Fearless femme—Mumta Acharya, 55, works at Innov8 Cafe, Saket, Delhi.
She has an indomitable will and believes one should never stop fighting.
She was a child labourer since the age of 8. She was married at 14 and had a son at 19. When her son was 6 months old, one fine day her husband left her without saying a word and married someone else.
She couldn’t study but she didn’t let that stop her in any way. She fought hard with every obstacle thrown her way and worked as a chef across the world—in India, the Middle East, U.S., UK. You now see her bringing her sumptuous global cuisines to a cafe at a co-working space in Delhi.
But that’s not the only inspiring thing about her. She’s always seen with a wide smile and a twinkle in her eye. She looks forward to feeding other people and making them happy. She’s never gone to school but tries hard to learn and speak English.
And what I personally admire the most about her is that she’s a fighter who doesn’t take shit from people.
I met her at the Innov8 Saket cafe, when one fine day she excitedly whipped up some super authentic lebanese food for me. And then some yummy pasta the next week, and so on.
I’ve been a huge fan of her cooking since then and was intrigued to know more about her story and how she discovered her passion for cooking.
I spoke to her about how her journey started as a world-class chef, what it took to get where she is, her struggles and wins.
Read on, peeps.
On her childhood
Where do you come from and how did you get here?
I’m from Medinipur, a small village in Kolkata. My family is really poor and my father was ill for 10 years. He used to be a lumberjack, but sadly, one day he got a cut on his forehead and got 22 stitches, and couldn’t work for 10 years (she gasps reminiscing the old times). I’ve been working since I was 8 years old. I used to wash clothes and utensils, sweep and mop the floors as well.
“I’m not educated. I’m illiterate. At the time I thought, what's the point of me studying? Instead, I went ahead and taught my siblings, earned enough so I could get three of my sisters married.”
Our house was filled with constant fights and arguments. It was also the time when one of our brothers passed away due to an accident. Our mother was ill and we couldn’t save her either. Then I went back home as the situation in our household was terrible. That’s when I felt that maybe I should go out and work.
When did you get married?
Since I was illiterate, my mother got me married at 14. I became a mother at the age of 19.
“When my son was 6 months old, my husband left us and got married to someone else. This caused my mother to go into depression for five years. She thought my whole life had been destroyed.”
For filing a lawsuit and fighting a case one needs money, which my father did not have as he was a daily wage earner. So after analysing my situation I thought that maybe I should go to Calcutta. And after working for a while there I went to Guwahati.
On discovering her passion
I don’t know why, but somehow I thought cooking would turn out to be fruitful for me. I went to Guwahati to work as a nanny and take care of children, which also included cooking for them.
I came back home and saw that my parents were fighting because of money. Since I was the eldest child I thought that I should do something about this. Again, I went back to Calcutta and fortunately, I had a good boss over there who gave me the advice to go to Delhi to help me earn more money. The tough part about that was that I didn’t know where I should learn to cook, so I told him that I’ll be able to work there once I learn from you here. So I started with cooking at their place.
“After that I started working at a Bengali house as a cook. After that I got into South Indian, then an Andhra House, then Marwaadi. After learning all of this I wanted to learn how to cook all cuisines. I got into cooking continental cuisine and wondered how I could learn English.”
(She gets excited and her love for cooking is evident as she speaks).
Back then there were black and white TVs and there was a lady on the TV who would teach how to cook continental cuisine, in a loop. But the problem with that was if I watched it on TV then I had to write it and I didn’t know how to, as I never went to a school. So I used to learn by memorizing what style of cooking they were doing.
But when I started working here in Delhi, one of the ladies I used to work for, told me that if you can converse in english and understand to a certain extent then you must go and work for this family who came from Denmark. Even though I didn’t know English, I thought that I should do it. I didn’t understand what they wanted me to do, they had a translator who used to translate everything for me in Hindi.
On dreaming bigger
Were there people around you who helped you?
My son was studying and he needed tuition for extra help. So, I thought I should leave my low paying job and look for a higher paying one.
“I went to the Denmark family’s place, they said yes to me and made a timetable for me for four days, after which they gave me a letter and Rs. 2000. I looked at the letter, and without understanding I started crying. I took a cigarette and while smoking I kept crying in the bathroom.”
I thought about how my son was only 14, the fact that I had to pay for two tuitions, his school fees, and my mother’s treatment.
I asked my son to read the letter for me and he said that my timings are from 8 am to 8 pm and after that they will be paying me overtime.
“To my surprise, what I thought was a letter to fire me, actually turned out to be an agreement to hire me for a longer period.”
(She speaks with immense gratitude) They were such nice people, when they were about to leave Delhi, they paid for my son’s school fee for the whole year.
(For a second she struggles to find the right words to express her sadness for her son) I did struggle but so did my son. Even at age 14, he worked really hard to get all my IDs made. I started working at a French guest house and the owner knew me well. And there I was not doing well so he asked me to work my shift and also on top of that he asked me to babysit for him for extra money. I was so happy to hear this and after working here I had to spend time with the baby and I would be paid extra for that. I worked day and night for 4 years for that guy.
“From that amount I earned, I had planned to invest in a home for my son so I could leave him at home and go abroad to work as well, to earn money for my family. I went to Mauritius, Dubai, London and then America.”
So I was with someone for a month, 15 days or 2 months or so. And I didn’t feel scared when boarding flights as luckily I always found someone to help me.
After working in London, I came back to work with my friends and family. There I met a madam. She did some work with cotton. This madam turned out to be very lucky for me. One fine Sunday, it was my day off, but they asked me to come—of course I got paid overtime for it. Her kids wanted to have “Aloo ka parantha”. (She laughs hard) And I think those paranthas turned out to be lucky for me.
I just spoke to madam about my son and I asked her if she could help my son get a job. And she did. Now my son works at the airport security, directly under them only (You can clearly see the wide small on this proud mother’s face). That’s why she’s lucky for me. All the people at every household I worked for, gave me full support and love.
On optimism and courage
A message you’d like to give to other women?
“You shouldn’t lose to hard work, you should stay strong during the hard times.”
If someone is bad mouthing you, just say sorry and move on, there is no point in escalating things.
“I’ve faced a lot of problems and hardships in life but, I never found something to be hard to deal with, because I never doubted myself in my capability to sail through these problems. You should always have the courage to fight tough situations. I used to lock my son in our house, to keep him safe, whenever I went to work.”
If someone invites me to go outside India even now—I would go happily. I like staying abroad, But when I went to America I got fat. But I love Burj Khalifa and hope I can go there someday again (but don’t tell my boss this :p).
My chat with Mumta aunty gave me a new perspective; one of relentless courage and positivity. It reminded me of the famous saying ‘don’t sweat the small stuff’.
Where there are problems, it’s on you to get creative and find a solution.
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