Mala Srikanth | A doctor teaching quality knitting to women in the hills

Mala Srikanth has served as a doctor in the Indian Air Force; practised medicine for 30 years, including 12 years in Oman, and is now an inspiration for women in the hills of Ranikhet learning to be brilliant knitters and be financially strong and emotionally independent.

Born to a doctor in the Indian Army, she graduated from the Armed forces Medical College and was commissioned into the Indian Air force (IAF). But after marriage and having two daughters, she shifted to Oman to set up a village practice in a tiny location, 100 km from Muscat, the capital city of Oman. She returned to India after 12 years and worked with the World Health Organization Revised National Tuberculosis Control Programme (WHO- RNTCP) project in Lucknow and Odisha. But a road accident in 2005 changed her life completely and she gave up 30 years of her career in medicine and took up knitting. Meet Dr Mala Srikanth who is now living a peaceful life close to nature in the hills of Uttarakhand and training women to knit with perfection.

“After recovering from 16 odd fractures, getting 18 bottles of blood, being in coma for a week and loss of memory, I was not confident about my medical knowledge anymore,” she says. She learnt Excel sheet skill and became a successful grant proposal writer for TB and the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) projects for the Government of India.

Dr Mala worked as the Project Director for HIV for the Catholic Church. However, within a few years, in deference to being given a second life, she decided to leave the city and move to the mountains. “Once my daughters completed their education and went forth into their careers, there was no pressing need for me to remain in the city, work long hours in an office, buy more and more stuff, etc. I wanted to move to a place in the hills, where I could knit 24 x 7, breathe clean and cold air, live a simple life and just be.”

Five years back Dr Mala set up home in Ranikhet, Uttarakhand, and joined Umang, an NGO with a sturdy knitting group. But within six months she realized that her focus and passion is quality knitting and not simply knitting for economic empowerment. She gave up the assignment and together with another woman she had met in the Ranikhet Express train set up a knitting group comprising 10 women. The focus was quality knitting and the joy of being perfect craftswomen.

Dr Mala now works with 14 women, who she says, “Make exquisite, expensive and exclusive knitwear.” The scale is not too large and the product is sold by word of mouth. But the women have learnt a lot about independence and strength from her personal life. “Besides learning from me how to be a single parent and live life on your own terms, they have learnt fantastic knitting skills and how to read charts and patterns, even though they can’t handle English. All of them are perfectionists like me.”

Economically, these women earn a significant amount, but it is not enough to make them the main earning member of the family yet. But they have made their own self-help group where they together discuss knitting, money matters, parenting, and a lot more. “Since the focus is always on me and my journey, the knitters work together with me on Monday and Wednesday mornings. Initially, we had five-day working weeks, when the knitting was done in the studio only. After a year, projects were allowed to be taken home. They all take out 7-8 hours for knitting at home daily, and we have brainstormed on how to achieve this, while family and village commitments remain.”

Dr Mala has developed a band of women who are brilliant knitters now. As she says, they are their best critics, and they are ruthless when it comes to ripping their knitting, in case of a mistake. “Perfection is part of their genes now, and it has spilled into other parts of their lives too.”

Ask her what prompted her to   take up knitting when she could have helped people as a doctor too, she says: “I have been an excellent doctor with a penchant for getting her sixth sense right. But there is a lot more to me than just my medical acumen. If I don’t explore my talents now, when will I do that? I had taken my father’s legacy with me for three decades; it was time to take on my mother’s legacy. She was an amazing crafter and homemaker, but I had paid scant attention to her talent while focusing on medicine, marriage and parenting. During stressful times, I had derived comfort and calm from creative craft. The Internet, knitting blogs and sites, the availability of amazing yarn and the time spent in aircraft and vehicles, all contributed to me digging deep into the world of knitting, learning techniques and methods, and trying out unique patterns which would give me a feeling of deep satisfaction. In hindsight, I am glad I followed my convictions….I have discovered that I have an eye for colour, I am a good teacher and learning marketing has been a different ball game altogether for this medico.”

For Dr Mala life is about living in the ‘present’. It is about remembering that life is the result of the choices we make. “When I can take the responsibility for my choices, the consequences [good or bad] are mine and I learn and grow at every step. Making a difference in the lives of others is a happy side-effect, never the main thing of life,” she says.

“It always surprises me, profoundly, when I am viewed as an agent of change, as a strong woman who lives life on her terms, as someone who brings about changes in attitude. But it feels really good when I am appreciated and applauded for being a single parent, satisfied and content with my decisions of divorce, returning to India, changing professions, leaving the city and the rat race, having a uniform dress code for all occasions and always sticking to truth. It helps me to remain true to myself.”

Thirty years of life as a medical practitioner and now a contented mother teaching life skills to women in the hills, for Dr Mala, “Career can be viewed as different coats which can be donned by an individual…the trick is to keep a watch on the mind, when it starts to attach itself to a certain ‘coat’…when one starts believing that one’s sense of identity is attained from one’s career / profession / achievements, than one is well on the road to self-doubt and desperation. Anything done with care and skill will be rewarded generously, but anything done for the final goal of getting money will not be respected or supported for a long time.”

Family for her is like oxygen, she says. “My daughters have been my constant source of strength and growth. Without them, Iwould have either sunk into the victim mode for life, or skipped from one mad life situation to another.” But the strong single mother has a message for women: “Remember that every woman is much more than the roles she chooses to play, or the roles which are thrust upon her. Remembering that one is more than one’s designation, more than the position of the spouse/family, more than the achievements of children/siblings, is an essential part of one’s ammo to handle the world.”