From his corner desk in the narrow, shared office, Avishek Majumdar struggles for a moment to take his eyes off the computer screen. “Actually, we’re really busy right now. So many orders, but I’m happy, it’s really good for Freeset.”
He steps out of his workspace, and into a quiet meeting room. Avi – as he’s known around the business – is Freeset’s Printing Production Manager, creating custom designs, dealing with customers and managing a small team.
Avi’s childhood was somewhat unusual, his teenage years burdened with responsibility, study and part-time jobs; now in his late 20s and in a job he loves, he presents as a relaxed, purposeful and gracious young man.
“From the beginning my mom was working in this community,” says Avi, referring to the red-light district which Freeset serves. It’s hard for him to talk about the work his mother once did, and he refers to it discreetly as “her profession”.
Avi was born in Kolkata, but his parents were drawn to Mumbai, where the pay was better for those in the “profession”. Avi lived there only a short time before his parents placed him with Muslim friends back in Kolkata.
“I stayed with them almost 13 years and I am very much attached to them. My parents visited once in a year during the Durga Puja vacations (annual Hindu holiday). I still remember when they went to leave, I tried to hide the train tickets.”
“I went to highschool in Kolkata and from nursery to year 8, my parents could send money to pay for school.” Then there was a big flood in Mumbai, coinciding with a local government crack-down on dancing in bars. Avi’s parents returned to Kolkata poor, no longer able to afford his study.
“So from then on, and through my university years, I worked and studied.”
His first job was delivering newspapers, earning about US$4.50 a month. “I was selling products door to door, any jobs that I could find. By the time I was a little bit educated I did promotions for new brands, going shop to shop.”
While living in Mumbai, Avi’s parents had a second son, and placed him with carers while they worked.
“When my parents decided to come back in Kolkata, my brother was two, and [the carers] also had an attachment.” They suggest to Avi’s parents that they keep him, raising and educating him like their own son.
“It was very hard to leave this boy, but they also had no money,” Avi’s voice is tinged with sadness. “They are a very good family. Now we think my parents took a good decision. Now my brother is studying in an English college and he is a very good student.”
Back in Kolkata, facing little choice, Avi’s mother returned to the red-light area once again. Even so, what she earned usually covered only the rent and two meals a day. “They also sent money to Mumbai for my brother,” says Avi, “sometimes my mom asked me to send the money when she didn’t have work.”
“At that time I was thinking, ‘why did this happen to us?’ I was struggling, it was a tough situation, studying and working.”
After highschool Avi pursued his passion for art, supporting himself through a design degree while also working on a construction site. He would arrive at 6am to check the day’s deliveries, attend classes and exam coaching from 11am, and at nightfall return to the building site to schedule supplies.
Meanwhile, Avi’s mother heard of Freeset’s existence, and quickly secured a job there in the screen-printing department.
“Everyday I heard from my mom, she talked always about how good it was to work there. I hardly ever saw her absent. Because when she’s at home, she drinks, so to keep herself from it she went to work.”
Freeset CEO Kerry Hilton showed an interest in Avi’s studies, encouraging him to come knocking once he graduated. “I was feeling shy, but they kept asking me to join,” laughs Avi. He went to work for a custom print business, using the opportunity to hone his design skills.
“One day my mom said [the Freeset manager] wanted to talk with me, so I called in sick and came here with a data stick with all my work.
“That day he gave me an assignment, a data stick with a note, and told me to read the brief and make it.”
“I did the work, and made many mock-ups and that’s the thing he liked the most. He offered me a job that day.” Avi never returned to the print shop.
Freeset is family for Avi; a place where he feels loved and appreciated.
“I worked lots of places, but I never experienced such a family.” He nods his head towards the floor full of work spaces, indicating the dozens of women engrossed in their afternoon’s work. “Other ladies treat me as their boy, when I started, everyday someone would bring me food. That makes me very emotional, I feel very, very good. I have never been treated like this.”
Avi rattles off a list of those who have supported and mentored him over the past five years as he progressed from an assistant production designer to his current role. “I learned how to be a good leader, not just to rule my team, but to be with them, to listen.”
“I have a relationship like brother and sister, they are also like my mom, aunties, sisters. I want to do what we can for the women.”
Avi speaks with great hope and confidence about his future. And he can’t wait to see his little brother soon. “Now my brother is 17. He wants to come and visit but where [my parents] live, it is the red light area. Now I’m married, I bought a new place, far from here, so next year I want him to come.”
Avi drums his fingers on the table, the interview is coming to a close, but first – what does he enjoy doing outside of work?
“I like dancing very much, it’s come from my mom, my mom is a good dancer. From childhood I started learning dancing and still at any Freeset birthday or any occasion, I am dancing.
“Actually, I feel very light telling this. Some things I want to forget, but some I want to remember.”
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