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Indian women cook their way to self-sufficiency

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IT is 11 a.m., and about 30 women are crowded into a small room. Some are stirring hot lentils, others are chopping tomatoes; some are grinding coriander, mint, and green chilies into a chutney, others are rolling out rotis (unleavened bread), baking these on hot skillets, and tossing them into large hemp baskets. There is a loud hum of chatter, laughter, and jokes. Most women are constantly wiping their faces with the edge of their saris in the steamy room. This is the catering section of the Annapurna Mahila Mandal, a grass-roots organization of self-employed working-class women. It is located in Dadar, a Bombay suburb bordering the mill areas of the city. While the women in the room are cooking food to be delivered to office workers, the majority of Annapurna's 18,500 members cook and serve food in their own homes for hundreds of thousands of migrant workers who live in the city of Bombay.

Bombay has more than 300,000 workers who come in from the rural areas in search of work. Most cannot afford to bring their families to live in the city, and they live in rundown chawls, ramshackle buildings with a minimum of facilities. Here they share space, dormitory-style, with other workers. One of the first things they do on arriving in the city is to find an annapurna (in Sanskrit, the word means ``goddess of food''), preferably from their own village or caste, who can provide them with home-cooked food at reasonable rates, trying thereby to create in an unfamiliar and rough urban environment whatever little they can of the rhythm of their village lives.

Prema Purao, the founder of the Annapurna Mahila Mandal, is a tall, imposing woman and a veteran trade unionist. She speaks with authority and compassion about these women with whom she has worked all her life. ``During my trade union work, I found that these women, who were usually wives of textile workers and had themselves been textile workers in the past, had been cooking for other workers for many years, fulfilling a need for good food at cheap prices. Besides, they could feed their own families on the food they cooked. They worked very hard, sometimes cooking two shifts a day for 15 to 20 people,'' she says.

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