Updated: Jun 27
| This is the 358th story of Our Life Logs |
I was born in 1955, in a marginalized tribe of Madhya Pradesh, India. I was the only daughter to my parents who treated me like their little princess. We were not rich, but we lived a happy and comfortable life. I saw the world through their eyes and everything seemed wonderfully beautiful.
Like most parents in India, their highest priority was to get me married to a suitable man. And like every other girl in our village, I had only one dream: to marry the “perfect” man and have his children. It was my idea of “happily-ever-after.” I wasn’t educated enough to visualize my life any different. In fact, my entire childhood was like an on-the-job training to be a good, dutiful wife.
Eventually in 1970, when I was 15, they married me off to a man who they thought was eligible. I was young, naïve, and full of dreams. I was sheltered and saw the world with a silver lining. I hadn’t even learned basic skills like cooking. I didn’t think of the responsibilities. I was too busy romanticizing the concept of marriage like any young bride.
Most of all, I was excited to meet my husband and visit his village Karmajhiri, located next to the Pench Tiger Reserve, Madhya Pradesh. This reserve was famously known for its beautiful forest and lake along with an abundance of wild animals, especially tigers. In our Gond culture, the forest/nature is considered a goddess that provides and protects us. I thought shifting to this new place would be like being closer to my goddess, my Mother.
However, after marriage, my life turned upside down. I was nowhere near prepared to face my husband. He was a drunkard who physically beat and mentally harassed me every single day. For years and years, I held my breath when he was near. To raise our five beautiful children in a home that smelled of alcohol was my living nightmare. Needless to say, he was a far cry from what I had imagined.
I stayed with him because of societal pressures. Several times I dreamed of leaving him, but reality often crushed that fantasy. If I left, where would I go?
Thankfully, my mother-in-law, or as I called her, Bade sasu maa, was kind and taught me how about Gond cooking. After (a lot of) practicing, I found myself looking forward to cooking meals for my husband and family. I loved to cook and create new dishes, experimenting with the warm spices. It was no longer a chore, rather, a passion.
Then my situation spiraled more when my in-laws passed away. Every day became a financial struggle because my husband would spend all the money he earned on his daily dose of booze. This left me hardly any money to feed our little ones. I would often go to meet my parents and borrow food from them. Not long after, however, they too passed away, leaving me almost no support. It got so bad that I couldn’t afford clothes that covered me properly.
I didn’t have anywhere to go or anyone to ask for help. It was a humiliating existence. I wanted to change our living conditions but didn’t know how. I began praying to the forest—my Mother—every day to help me. All I wanted was to provide my children with basic amenities like food, clothing, shelter, and education. I didn’t need a lavish life. I just wanted to make it.
The nature goddess heard my pleas and brought forth a miracle. In 1990, the Forest Department of the Pench Tiger Reserve approached nearby villages with jobs at the forest. I knew this was my chance to make our lives better, so I applied for one.
Initially, I helped them with odd jobs like collecting people from my village. Slowly, after they gained confidence in me, they moved me to more serious jobs like extinguishing forest fires or constructing roads in the reserve. However, what I liked best was cooking food for the forest officials. I would try to impress them with my specialties. When I earned some praise, the validation was immeasurably sweet.
Soon enough, the forest officials took note of my hard work and culinary skills. They proposed a deal of a lifetime. In 1995, I was offered 3000 rupees as a loan to start a canteen at the reserve.
Along with me, there were a few other men who were given resources to open a cycle and a grocery shop and start their life afresh with the reserve. But because I was the only woman given this opportunity, my orthodox community and extended family members did not welcome this idea. I was initially reluctant to accept it, but—surprisingly—my alcoholic husband was the one who encouraged me. I realized that if I did not take this opportunity and make the most of it, I would be stuck in poverty forever.
So, I took it in spite of the opposition, because in my heart I knew it was my last chance to make things right for my kids.
I bought vessels and ingredients with the money and started doing what I liked best: cooking. Around me, other businesses who were given the same opportunity as I were closing down.
Business was slow at first, and I feared I’d meet the same fate. I only served Gond cuisine to all my guests, but with time, I realized that I needed to adapt and create a menu that was more popular and targeted a wider audience outside of my usual palate I knew and loved.
I didn’t want to go back to my old life, so I thought out-of-the-box. I did a lot of research. I took advice from officials. I constantly interacted with the people who visited my canteen to gain their perspective. Then, I incorporated their advice and experimented with loads of recipes. It was a very trying process, but it was well worth it. Business soon picked up.
After setting the menu straight, I started enhancing my customer service. I gave personalized attention to every guest who visited, catering to their requirements like their cultural backgrounds, their tastes, likes, and dislikes. While interacting with people who came to the reserve, I realized they were very inquisitive to listen to stories about the jungle. Therefore, to make the dining experience more interesting, I would share my tiger spotting experiences with them.
Slowly and steadily, I learned the ropes of business, thanks to the guidance of Pench Tiger Reserve. Whatever profits I earned, instead of spending it, I reinvested it in the business. They supported me whenever I required help so that I didn’t suffer any pitfalls. When I decided to transition from a canteen to a restaurant, I needed more money. They came forward and loaned me the money and with time I have repaid them.
Soon, after some renovations, I started my dream restaurant, “Mayashree,” named after my granddaughter Maya. Thanks to their support as well as the naturalists and guests who came regularly, my business expanded and flourished because of word of mouth.
Until 2000, everything was going great. Then, success got to my head. To celebrate my hard work, I got into the habit of drinking, the very thing that I detested and blamed for destroying my life. It started on a whim and I was soon addicted to it. Before I realized, I had started making a fool of myself in front of the same forest officials who gave me the opportunity to work and change my life.
Thankfully, my kids intervened and urged me to stop. They couldn’t take it anymore. What truly got to me and put me back on my path was when they said, “The villagers and your grandchildren look up to you. Is being a drunk really the legacy you want to leave behind after putting in so much of effort to be successful?” I knew they were right. I couldn’t let my success dwindle.
In 2003, I quit drinking. The best part was my husband quit too. He felt that if I could do it, he could change his life for the better as well. Soon, he joined my workforce and started helping me around the restaurant. He became the husband I had dreamed of.
Business has got better than before, and I’ve been able to make enough money to invest in three more homes and buy two motorcycles. We’ve also begun to do farm work on the side. I really feel so overwhelmed with all that I have achieved. The best part is that my success is not just mine. My family and the forest department are why I am here. They nourished, therefore I flourished. I owe all my success to them.
Now, I believe it is my turn to pay it forward and help people from my community. I started by encouraging the youth I come across the importance of hard work and patience. I have invested in a grocery shop for a differently-abled man from my village so that he can have a livelihood without anyone’s support. Even when tourists or forest officers fall sick, I feel it’s my duty to take care of them and nurture them back to care. After all, they have come to my forest, my home. Maybe, that’s why everyone calls me Shanta Amma now, which means mother. This title means so much to me. All my life I longed to be a good mother to my kids, but now my responsibilities have extended to my community and furthermore.
What I lacked in formal education, I made up for with street smarts, intuitiveness, and a willingness to learn. I’ve learned that no matter where you came from, you can find success if you work hard. It will happen.
This is the story of Shanta Amma Bai
Shanta Amma has lived in Pench Tiger Reserve, Madhya Pradesh, all her life. As a young bride, she faced poverty and mental and physical abuse. But her determination to rise up from her abject situation for her children is noteworthy. Her only dream was to see her children educated and well-settled. To make it happen, she worked really hard doing odd jobs and with the help of Pench Forest Government, she started a canteen. She gradually moved on to running her own restaurant, “Mayashree’, in Pench Tiger Reserve. She is currently the Head of Eco Committee and Van Surakshan Committee, both very important organizations that work towards eco-tourism and environment conservation. Shanta also recently became a member of the Block Level Panchayat Committee that involves presiding decisions for several villages. Her motto in life is to work towards the betterment of her village and the forest that she feels eternally indebted to.
This story first touched our hearts on June 17, 2019.
| Writer: Trupti Shetty | Editor: Colleen Walker |