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Manju Varma grew up in Gwaltoli, a poor neighborhood in Kanpur, a textile town in Uttar Pradesh (India), to which her forefathers moved when the old cotton mills flourished and plenty of good work was to be found.

The twists and turns of fate have seen her return to the city, when her father brought her home, battered and broken at the hands of a drunken and abusive husband whom she had wed in an arranged marriage. Just 18 when she returned, she was, by then, the mother of a baby daughter.

Now 41, Varma is carving out a new life for herself and her 23-year-old daughter by setting up a small business of her own, a cog in the wheel of the large tailoring chains that flourish out of tiny workshops in a multitude of modest homes across the city.

‘I did whatever I could to survive’

Varma’s life epitomizes the emerging new India, where people are pulling themselves up by dint of their own hard work and gender roles are fast being reversed, with women making the most of new economic opportunities.

Seated in the one-room tailoring workshop run by her brothers from the tiny ground floor room of their family home, Varma recalls the struggles she has seen.

“I did whatever I could to survive,” she says with a sadness that still lingers, “because I was both father and mother to my daughter.” Armed with a high school diploma, she worked a number of small jobs to help put food on the table at her parents' home. In true Indian tradition, the extended family lived together in a spare two-room house – 12 people in all, including her two brothers and their wives and children. One of her brothers was not up to much, putting the additional burden of sustaining him and his family on her young shoulders.

Then, completing a bachelor’s degree alongside her work, Varma landed a steady job at a small textile firm. Over the 15 years that she worked there, she learned the trade and became fluent in English – a language she was never really taught.

Plunging into the world of business

But two years ago, she fractured her foot, leaving her unable to walk or afford to take a cycle rickshaw to work. “If I could no longer earn,” Varma recalls, a brief look of terror crossing her face, “who would look after my daughter?”

Too old to get a new job, she struck out on her own. “I took the plunge,” Varma says somewhat hesitantly. “I managed to get an order for making mosquito nets for the railways. There was no money to invest, so I sold a small dwelling my father had left me.”

“The poor never have it easy,” she adds. “They have to flail about just to keep their heads above water.” For the dividing line between the haves and the have-nots is a fine one – one small blow and the people on the margins slip under. Varma is treading cautiously in starting this new venture. So much hangs on its success, especially the future of her daughter Monica, into whose education she has invested all her life’s energy and earnings. Scraping by, she has paid tuition fees at a private school, as well as hefty college fees for her master’s degree in microbiology. Monica now wants to get the job at a government research center. Competition for the post is stiff, however. Nevertheless, Varma feels that education is the best investment in the future. After all, she has managed to support herself and her family on the basis of her own education – and, of course, a very large measure of hard work.

If she were to ask the government for something, it would be a good road in the neighborhood, as her old mother has fallen many times near the house. And of course, she would like to see better quality education available to all, with plenty of scholarships for those without much money to spare.

Comment on this Post


I am so moved by this inspiring article. You brought Varma's story to life for us with your great storytelling. Thank you for shedding light on the lives of those who are rarely seen or heard.

I look forward to reading more from you about the women you meet and their dreams.

Hey Janice, In India, we have almost every women going through tough phases in her life whenever it comes to her studies, career that if she is not strong enough to put her foot down and stick to it everybody will walk over her. Manju is one of the Sheroes who never gave up :) ... proud of such women as practically in her day to day life it was a very tough call.

Cheers to Life

Yes, the challenges faced by women in India are innumerable. Which is why I am so happy that you have applied for Voices of Our Future. The world needs to hear what is happening in India from all different perspectives. Your voice is vital to bringing those stories to the forefront of our consciousness. I look forward to hearing more from you. Best wishes.

Thank you for this journal entry, Upsi. Your passion and talent shines, and I'm very much looking forward to seeing more from you, and what comes from the projects you have begun!

Let us Hope together- Michelle aka: Cali gal Listener Sister-Mentor @CaliGalMichelle Tweets by @CaliGalMich

Hi Upsi,

This is an important article. I love the way you put words together and the ecomony of words which is an art form in itself such as the second paragraph that starts "Now 41 . . ." but all of the piece really. It takes a lot of time and thought to economize and put the right words together and you do it well. Benjamin Franklin once wrote to a friend. At the end he appologized with "I am sorry the letter is so long. If I had had more time it would have been shorter". Your writing reminds me of this.

Anyhow, what you say is very important. Just before reading your piece I got 2 emails from Levi, one of my 21 year old orphans now. In the first he said his aunt was so pleased I was helping with her diabetes meds and feeding her family so they can go to school which comes before education. She is making me something I will really really love he said because of how much I help the family. This is touching for many reasons not the least of which is that 3 years ago she hated me,but I kept coming back and helping and the fact that she has NO money for family food let alone to make me something. This email was followed by one that said she had just collapsed. He has no money for the doctor so I will wire some but the doctors are poor, the clinics are terrible and there are so many factors that go into a person being able to exist in a developing country let alone get ahead. So many factors. I will be back there soon and I go often to Livingstone Zambia because each decision requires knowledge of so many factors all at the same time while you are in a headwind. Your piece reflects in few words a lot of what goes in to the struggle and the amazing people who refuse to give up and who keep their attitudes positive, though I do not know why sometimes.

Thanks, Upsi.

Take care. Ubuntu (I am who I am because of who we are together),


Wendy Stebbins Founder/CEO I AM ONE IN A MILLION Non-Profit Organization focused on helping street orphans and vulnerable children in Livingstone, Zambia Africa.

Thank you, Upsi, for sharing such an inspiring story. As JaniceW said quite rightly, we need to hear more stories about life in India and the challenges that many face. It was really touching to read about Varma's story. She has shown such resilience and determination, never giving up no matter how challenging the situation was. Plus, she has dedicated all her time and energy to ensure that her own daughter will receive a good education and will achieve her goal of working at a government research center. I really hope that she succeeds. We do sometimes forgot what it means to struggle, especially when very little support is given. That's why stories like Varma's need to be told and Varma herself needs to be praised for her strength.

Thank you! Lea

The picture you use here and on yoru profile is WONDERFUL !


Wendy Stebbins Founder/CEO I AM ONE IN A MILLION Non-Profit Organization focused on helping street orphans and vulnerable children in Livingstone, Zambia Africa.

Dear Upsi,

This is a wonderful story. Varma is so right. Education is the best investment. I hope her venture goes well. Having an education with hard work cannot fail. I pray that all goes much smoothly for her.

Extend my well wishes for her. An looking forward to see how you report on her progress.

All the best to you.

In friendship Amei

Thanks lovely ladies for your interest. I will be sharing more with you . I just hope that we together help in spreading the word to as many as possible so that they are all inspired to stand up for their rights and become absolutely independent ...

Cheers to Life