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Phenomenal woman: Sashikala Govekar

By Preetu Nair and Peter D'Souza

On a search for its Woman of the Year, the Goan newspaper Gomantak Times came across the extraordinary Sashikala Govekar, a fisherwoman who breathes life into Mapusa market, and a sarpanch who is much respected in Nerul

She is a mother, a sister, a professional, a provider, a fighter, a struggler, a realist, a radical, a performer, a perfectionist, a lady, a life-giver and a sarpanch. Above all, Sashikala Govekar is a fisherwoman from Mapusa, Goa .

Three months ago, on International Women's Day, Gomantak Times decided to look for a Woman of the Year. The criterion was simple. Obvious publicity-hungry so-called achievers were out. So too were those who were in the continuous race for awards and recognition. Gomantak's Woman of the Year had to conform to the ideals the paper had set for itself: simplicity, hard work, humility and self-sufficiency.

We looked everywhere until finally we found our heroine among lots and lots of fish at the Mapusa fish market.

"...Now you understand just why my head's not bowed. I don't shout or jump about, or have to talk real loud. When you see me passing, it ought to make you proud...I'm a woman phenomenally. Phenomenal woman, that's me." These lines from Maya Angelou's Phenomenal Woman define Sashikala Govekar, called Sashi, perfectly. Sashi speaks in the lilting cadence of the fisherwoman she was trained to be. She moves with the grace of the businesswoman she was born to be. She laughs with crackling exuberance in her low, resonant, emphatic voice. She fills the Mapusa fish market with life.

Sashi had a difficult childhood. Born into a poor family in Nerul, she didn't have enough food to eat. "There were five children to feed at home. My father, a daily-wage worker, would purchase 1 kg of rice everyday. Mother used to cook it and distribute it equally. That was our breakfast, lunch and dinner. There were often times when we went to sleep after drinking the pez (rice gruel) because there was not enough rice left to eat," she recalls.

Little Sashi was eager to learn; she enjoyed going to school. But she had to drop out after Class II because her parents didn't have the money to educate her. But this didn't kill her love for reading and learning new things. "We had a person living in our house who used to ferry people from Nerul to Candolim. I used to help him and in return he would give me one anna. I used to save the money and later purchase books to read," she explains.

Things changed when she met Janu, a young boy from Saligao who worked as toddy-tapper for a neighbour. It was love at first sight. With the blessings of the family they were soon married. Sashikala shyly admits that one thing that connected them instantly was poverty and hardship. The young couple decided to catch tisreo (clams) and sell them in the market to earn money. So began her journey into the business of buying and selling fish. She was 18 then, eager to earn but ignorant about the tricks of the trade. "I didn't know anything about the trade. I was not born into a family of traditional fishermen. But my neighbour Komal taught me the tricks of the trade. I started out selling one basket of fish at Calangute with her," she says. Her husband and 10 workers would go out to sea to catch the fish, and Sashi would go to the market and sell it.

Soon she began selling fish in the Mapusa fish market. This was around 20-22 years ago. Now she supplies fish to Sanquelim, Bicholim, Valpoi, Pernem, Arambol, Calangute and Mapusa.

When Sashi started out she put away Rs 20 every day in Syndicate Bank, Mapusa. As business grew, so did her savings. With the money she was able to get her sisters and brother married and also buy fishing canoes, trawlers and tempos. "My father was growing old. He was having health problems. So I decided to help him too. My husband supported my decision," she says. Suddenly she says philosophically: "Family is the essence of life. We are very close to each other. As children we had seen difficulties and fought together, and in future also we will be united." She adds that the fisherwomen in Mapusa market are her sisters, her extended family. She is not just their leader but a woman with a magic wand; someone who can solve any problem or dispute; someone they can look up to for help.

Sashikala's growing business has brought about a change in her lifestyle. But as a person, this mother of three sons and two daughters has not changed one bit. "I get up early, at 2 am, and reach Margao market by 3 am to purchase fish. I also buy fish from the Panaji and Vasco markets," she says.

Currently, Sashi's daily turnover is around Rs 80,000. She employs 20 people -- Hindus, Muslims and Christians -- who all work unitedly. "I don't distinguish between people on the basis of caste or religion, for we are all children of one god. Ultimately it is our thinking that separates us," she concludes. Her workers get a daily wage of Rs 100-Rs 150, with food. "The food is cooked near the fish market and anyone and everyone who wants to enjoy a good meal is welcome," says Sashi. She adds: "I know what poverty and hunger are. As a child I often went to bed on an empty stomach. I don't want any child to remain hungry." Her three sons help her in the business.

Although she now owns two shops in Mapusa, Sashi likes to wander around the fish market, meeting people and swapping stories with them. The fisherwomen of Mapusa market all agree that their day would be boring without her!

Sashi is also the sarpanch of Nerul. "Though I was elected sarpanch I am not interested in politics. The youth in the village insisted that I stand for the 2002 elections. They filled the form and submitted my candidature," she says. She explains that people wanted her to become sarpanch in order to speed up construction of the Dadeshwar temple, which had been lying incomplete for 15 years. She fulfilled their desire within two years.

The monthly salary Sashi receives as sarpanch is donated either to a temple, a chapel or a church. She strongly believes that politics is not a platform to settle personal scores. "I am not a politician. I don't want propaganda. I don't want to canvass or malign my opponents. I want to work with them for the welfare of my people. I love my people and they trust me. I am always there for them. I have grown up here, spent more than 50 years knowing and understanding life in this village."

(Preetu Nair is a Reporter with Gomantak Times, Goa. Peter D'Souza is a Sub-Editor, Gomantak Times , Goa)

This article was first published in Gomantak Times, March 8, 2005