her friends at the village were not even allowed to attend school.
The scenario moved young Shabnam deeply. As a teenager, she vowed to return to her village someday with a lot of money, and build a school for girls there.
But, as soon as she turned 16, her aspirations were nipped in the bud, and she was married off to a man double her age. Her resistance proved futile, and she soon found herself living in an ultra-orthodox household with an abusive husband and his family.
The years she spent in that house are filled with painful memories. While her husband would spare no chance to inflict violence upon her every now and then, his family would torture her mentally. Going back to her parental home was also not an option.
Surviving on the streets of Kolkata
“I endured inhumane torture in that house, and within a few years, I was already a mother of three. One night, I could not take it anymore. I felt being homeless was better than a home like this. So I just left home in the middle of the night and spent the night in the streets.”
This was the beginning of yet another period of struggle for Shabnam. For the next two months, she called one corner of the Sealdah Railway station her home. She survived by selling her only necklace and two bangles while waiting for a better tomorrow, where she gets to see her children again.
“While staying at the station, I was already on the pursuit of a job. My knowledge of English proved helpful, and I landed the job of a receptionist at a gynaecologist’s clinic.”
Soon afterwards, she managed to secure the custody of her youngest son.
It was the early 1970s when workplaces did not have favourable policies for working mothers. While Shabnam’s strenuous daily routine did not allow her to spend much time with her child, she was young and ambitious, so figured out a way to juggle it all.
After a while, she felt that she needed to pursue higher education for a better career and started attending a night college. Soon after, she began to pursue a degree in home science first, followed by interior designing.
“All my hard work finally paid off when I launched my first interior designing studio—Visual Interiors—in a small, rented room in Kolkata. It took me around eight years of relentless struggle. I also won the divorce case and received custody of all my three children,” she narrates.
“I had my chiffons and diamonds, but what about the other street survivors?”
Shabnam was in her mid-thirties with a promising career and a peaceful life with her three children, when an epiphany hit her.
“Now that my life was somewhat stable, and I had my chiffons and diamonds, I thought about the women who are deprived of the opportunities like me. The class discrimination I noticed around me became more vivid with each passing day.”
She had shifted Delhi during this time and thought of working with children living in the streets.
“At that time, Mira Nair’s movie Salaam Bombay was released, and the NGO Salaam Bombay Foundation was set up to support street kids across India. They were looking for a social worker in Delhi, and I volunteered. Initially, they were sceptical because of my lack of a degree in social work; but the story of my life won them over.”
It was while working with kids in New Delhi Railway Station that she met filmmaker Jugnu Ramaswamy. The JNU and Columbia University scholar wanted to make a film on Shabnam and her journey and ended up falling in love with her.
“What a person he was! I had vowed that I would never marry again and let a man dictate the terms of my life. So, when he proposed, I declined for the sake of my children. But, even then, he stood by me like a rock through thick and thin, like a true companion. And, a year later, we were married in a very simple ceremony,” recounts Shabnam with a smile.
Jagriti Public School: A Dream Project
After spending years together—acing their careers and raising their children—the couple wanted to return to rural India and invest their time supporting the needy.
“We did not want to stay armchair revolutionaries anymore. So we arrived in Bengal at the strike of the millennium.”
The duo purchased land and settled in Katna and started building a school there. The Jagriti Public School, which she calls her “dream project” was established in 2005, with a mission to offer a global-standard educational facility to the lesser privileged village children.
Presently, Jagriti School has nearly 800 students studying from primary classes to Class 12. The school charges fees in the range of Rs 600-900, but the facilities are world-class.
After Jagriti’s success, Shabnam opened a second school—Pragati Shiksha Niketan—where children from impoverished families can avail decent schooling at not more than Rs 300 a month.
Most of the funding for the school comes from Shabnam’s cooperative venture—Katna’s Kantha— which also employs around 1432 women from Murshidabad’s villages. Fate compelled her to set up the line of traditional blankets and fabric, which eventually went on to earn accolades around the world.
Establishing Katna’s Kantha
When Jugnu passed away in 2005 just fourteen days before the inauguration of Jagriti School, Shabnam was devastated.
“We had financed our dream project together, and he didn’t even live to see it welcoming the children. I had very little savings at that time, and I could not figure out how to sustain our school from thereon.”
That’s when the idea of starting a Kantha-based cooperative crossed her mind.
The Kantha is a light blanket traditionally woven and stitched by women across Bengal for generations and is more than just a hobby as it provides them with not only an opportunity to showcase their soft skills but also gives them a window to express their creative freedom.
In Bengali Muslim households, the Kantha making style is ornately geometric, with motifs and symmetrical designs forming intricate patterns on a few sheets of warm, cosy fabric stitched together.
As a child, Shabnam had seen the women in Katna, battered and bruised by domestic violence and neglect, find their solace in stitching Kantha. So, she decided to propel the craft to a global platform, while also offering decent remuneration to women who mostly did it for their homes without ever earning a single penny for their arduous labour.
Katna’s Kantha cooperative started with only 12 women. Today, the movement has empowered women from nearly 30 neighbouring villages. Shakila Bibi is one of the earliest members of Katna’s Kantha, who excitedly shared her 17-year-long experience with the organisation.
“I have been working here since the very beginning. Didi (Shabnam) came to the village and started a school in one room. Look how large that school is today! And look at how our cooperative has grown. It’s all due to Didi’s exceptional efforts. We cannot thank her enough!” exclaims Shakila.
She continues, “We had never stepped out of our houses to work before. Didi came and offered decent jobs to widows, helpless women and poor mothers like us. We had to do the same work we had been doing for free for ages. And now we are earning three to four thousand rupees for that!”
The rise and rise of Kantha
Shabnam organised exhibitions across the country, and later abroad as well, to promote the art of Kantha. Over the years, the popularity of the material has peaked, inviting attention from Europe, USA, Australia and elsewhere.
The enterprise has attained the stature of a premium brand and branched out in the domain of clothing, upholstery and other household fabric products. They have also included sustainability as one of the prime mottos and started upcycling of discarded fabric materials.
From Dilli Haat to luxury outlets across metropolitan cities of India, Katna’s Kantha gets a special display reserved for them.
Every day, the village women come to their main centre in Katna to collect orders and then work on those at their homes. “I insist that the women come here daily because it is the only time of the day they get to step out of their homes, meet their friends and exchange snippets of their lives.”
Katna’s Kantha is way more than an elegant fabric boutique. Shabnam has started the Justice Programme for the women workers here, which ensures that they get protection and justice in cases of domestic violence, abuse and harassment.
In fact, Shabnam and her team of 152 support staff are in touch with the local police and legal authorities, to mete out quick justice for the poor women.
The members are also mandated to abide by certain rules. They cannot get their daughters married before 18 and only when they are ready. Their children are essentially enrolled in Pragati and Jagriti Schools where they are offered a considerable subsidy on the fees.
“The children of our women study for just 100 rupees at Didi’s school,” says Shakila Bibi. She goes on to share how their beloved ‘Didi’ gives them new clothes every Eid, and how she is the messiah for the entire village and beyond, helping everyone in every situation.
“This is my story,” says Shabnam. “My children are now happily settled; I have seen lots of ups and downs in life, but now I am happy to be back to be in my birthplace, among all these people. My life is content now.”