The Bridge

Driving down a gravel road in the extremely remote village of Talaimannar, three of us were setting up a laundry service for a resort that was soon to be opened to the public: myself in the passenger seat, a new staff member driving, and crouched in the open back of the single cab was one of the resort partners. The laundry would be outsourced to a family in the village to provide home-based employment and steady income. They had no equipment and had never used or owned a washing machine. The resort would provide her with the entire set up and training.

As we ambled along slowly, the usual quiet calmness of everyday Talaimannar was abruptly interrupted by a cry of "miiiiss miiiss". Startled, as that could only have been a reference to me in my current company on a deserted road, I ask the staff to stop the vehicle. Spotting a woman running after the cab, he puts the vehicle in a slow reverse and meets her halfway. She grabs the open window seemingly expecting us to speed off leaving her, and looks in while out of breath. I look back at her in absolute confusion as I do not know her, and am certain she does not know me. What did she want with me?

She speaks hurriedly, words tumbling over words, and explains that she wants work. She says she can and will do anything, is willing to learn, and can work long hours at the hotel if needed. As she speaks, three small pairs of hands appear hanging on to the vehicle window sill. She has children! They are too small for me to see them without peering down: small gripping hands, determined to climb up to peer in. Not all feet touch the ground. After a quick back and forth we determine that she will undertake to work-from-home and cook and deliver three meals for the resort and construction staff daily.

Chandrika is a mother of three who resides in the small and remote village of Talaimannar. She had no independent source of income and her family depended entirely on her husband as the sole bread winner. His work is seasonal and therefore their finances are unstable. She readily undertakes the temporarily job of supplying meals for staff and construction workers during the development stages of the resort situated near Adam's Bridge. Her meals are tasty, nutritious, and as humble as she is. She often goes out of her way to make traditional medicinal foods like Rasam, a spicy-sour soup, for staff feeling under the weather. She always asks what, collectively, the staff would like for their next meals. Slowly, but surely, her family of five expands to include the community within the resort. She is often asked by guests at the resort to child-sit on-site, and her own children join to create a small play-group: A clutch of free-spirited children from all walks of life, babbling in multiple languages yet somehow understanding and enjoying each others company. Chandrika is a value addition to the resort.

Her 1st paycheck? I'm excitedly told by resort staff, went towards cement used to repair the roof of her home. They had run into her carrying a bag of cement home, happy with her achievement. A few years later, I recognise the crude one-person-width gate made from a throwaway roofing sheet and wired to a fence, but not the newly built, stoic white-washed entrance to her proud home with a secure wooden door and picturesque windows. Not until I step in and see the unchanged old home at the back with Palmyra-leaf roofing, and the uneven concrete floor, do I know I'm in the right place. She has been using her income from various small ventures to build a secure home for her family. It's been over 2 years and I'm here after receiving a phone call from her: She's been looking for work again.

Chandrika is her usual joyous and chatty self. She welcomes me with an offer of tea and lunch. It's always the people who have the least who are most eager to share. She has made plans to set up a home-based breakfast and dinner parcel collection point for school-going children and those travelling far for work. She details her target, operational times, and planned schedule: She has preempted my questions this time. She intends to incorporate Isle of ARTisans' previous training on baking cakes into her sales, and IoA will link her with suppliers for ingredients that are costly or difficult to source. She knows she will not have many sales because her village is so small, and many have matriarchs at home to prepare their meals, but by diversifying she hopes to counter this problem.

A boutique store recently reached out to Isle of ARTisans seeking a supplier for specific body and skin-care products, coincidentally, at the same time Chandrika contacted us seeking work. It would be a perfect match to her cooking skills to "cook" the new all-natural products. Isle of ARTisans will provide the training, materials, packaging, and avenues of distribution. Chandrika's location and the lack of employment opportunities means it would be easy for her to train more people as the demand increases. When Isle of ARTisans visited her to provide her first training, she had already recruited a young lady from the village to join her, and the trial run of products in the testing phase far exceeded our expectations! We are as eager and excited as Chandrika is to introduce her new product range.

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