Swimming against the tide, she becomes the mistress of spices
Safina Nabi, Jodhpur, Rajasthan
April 21, 2017

MV Spices, Jodhpur, has made a name for itself as a source of quality products. After the death of proprietor Mohan Lal Verhmol, his wife and daughters have not only kept the business going, but have taken it to greater heights. Kavita, part of the girl brigade, opens up about the trials of a woman in a patriarchal set-up, her hopes and dreams

The small shop gives out a tempting aroma of spices. We enter, and the ambiance makes us think we have stepped back in time, and into our grandmother’s kitchen. A neatly dressed young woman greets us with a charming smile and asks us what type of tea we would like to have. She quickly whips up some masala chai (spiced tea), and while we sip it at one of the wooden tables, tells us about the medicinal value of the spices that have gone into the brew.

MV Spices (Mohan Lal Verhmol Spices) is world-renowned. It is a must-visit for thousands of tourists who throng the historic city of Jodhpur. So how did soft-spoken Kavita come to run it, breaking the mould of a patriarchal society? As she packs our purchases of tea and spices in eco-friendly cloth bags, she tells us her story.

Kavita is 27 years old, one of seven sisters. Her father, Mohan Lal Verhmol, had started out selling spices from a small cart which he pushed along the streets of Jodhpur.

Such was the quality of the products he sold that even in those days, a packet of spices from Mohan’s cart was on the shopping list of tourists from all over the world. Kavita still has a collection of letters and messages that her father received from appreciative customers all across the world.

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Kavita explaining to customers the quality and medicinal value of spices in her shop in Jodhpur.

As a child, she wasn’t too fond of studies, and failed twice during her schooling. But she was a star in one subject – Mathematics. “I could solve problems off the top of my head while others struggled with calculators,” she laughs. This love for figures helped her secure a bachelor’s degree in Commerce.

Verhmol passed away 12 years ago. His wife, Bhagwati Devi, and eldest daughter Usha took charge of the business. They worked day and night to keep it going. “It’s not easy to manage a business in a small town and even more difficult to survive in a male-dominated system. But our mother turned out to be our strength. She visits farmers personally and brings back the best of the spices direct from the farms,” says Kavita. “When my elder sisters got married, my mother handed over the responsibility of this shop to me.” She admits that she took time to learn things and is still quite shy and reserved. However, once she opens the shop and starts interacting with her customers, there is no stopping her.

Women managing businesses is still a rarity in a patriarchal society. There is huge competi-tion from the men in the business, but this does not impact the ‘girl brigade’. The sisters are, however, victims of harassment. “Sometimes while going back home they follow us and heckle us. If I try to get customers to come into our shop, they threaten us with dire consequences,” says Kavita. Not all the problems are from outside. “Even these young helpers who work with us at times underestimate me,” she says, indicating some of her employees. “But I never let them dominate me or my thoughts”, she adds, her smile undimmed.

What keeps Kavita going despite the troubles are a few letters from her father. When I started work, I used to hate this place because of the prevailing ambience,” she recalls. But one day she chanced upon some old letters her father had written. They motivated her to work and keep going. “When I feel stressed, I take out those letters and read them aloud. Doing this not only encourages me to work hard but also fills me and my heart with warmth and strength.”

Kavita’s three elder sisters are now married. She and her other sisters continue to work hard, and they now have three spice shops at prominent areas in Jodhpur, including one inside the premises of the Mehrangarh Fort. But Kavita is not one to rest on her laurels. She dreams of opening a shop outside Rajasthan. “The online platform makes it possible for us to deliver spices to every corner of the world and we already deliver to places like Martinique, Reunion, Malta, New Caledonia, Madagascar; but I wish to expand this business and want to have a shop outside too, at least one outside Jodhpur,” she says.

As we prepare to leave the shop with our purchases, a group of tourists enters. Kavita greets the visitors and talks to them in fluent English.

March 2017