In Jodhpur lives the Spice Girls of India, a mother and her seven daughters, who are running a spice business, fighting the patriarchy and gender stereotypes.
In the bustling Sardar Market in Jodhpur, the Spice Girls of India greet tourists from around the world, offering a cup of their trademark masala-scented chai at their MV Spices store.
A well-known and popular brand among the tourists who visit the city from all over the world, it has been fondly talked about by international travel companies and individual bloggers alike.
But the story of MV Spices is actually a tale of a mothers’ battle for equality and respect not just for herself but for her seven daughters.
When Bhagwanti Mohanlal’s husband passed away, her in-laws were greatly opposed to the idea of a woman, especially one without a son, taking care of a business with the support of her daughters.
Bhagwanti, who grew up in Ajmer, had hopes of pursuing higher studies and perhaps find a job, but her education was among the first things that her family decided to stop when faced by financial problems.
At the age of 22, she was married to a family in Jodhpur with Rs 15,000 in dowry. After she gave birth to three daughters in a row, her in-laws started becoming more hostile towards her for not bearing any sons, labelling the daughters as “liabilities” to the family.
“My husband was a well-educated and kind man, and after trying several times to live in harmony, we moved out with the girls,” she says.
A humble beginning
A kirana shop owner, Mohanlal loved Bhagwanti’s home-cooked food and was curious about the kinds of spices she used and noted them down. One day, the couple decided to start making different kinds of spices themselves, working until the wee hours of the night. The next day, Mohanlal laid down a bedsheet near Mehrangarh Fort to sell the spices. And this went on. One day, he was greeted by the fort’s guard, who said the Maharaja of Jodhpur had summoned him. “My husband was terrified but the guard calmed him down by saying that the Raja had asked for the person selling spices outside," recalls Bhagwanti.
“To our surprise, a French tourist had bought our spices and loved it so much that they wrote a letter to the Raja. The Raja praised our work and for bringing fame to the city. In the end, he gave my husband a space in Mehrangarh Fort at a rent of Rs 6,000,” she says.
Mohanlal spent his days at the spice store and in the evening, he would return to his kirana store and spend about two hours every day learning various languages like Spanish and French to interact with the tourists.
The business soon became an attraction, drawing tourists from around the world looking to taste and experiment with Indian spices, and was even certified by the England Curry Organisation.
A vision to continue
At the peak of the business, Mohanlal passed away, a time that Bhagwanti says was the most difficult of her life. Adding to her grief were concerns about her girls’ well-being as her in-laws began asking for the shop in return for a monthly rent.
"When I told them that I will continue to run the shop, they got angry and started talking about how shameless I was for thinking of sitting in the market, and making my daughters sit there as well. But I kept their judgement on one side, prioritised my girls, and went on to do what I had to do,” she says.
And so, she did. So far, Bhagwanti has managed to get all seven daughters to complete their studies without compromise. The girls are also well-versed in several foreign languages in the hopes of emulating their father.
Today, the seven daughters — Usha, Poonam, Neelam, Nikki, Kavita, Ritu, Priya — are running MV Spices, with four stores across the city of Jodhpur. They offer a wide range of grounded and ungrounded spices, tea and tea spices, spices for curries, as well as Christmas gift packs.
Besides its retail stores, it caters to foreign customers through its website with a price range of $3 to $20 for 250 gms of spices.
Over the years, many tourists who have visited the store have become repeat customers placing orders online from their home country. With about 30 orders per month, they have a team of 12 people outside their family members working for them. Neelam, the third eldest or a UK-based visitor Clair calls her, “Spice Girl number 3”, is at the helm of the business.
“My childhood memories have been of my parents working hard and hand grounding the spices at odd hours. Regardless of what market competitors are developing, MV Spices will not involve machinery in our process because that is what makes our product stand out,” she says.
Bhagwanti says, "Mohanlal has worked very hard and I will not just let go of his name just like this. As long as I am alive, this business will keep running. And it is all my daughters who are supporting his vision.”