Trusting Wild Ideas: Gap Year Week 43

“We’ve made a wrong turn,” says my aunt for the fifth time in five minutes. Sprawled in the backseat, I stay quiet, but cannot help but agree. We’re four hours out from Bangalore and have spun along the highway to Tamil Nadu for hundreds of kilometres before turning off onto what is, undeniably, a plain dirt road. There seems to be nothing but dryland scrub here: dense and dusty trees thick with thorns. Occasionally a field emerges, largely devoid of any crops. The landscape seems to wither on sight. On the horizon the only landmark is the shadowy silhouette of Arunachalam Hill, a popular pilgrimage site. But it’s hazy in the distance. By now, the car has begun to rattle ominously as pebbles ricochet off the bottom.

There’s no sign that people live here, let alone that somewhere nearby is a rural livelihood project where local women work to fulfil thousands of orders for chemical-free products every year. My mother’s organization, Bridgeable, a consultancy connects donors and NGOs, has been working with them for a year now. With a free weekend, we have come to visit. If we can find it.

My mother shrugs. “Google says this is where it is.” Right on cue the phone dings. Your destination is on the left. We squint out the side of the car window at a haphazard gate, planks lashed together. In the corner, WILD IDEAS TRUST is written on a tiny placard. “Well,” I say. “I guess it is here.”

Inside we park the car on a wide field. My aunt and mother wince as we get out of the air-conditioning. It’s late morning and hot, Indian-dry-summer-heat, the kind of sun that soaks your bones dry and lethargic. We follow a path to a wide, low structure, where several women sit in the welcome shade of a thatched roof. They’re weaving, I realize, deft fingers stitching back and forth. We went inside a room where more women work over a low buzz of Tamil conversation, sorting something into piles. “Is Maithreyi here?” my mother asks.

One woman beams and says, “Yes, yes.” She gets up to lead us further in: out into a courtyard where, on white cloths papadums are drying, past a field where the buds of something green are just poking out, through another room where something steams of a fire, towards a house at the back ringed with water lilies, and we have to hop over stones to reach the door. Maithreyi appears at the entrance as we arrived—a short woman with a wide smile. “Welcome to Wild Ideas!”

We gasp as we step inside the house. It’s wide and airy, circling a small, bright courtyard where a tree blooms upwards, and several degrees cooler than the outside, even though—we squint in the rafters, large, gorgeous wood planks—there is no air-conditioning in sight. “My husband, Ajay, is an architect,” Maithreyi explains as she leads us around. “And this entire house is totally off-grid. We get our energy from solar panels—as you can see, there’s more than enough sun—and our ventilation from good design. All our wastewater gets treated here.” She points to what I’d assumed was the ornamental water feature surrounding the place. “There’s a community of bacteria in there that processes all the waste, and then it’s recycled back. We’re pretty much self-sustaining.”

There’s a rattling from above and my aunt looks up in shock.

“Squirrel?” I ask.

Maithreyi laughs. “No, that’s just my kids—they’re playing on the roof.”

My aunt’s shocked expression grows. “Without any supervision?”

“Yeah, just with their friends from the area. They just go outside and play for hours together. They don’t really like going online.”

A few minutes later, as we sit in the living room and are served a raagi-based drink, her son materializes, running through the house for a glass of water. He stops when he sees us and greets us politely.

“What are you playing?” my mother asks.

“Hide and seek!” he says. “It’s just a little bit hot outside right now.” We look at each other in astonishment. It must be more than 40 degrees Celsius: Singaporean children would be performing blood sacrifices on each other for air conditioning at this point, or at the very least a portable fan.

Maithreyi and Ajay could very well have given her children an air-conditioned upbringing, too. Perched on a porch swing, she tells us how she went to college in the US. She worked there for several years before deciding she wanted to come back to India and farm. This life, she decided, wasn’t for her: she wanted to do something different. When her friends started an alternative school in rural Tamil Nadu, she and Ajay decided that’s where they would raise their kids—far away from cities and consumerism.

After moving there, Maithreyi started working in her free time with women from other tribal areas to learn their indigenous recipes for cleaning materials and medicines in order to try and shift her home more chemical-free. She had no intention of doing anything more with those recipes. However, as she went from village to village to research organic farming in the area, many women approached her asking for support. With the mechanization of agriculture in the region, their seasonable jobs had disappeared, and money to support their families were fast drying up.

Maithreyi realized an opportunity lying in her initial quest to lead a more natural life. Friends and friends of friends were now clamouring for the chemical-free household products she’d started making. There was a demand, and here, potentially, was the supply—and a chance to give these women economic independence for the first time in their lives. Starting with two women, Maithreyi began teaching them how to make the recipes she’d learned. As more women expressed interest in joining, they expanded their inventories and into buildings hastily constructed in Maithreyi’s backyard. Now Wild Ideas ships to cities across India, enabled by the expansion of online delivery options like Big Basket and bolstered by growing urban demand for products that didn’t leaving lasting, harmful impacts in our waterways and homes.

We listen in fascination while sipping on the surprisingly cooling drinks. Bangalore feels very remote from here. I think of our housing compound and its high walls, the world regimented outside, the barrier of cleaning agents, chemicals, processed goods that demarcate the development of our surroundings and feel a sudden sense of revulsion rise up.

When Ramya, my mother’s co-founder in Bridgeable, and her family and friends arrive, Maithreyi shows us around the Wild Ideas campus. Wild Ideas works on a cooperative model, and Maithreyi’s role, as founder, is primarily in promotion and overall management. There’s no hierarchy here. Responsibilities are rotated monthly between the women working here. Each in turn takes leadership positions, whether coordinating shifts, managing packaging, or working in manufacturing; they decide collectively how to direct profits and disburse salaries.

Because the company is largely order-driven, demand can shift quickly: one day there might be only soaps required, the next day baskets. There’s constant innovation going on to improve on existing processes. In the sewing room—a thatched room streaked with light and cloth, where machines tick-tack industriously; new machines are bought from Wild Ideas profits on the collective decision of all the women—Maithreyi shows us a type of basket they’ve just started making.

The pattern, she explains, is reinforced in an entirely new way and was in fact reverse-engineered from an example one of the women had found. It had taken days to puzzle out, but they can now move this strengthened weave into regular production. Every year, Maithreyi takes the women on two field trips—one to somewhere else in India to expand their cultural horizons, and another to a different livelihood project, to let them see the different kind of products out there and provide a context—and community—for their work.

In another room, we see the packaging going on. Women sit in a circle packaging the final products with the Wild Ideas logo for shipment; all packaging has been designed to minimize waste and environmental impact. Maithreyi introduces us to the current director of shipments, who smiles and says hello to us without missing a beat on her seamless folding of another wrapper.

Ramya is most excited to see where the palm-weaving takes place, which today is outside on the porch of one of the buildings in an effort to beat the heat. “They’re making roti boxes!” she exclaims as we approach. This is the Wild Ideas product we’re all most familiar with. Last year this unit was on the verge of closing down as their high-quality handmade processes struggled to compete in a market flooded with machine-made, low-quality products. In response, Ramya spearheaded a social media-based effort to sell their roti boxes to people in Singapore. She ended up distributing around 500 across the island in a few short weeks and keeps getting requests for more.

I crouch next to them and try to figure out how the boxes are coming together—colourful bases and tall sides—but all I can make out are flying colours, a magically materializing matrix, and I give up. It’s painstaking work, but they’re moving through it with seeming effortlessness. From beginning to end, each box takes up to two days. As we walk away back to the house, all we can do is shake our heads in wonder. “What work,” Ramya says.

Over lunch—a vast spread almost all grown locally where transcendent things have been done to organic vegetables—Maithreyi tells Ramya that the weaving unit especially wants to meet her later. “They want to talk with you,” she says. “I remember the production team was looking over the orders sheet last year—and it was just Singapore, Singapore, Singapore, Singapore.”

Talking turns out to be an incomplete description. When we hoist ourselves upwards and waddle out after lunch, all the 150 women have gathered at the door with a large pink cake wishing Ramya a happy birthday. “They all clubbed together to buy it,” Maithreyi tells us: it was Ramya’s birthday the day before. Everyone is beaming with unadulterated joy at this celebration for this woman they’ve never met, who they might never again, who lives thousands of kilometres and countries away in a life far from rural Tamil Nadu. But we loudly sing together in disconnected harmony and cut the cake. Ramya embraces an eighty-year-old woman who is Wild Ideas’ oldest worker. For a moment there’s no barrier, only the sweetness of the icing sugar.

Most of the women disperse quickly afterwards: they have work to organize and orders to complete, and everyone directs their own schedules to facilitate picking up their children from school, taking care of sick parents, and all the other countless thankless labours of being a woman in India. But a few stay behind and beckon Ramya, my mother, and Lavanya, the friend who introduced Ramya to Wild Ideas, to a few chairs facing them. One woman stands up and introduces herself as the head of the unit.

“We started the palm-weaving unit on and a half years ago,” she says. “Initially, there were were only five of us; we didn’t know how we were going to survive. With the Singapore orders, we’ve grown to 25 palm weavers.” One by one the woman talk about the impact Wild Ideas has had. They’re disadvantaged, I realize looking at the translations of their soft Tamil later, divorced from privilege in every sense of the world—separated from healthcare, familial support, transportation, all the things we take for granted.

“Wild Ideas is like my mother’s home,” another woman tells us. Here, she forgets her problems. At Wild Ideas, she and other women have found support in healthcare, their children’s education, debt-eradication, planned savings, but even bigger than that: a shoulder to lean on, a hand to reach out to. Small but revelatory acts of recognition. You exist. You make worth.

These women are used to husbands who beat them, or drink all the money away, or are too sick to bring any home. They had resigned themselves to a lifetime spent sitting at home wishing they could give their children more than one meal a day.

“Here, people ask me how I’m doing,” the woman says. Her eyes are bright and wet.

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We leave soon after—a little humbled, a little awed. Walking back through the rooms towards the car, we look around with a fresh understanding of what these spaces mean: not just an area for manufacturing, but also a place of self-creation and actualization. As we drive away to check into our hotel for the night, lost in contemplation, my aunt breaks the silence. “It’s just—so different.” We all nod in agreement.

The city feels so far away, almost a dream, and yet when we drive back tomorrow, I know it’ll be hard to imagine anywhere else, that life does exist without the conveniences or systems we assume necessities. And yet here—this off-grid home, this chemical-free production, the children running wild, these women provided a path away from their oppression—there’s something independent of everything we take for granted and growing nevertheless. Despite the slick sweat that has made everything we wear now stickily uncomfortable, the utopic vision driving the place feels crystallized, hard—powerful. A rock you can build empires on.

In the evening we follow more dirt roads past more scrub landscapes and fields, but no one’s asking where we’re going this time. At the literal end of the road, we see Maithreyi, Ajay, and her son waving to us from the roof of a building. It’s the new Wild Ideas factory, almost ready for move-in. Ajay shows us around: the expanded floor area, the rainwater harvesting system, the architectural innovations to maximize cooling in the summer. Outside by the piles of construction materials, he points out where they’ve come from: none from further than a couple hundred kilometres away.

Maithreyi shows us the land around. The space is courtesy of donations to the Vilvam Foundation, a registered trust they established to raise money for new projects. They hope to get the rest soon. They already have the commitments from the owners to lease out and just need the money for the purchase and construction later. The list of women who want to join Wild Ideas is long, but their original campus is running out of space now—nearly every corner has been utilized for something and they just can’t take any more. At least four more spaces are needed to support existing operations. If this new area comes through, they can double their existing workforce. “They all have similar stories to the ones you heard,” Maithreyi says. “The need is there; this new space is critical to our growth.” And they have other programs they want to expand: an after-school program for children attending often underfunded and inadequate government schools, skill-development for undereducated youth, support for local entrepreneurs.

More women mean more families, mean more children who can go to school knowing they’re supported, mean more girls who grow up with models of responsibility and independence, mean bit by bit, this place changing, perhaps. Mean systems dissolving, mean alternatives arising, mean this campus, these hopes, this small revolution, spreading, slowly, perhaps, but inevitably, inescapably. Maybe there isn’t an alternative to wastefulness, pollution, unsustainable energy, social constriction, oppression—or maybe you just need a little more imagination, a few more wild ideas.

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