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Sewing a success story

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Challengers St. Mary’s Tailoring unit at Princess Street which Johnson, Baby and Mary run
Challengers St. Mary’s Tailoring unit at Princess Street which Johnson, Baby and Mary run

St. Mary’s Tailoring unit in Fort Kochi is a success story of two women and a man who can neither speak nor hear, says TANYA ABRAHAM

In a little space in the now popular Princess Street of Fort Kochi, sewing machines chatter busily. A pile of clothing lies on an old wooden table, a calendar moves lazily in the breeze on the pale blue wall. Inside are Baby, her husband Johnson and sister-in-law Mary. All three were born without the ability to hear or speak. Mary has been sewing here since she was nine years old. But that was a long time ago, almost 50 years to be precise, when her late father rented the space to start a tailoring unit. Of his children, Mary was unique: she could not hear or speak. And destiny would have no other choice but to assist her tailor-father in his endeavour. So, unable to attend regular school like her other siblings, she followed him to work one day, an early sunny morning she remembers, to watch her father sew, darn and cut. She explains she learnt watching him thread needles, match colours, stitch clothes and finally copy patterns off books. It was largely clothes for the sahibs, coats and jackets or imitation of trousers from England. There was plenty of work, but no time for extra classes. The classes that existed were from observation and interest. And in time she became a professional tailor, stitching attires to suit the fashion of the day.

Enthusiastic duo

Mary struggles to explain all of this and make herself understood, explaining her story in symbols and actions coupled with occasional groans of exasperation. Of the sahibs who roamed the streets of Fort Kochi, the styles of clothing were different and the quality of imported cloth were, at the time, an amazement to many. But Mary’s struggle to explain ceases when Baby steps in. Picking up her enthusiasm almost instantly, Baby, with special schooling, is able to lip read and translate in almost legible words and sentences. She narrates the story of ‘St Mary’s Tailoring’, their tailoring unit. Johnson, the youngest of the siblings and born to her parents after a gap, joined Mary much later, after their father died, she teaching him the nuances of the skill. Like Mary, he too could not hear or speak. The two then ran the unit together, hiring some other women to share their work load. “Initially, work was brought to the unit by my father, I did not have to attend to customers nor converse with them. My father visited customers at their homes, took orders and delivered tailored clothes to them. But things changed after a while, and once the unit was left to me, clients arrived at our door step as it was impossible to visit every home,” explains Baby for Mary.

Hailing from Nazareth in Kochi, she explains that it was a huge task conversing with others, “but soon, both, our customers and we found a way to interact and converse, mostly in action, but the end result was always a success.” But what about minor details like the purchase of thread or a piece of cloth for lining? “We shop with them who we have been dealing with for years. They know our language. All we need to do is scribble our requirement on paper or take a sample to them. But, really, things changed a lot after Baby joined us.” Special schooling at Thrissur taught Baby to converse, and after her marriage to Johnson plays the role of interpreter for the two. “So there isn’t a great struggle like the way it used to be. Things are easier now.” However, running a unit unable to speak or hear is still a great challenge. A passer-by who visits to say hello converses in a comfortable language of signs and groans. A customer explains the kurta alteration in actions_a little longer or two inches wider, they say. It appears that a whole rare world has been threaded together, a world of enterprising enthusiasm and survival.

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