When Philomina’s youngest child was eight months old, she used to leave her with neighbours (fisher folk) and go to Santhome to learn smocking. “A foreigner came and taught us, at the Cultural Academy. The classes were held twice a week, under the trees. At that time, I never thought it would change my life!”

Philomina’s life, until then, had been very hard. Her father had remarried after her mother’s death. The step-mother ill-treated Philomina and her siblings. The stepmother wanted Philomina to marry her older brother. But when she refused, Philomina was forced to discontinue her schooling. The young girl even contemplated taking her life. She then fled Thanjavur, came to Chennai and married her uncle. Only, he turned out to be a drunk.

Six children later, it was only her craft that gave her a livelihood. “When the children were small, I would smock frocks and nighties under the light of a small kerosene lamp, after I put them to bed.” Smocking brought home Rs.100 a month, good money in 1973. She sent her children to school, but her husband’s behaviour disrupted their studies. Philomina even thought of giving away one of her four surviving children (two died young) for adoption. But the lady who taught her smocking stopped her. “Look after your children now, they will take care of you later, she advised, and sponsored my son’s studies. She was right,” smiles Philomina. “My husband died 16 years ago, but my children take good care of me now.”

Philomina’s children are all married. She now lives with her youngest daughter, and one daughter-in-law also does smocking. Two years ago, she heard of Naam Foundation that empowers and takes care of single women. I meet her at their quarterly meeting “I’ve benefited hugely. I did not even have a bank account. Suhasini Mani Ratnam, who heads Naam, asked me to open one; they got me a tailoring machine, gave me Rs. 1,000 to buy materials for smocking; and also a platform to sell the finished product at their annual sale. . For two years, I had good sales, but this year, I wasn’t in town, I was in Jerusalem. The trip was made possible by my children,” smiles the 67-year-old Philomina.

(A weekly column on men and women who make Chennai what it is)

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