Shanta amma: Cooking up a storm of success

Opportunity knocks at everyone’s doors. But how rare is it that someone grabs it wholeheartedly and makes most of it. Honestly, very few but this is a story of a woman, Shantabai Sariyam or Shanta Amma as she is fondly called at the Pench Tiger Reserve, Madhya Pradesh who with her innate potential, grit and determination defied all odds against her, challenged her adversaries and triumphed as a true winner at the end of it! Read on to know more and get inspired by her riveting tale.

Her journey…
Shantamma belongs to the tribal community of Gonds in Madhya Pradesh. The only doting daughter of her parents, she was married with high aspirations to a supposedly suitable man who lived in a village located at the Pench Tiger Reserve. However, her happiness was crashed soon after. Instead of the rosy picture painted in front of her family, there was something else in store for her. Her husband seemed a far cry from what she envisioned. He had a drinking problem and tended to get physically abusive at times. Soon after, she had children and inspite of the grievances meted out on her by her in-laws, she had to live with them due to the societal pressure. She faced abject poverty and humiliation and hardly had money to feed her little ones. Every day, she would go to meet her parents and borrowed food from them. Her condition was so bad that she didn’t even have any clothes to cover her modesty properly. Until, she decided she had to do something about her situation.

The tables turn
To meet the grave conditions at home, she took up all sorts of work that came her way and that included helping the forest department at the Pench Tiger Reserve. Initially, she would help them with odd jobs like collecting the people from her village and extinguishing the forest fire in exchange for money. At times, if need required she even served them food. The officials were very impressed with her honesty, hard work, vigour, cooking skills and business acumen. They propositioned her with a deal, hoping it would help her to break through the shackles of poverty and lead a financially independent life. In 1995, they offered her Rs, 3000 as a loan to start a canteen at the reserve. Along with her, there were few other men who were given resources to open a cycle and a grocery shop and start their life afresh with the reserve.

Initially, she was reluctant due to social restraints but then decided to seal the deal as she knew that probably this was her last chance to make things right for her kids.

Ace the service
Shanta amma bought vessels and ingredients with the money and started doing what she does best, cooking. However, instead of sticking to Gond palate, she started experimenting with recipes that were more standardised and targeted a wider audience. Slowly and steadily, her financial condition improved. While her business flourished, the others who were given the same opportunity closed down due to bad decisions and even exhausting the money owing to their drinking problems.

To ensure she doesn’t meet the same fate, she constantly tried to evolve, adapting to the changing demands of the market by interacting with the people she met. To cater to her guests needs, she customised it as per their requirements, taking into account their tastes, culture, likes and dislikes. Additionally, she also whips up dishes with interesting tiger spotting tales to make the dining experience more interesting. In fact, few naturalists and tourists whom she mingles with like renowned wild life expert Anuj Khare vouch for her deep insight and experience about the forest. What’s more? If need required, she takes a step forward and also plays the role of a doting mother who looks after guests with alternative home remedies and comfort food when they are sick. Because of her heartfelt efforts, the result is that she has a lasting impression in the minds of the people who meet her and thereafter adore her unconditionally.

Shanta’s pay off
Like an astute businesswoman, whatever profits she has earned, instead of spending it, she has reinvested it in the business. At the same time, her efforts and hard work were supported wholeheartedly by the forest department. Whenever required, they would extend a helping hand to her, to ensure that she doesn’t suffer from any pitfalls. When she needed more money to buy a restaurant at the reserve, they helped her with the financials though with time she has repaid the money.

Slowly and steadily her business expanded and flourished. She even bought a gypsy for one of her sons, who works as a driver in the reserve during the peak tourist season. That’s not all, she has invested in three more homes, two motorcycles and even indulges in farming, making sure that all her five children are married, happy and settled.

The best part about her success is that it has worked like a chain reaction. It is not just confined to her and her family but also the forest department who believed in her business acumen. She has even extended her good luck to her community, helping them to empower themselves by employing them within the department. For example, she has helped a lame man of her village to set up a grocery store. She even makes it a point to visit the young men in her village, instilling the qualities of hard work and honesty in them to ensure they work for their livelihood instead of resorting to stealing and bad habits.

Seeing her good work, she has been set as an exemplary example for the rest of villagers to follow her lead. In fact, she is the Head of Eco Committee and Van Surakshan Committee, aimed to promote eco-tourism and protect the environment. And in all her endeavours, she means serious business and has the constant support of her family, the villagers, the forest department and even the tourists who love her unconditionally.
When asked, what her secret recipe to her success is, she quipped immediately that it was only ‘hard work’ and believes there is no alternative to it. She is a prime example that if someone sets their mind onto something; they can achieve it if they have faith in themselves and toil in their stride.

However, the only regret she has in her heart is that her parents who died soon after her marriage couldn’t see her success. But we’re sure that they are looking down upon her from the skies with pride at their only daughter who made it as the most successful entrepreneur in her village and how!