You never know why things happen until long after they have happened when you look back and you are able to join the dots. It was March 2010 and my good friend Swarna had come home to celebrate my younger son’s second birthday. She insisted that I meet this extraordinary couple that she had come across quite by chance and who were keen to hand over a social enterprise they were managing to someone else as they were both getting on in age and the cancer they had survived was tiring them. Now, you would sooner survive gale force winds than put up a resistance to Swarna’s powers of persuasion.
So I took her upon her suggestion to meet Bernard and Francoise Carre. Although I agreed to meet them, I made it known that I had no clue about running a manufacturing unit, that too remotely. But given that I was at crossroads in my life then, I thought Swarna and I could have a fair go at it.
Bernard & Francoise had travelled to coastal southern India early 2005, shortly after the Boxing day tsunami. They had gathered medicines and other essentials on their route to India and what they saw there devastated them. They wanted to do something that would provide a means of living for the people, especially the marginalised who had nothing left.
It is remarkable that, despite being in their 70s, despite knowing little about the ground realities of setting up an enterprise in India, driven singularly by the passion to provide sustainable livelihoods to the fisherfolk who’d lost everything to the tsunami, Bernard set up a social enterprise.
The couple had the support of friends and family in the UK and after several stumbles, Vandanamu Fair Trade began trading as an ethical enterprise that produced handmade and handprinted cotton bags in bulk for clients in the UK.
By the time I met with Bernard and Francoise, the fatigue of running the enterprise remotely was starting to tell. And I did not have the heart to say no to them when they asked if Swarna and I would be willing to take over. So over the next few months, after dropping my two children at school and at childminder’s respectively, I would trek to Southampton every Tuesday where I’d spend the day learning from them the pitfalls and the joys of managing a social enterprise.
I’d spend the morning talking and discussing before grabbing a quick lunch and heading back. Those precious few hours always left me marvelling at the remarkable resourcefulness of this exceptional couple. Soon Swarna and I took over the mantle of running Vandanamu which we now called Vandanamu Ethical Cottons. We went through a few turbulent patches before settling down to a more organic phase.
Swarna and I tried very hard to scale the enterprise but for a variety of reasons it did not take off as we had hoped. These days, we continue to manage the sewing unit in India, we have regular clientele but we no longer drive to expand the operations (besides, much of my time is taken up with Life Size Videos).
Over the last couple of years, I drifted away from Bernard and Francoise. We did not see eye-to-eye on several issues (including crowdfunding and calling Vandanamu a business) and I did not keep up the contact with them as much as I perhaps should have. But the learnings I had from them remained. They taught me the importance of not being driven by profit margins. They showed me the nuts and bolts of running an enterprise from afar, while keeping it rooted in social values. They believed in the values of being just and of being good and kind to humans (I’ll never forget their reaction to a particularly shocking transgression on part of a few disgruntled women who worked in our sewing unit. Bernard and Francoise felt that the women had been exploited all their lives, little wonder they were cynical and distrusting of others).
This morning I learnt that after months of deteriorating health, Bernard passed away last night. They say some people leave the world a better place for having been there. And I can say with absolute certainty that Bernard Carre was one of them. RIP.