Somewhere in Gujarat....

Five kilometres off the NH-27 from Santalpur in Patan lies the village of Bakutra. The arid village, bordering the Little Rann of Kutch, is home to Gauriben Brahman’s house, which is thronged by a large number of visitors from across the world, who cut the dusty roads in their SUVs to experience the taste of rural Gujarat.

Listed on Airbnb, one of the biggest aggregators of bed-and-breakfast facilities globally, Gauriben’s thatched roof house has three small rooms with neatly lined cots topped by hand embroidered sheets, iron almirahs, and freshly polished copper and aluminium vessels arrayed neatly in a row atop a wooden plank. In sharp contrast lies a guest kit containing small sachets of shampoo, a toothbrush, toothpaste and tissues. The Indian-style bathroom, obviously not attached as it stands away from the house in the courtyard, has a toilet roll hanging from an ingeniously tied rope. There is no running water, but women come running with a bucketful of water whenever needed.

Gauriben, who never attended school, is an earnest host while welcoming guests —physicist Arjen Vredenberg and his psychologist wife Janie Van Dyk from Netherlands. Gauriben offers them the traditional vermilion-rice tika. As the guests settle down, she asks in broken but confident English, “Tea with sugar? No sugar? Milk? No milk?” When the guests nod to signal tea with no sugar, she rushes inside the kitchen to prepare the steaming cuppa, to be served with a smile!

Gauriben’s adherence to the “Atithi devo bhava” credo is made more diligent by fact that while her family earns Rs.45,000 a year harvesting two crops, she alone earned Rs.55,000 in December. That was her highest earning; on an average, she has been making Rs.30,000 per month ever since she listed her house on Airbnb in June. With business steadily rising, Gauriben says she is confident that her three sons will not have to go looking for petty labour jobs anymore.

Over the months I have picked up a few necessary words in English, Gauriben said. “There were hiccups initially. But now guests marvel at our cooking of bajri-rotlas on wooden chulhas. My daughters-in-law and I have learnt to makeshak (subzi) with less oil and chilli, which guests can’t tolerate!” Some tourists were keen to learn to pat rotlas with hands; others wanted embroidery lessons. Gauriben persuaded her sister Shanti to list her house and helped her earn Rs.45,000 last month. Now both sisters are looking forward to expanding their new enterprise which will help change their family’s fortunes.

Gauriben’s village is 100-odd km away from Dholavira, one of the most significant Indus Valley Civilization sites in India in the Rann of Kutch, and makes the perfect midway stopover. Apart from lodging and boarding, guests are also offered taste of the ‘night life’ as they are encouraged to shake a leg to traditional raas-garba tunes to the beatsof dhols especially organized for guests who are lent chaniya-cholis and kediyus by the villagers!

Gauri and Shanti’s entrepreneurial success is part of the ‘Hum Sab Ek Hain’ experiment initiated by Self-Employed Women’s Association with Airbnb in 2017 to allow its rural members to tap into new forms of livelihood opportunities. The initiative started with nine listings and has grown to 50 houses in Patan, Mehsana, Chhota Udepur, Surendranagar and Aravalli.

“The ‘Hum Sab Ek Hain’ initiative was an attempt to explore new earning options for rural women members of Sewa,” said Reema Nanavati, the head of Sewa. “While expansion is on the cards in Gujarat, we are all set to take the collaboration to Rajasthan, Uttarakhand, Jammu & Kashmir, Assam, Sikkim, and Nagaland in line with our pan-India agreement with Airbnb.”

Tejas Raval, Sewa’s IT manager, said that initially tech-savvy women were appointed hosts in each of the homes till the homeowners caught up with technology to take bookings and answer queries. “We have also developed a training module to empower women to manage the platform themselves after a certain stage,” Raval said.

In Mehsana, Mayaben, 40, who has studied till class 7, is ecstatic that she earned Rs.80,000 last month. “Business is pouring in and I rented a neighbouring house to host groups and families,” said Maya, a mother of two, who till early last year was struggling to pay the school fees for her two children. “Often, when guests arrive in groups of 25-30, I hire village women to cook for them,” she said. “The initiative has changed our lives.”

Maya said her daily wager husband, who earns around Rs.5,000 per month, helps in running the business. “My children are learning hotel management in their own village. They will automatically become successful entrepreneurs,” Maya said.

The guests, on their part, bear with certain inconveniences but do so happily. “We wished to experience the real India,” said Arjen who is on an India tour with his wife. “A home-stay in a village where we will be served authentic home-cooked food — in a setting of limited luxury — will open our minds to the lives lived by millions of Indians.” William came to Bakutra with a group of engineers from Australia. They built a chimney using an alluminium tub and PVC pipe to suck out fumes from Gauriben’s kitchen. “Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine I will learn so much about India through your hospitality. Hope the chimney serves you well,” William has written in his message to Gauriben.

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