This is Upendra.
Barely grazing 5 feet, he’s the man that holds the seams of Sari Bari together. He’s a pioneer of prevention. Servant leader. Sewing teacher. A faith-filled brother to all of us at Sari Bari.
Upendra has been around since our inception. Back in 2006, when Sari Bari opened its doors with just three women in a small room, he was there patiently teaching everyone to sew. “Looking back, I can see that our first day was an amazing day. It was the start of a journey for Sari Bari and the journey for my life,” he says.
Only a few years earlier, Upendra achieved the incredible… in just one night.
“After my wife and I got married, we met a couple who worked with women and poor people [by giving them opportunities to sew products]. One day, they got a big blanket order – in one month, they had to finish 200 blankets. They asked if I knew how to sew blankets, and I didn’t know. But my wife knew! We asked them to give us a blanket sample to copy. So we came home and my wife taught me how to sew,” Upendra shares.
“We only had a small room, so I sat on one side of the bed, and my wife on the other. We would take turns sewing in different directions. In just one night, we finished the blanket. They were so surprised when we arrived the next day. After that, we got 10 blankets to sew.”
And that’s how Upendra became a sewing master.
Upendra is Sari Bari’s Director of Operations, which means he oversees lots of areas: finance, admin, building matters, outsourcing and liaising with vendors. Before working at Sari Bari, he trained women how to sew blankets and bags at different NGOs, so he also brings teaching expertise to his job.
“I’ve been here since the beginning. I know how we do things here, so when there is any problem, many people ask me for the solution,” he says.
The women at Sari Bari call Upendra ‘dādā’, which means ‘older brother’. “I’m like a brother to the women here – I am so happy when they call me that. Not boss, not leader, not manager. I feel very happy when they call me brother. In Bengali culture, it’s a sign of respect.”
Upendra is Sari Bari’s prevention pioneer. In 2010, Sari Bari opened a prevention unit after seeing the need for employment for women vulnerable to trafficking, in a village outside of Kolkata.
“A lot of the women [working in the city red light areas] come from these village areas. In my mind, I wondered why we weren’t going out there to stop trafficking. So the Sari Bari team did some research in the villages [to see if it was possible],” Upendra says.
For one month, the team surveyed a particular high-trafficking area, and that’s where Sari Bari’s prevention unit is located. “We started with one room on the ground floor, but we keep growing upwards.”
Upendra has a real heart for prevention. “One night, I had a dream where many girls were crying out to me saying, ‘please help us, please help us.’ They were in a dark place and a river was nearby. After that, I decided to commit to pursing a way to give more opportunity to women in the village areas,” he says.
Upendra juggles a very busy life. As well as overseeing Sari Bari’s operations, this father-of-two is also studying an Organisational Leadership degree. “I started studying this year. I have committed to giving 2 hours each night after work, but at the moment, it’s very hard for me. Sometimes I feel like I should just give up, but then I ask God for help,” he says.
Written by Nicole Peck