Running a successful store in Mumbai that sells crochet items to the who's who of the country, Pali Waraich surprises us when she announces it all started as a follow-up of her love for social welfare, which she inherited from her grandfather.
The Lahore-born designer, who is in her late 60s, shares her story on Zameen Asmaan, her brand. It all began with a chance encounter with Babbu Lal, from Fatehgarh, Uttar Pradesh. Recalls Pali, who was stationed in the area with her husband, an army officer. "One day, I came across some rich army wives trying to make a hard bargain with a poor crochet vendor, Babbu Lal. He wasn't even being offered the minimum wages. After the ladies left, I made him sit with me and asked if he would make items if I gave him the designs. He happily agreed."
Soon, Babbu Lal and his wife were using their skills and giving shape to Pali's designs. There was an exhibition held, which turned out to be a success. Pali says she paid Babbu Lal his dues who cried, saying his labour had been valued for the first time ever. It was one of those times that made the designer feel lucky to be in a position to help others.
She opines, "Undoubtedly, one needs to be financially strong to be a part of the charitable world. But I wonder, what is more important, a beautiful heart or money? I have usually seen well-off people mistreating their servants and drivers. Is money all about wearing expensive jewellery and driving luxury cars, or does it also seek humility?" The romantic Pali would also like to give credit to her husband for understanding her priorities. "Being in love with an army officer and marrying him made everything possible for me. If it were a traditional marriage, my life partner couldn't have understood my dream."
Pali's husband got posted to Mumbai, her association with Baabu Lal and his family stayed for years, finally giving birth to her store, Zameen Asmaan, in 1978.
"I always knew that crochet, if designed properly, can add elegance to any dress. And so, I started working with only one employee, while I now have 200 people working for me," says Pali. Meanwhile, Zameen Asmaan, which was started after Pali held private shows, is all about keeping the ancient art of crochet alive and providing employment to as many old and destitute women as possible, who can earn sitting in the confines of their homes. Pali feels strongly that economic empowerment is the way to women's liberation.
Her success makes her feel proud of herself. "It feels great when I hear people telling me that Kajol wore a blouse designed by me, or that Lara Dutta and Kirron Kher wore my collection. Today, it feels nice to send my designs to Tarun Tahiliani's studio. In fact, he called me some days ago and asked me to not sell my crochet lehenga, which I designed recently and priced at R2 lakh."
Pali's designs at Zameen Asmaan start at R2,500 and go up to lakhs of rupees. But the aim, insists she, was not to make profits. "The journey wasn't easy. The aim was to go from house to house in the lanes of the slum areas of Mumbai and get old women to work."
The high prices, reasons the designer, are so that her labour is paid properly. "I pay all the 200 old and needy slum women in hundreds of rupees, and they give me a smile in return. It's inexplainable how satisfied I feel."
Pali has now finally settled in Chandigarh to have a quiet life, while the reigns of her Mumbai store are in the hands of a poor Muslim girl called Rabia, whom Pali says she has groomed well and trusts blindly.