For the first three decades of his life, 31-year-old Dimbeshwar was content to cultivate his family's rice paddy and vegetable farm in the soggy soils of northeast India, where the annual three-month monsoons guarantee plentiful outputs in their mineral-rich fields. He worked alongside his parents, married a local girl, and had two children. Sometimes he split stones for a few extra rupees, though the work is both hard and illegal in India.
Until the local manager of a small enterprise called Elrhino came around looking for factory workers to help produce eco-friendly products, Dimbeshwar had no other options. Elrhino, launched by the Bora family in 2011, had begun to take off, with orders from Delhi to Paris. Their social mission included hiring some of their poorest neighbors, and paying fair wages while creating elegant papers from such throwaway items as recycled paper, cotton fabric scraps and, believe it or not, sterilized elephant and rhino dung. Dimbeshwar got on his bicycle and rode to his new job, two kilometers away to the Elrhino factory; and one year later, he's got a completely different view of the world.
"I do design work here," he says. He works with large sheets of pressed-pulp paper, carefully laying out all manner of delicate leaves onto sheets that will eventually become journal pages and calendars. "I like everything about my job, but mostly designing. I've never felt anything about this work was bad."
When not at the Elrhino factory, Dimbeshwar lives in a multi-room complex made of a bamboo frame covered in cow-dung stucco, smoothed to a flawless finish. The house has a sturdy corrugated-steel roof and electrical wiring to power an old tube television perched prominently on the master-bedroom bureau.
Dimbeshwar says he met his wife in the village one night when he was walking to the local bar; his wife, Kolpana (age 27), disagrees, says they always knew each other from the time they were little kids. Either way, they got to talking that night and fell in love. Dimbeshwar wrote her a note in which he asked her to marry him, and sent it to her via a go-between. Kolpana wrote back: "Yes." Not only was this not your typical arranged marriage—the bride's parents objected. "So, we had to go against them," Dimbeshwar recalls. He came to get Kolpana, brought her to the home he shared with his parents (the traditional way in rural India), and married her.
Ten years later, they share an affection that's both obvious and infectious: All three generations enjoy close, harmonious relationships. Five-year-old Dipangkar runs through the courtyard giggling; his seven-year-old sister Dimpole climbs up on her grandpa's lap to watch. Evenings and Sundays, when he's home, Dimbeshwar spends his free time playing a board game called ludo with his kids. "I always win," he laughs, "because they are small. But when they grow up, they will get their revenge and beat me every time."
Kolpana stays home, as do the vast majority of women here. She weaves cotton into clothing for the family. She earns a little money selling pigs, chickens, and rice wine. Like virtually all rural Assamese residents, they cultivate chickens, harvest fish, and grow their own fruits, vegetables, and rice in this fertile valley.
Producing their own food and clothes, living in an inherited house on their own land, they do pretty well on a total monthly salary of 6,000 rupees ($100). Dimbeshwar is proud to say that they save 1,000 ($17) each month, and that he has a life insurance policy. Since they do not have a bank account, Kolpana invests their savings into a village microsavings group. She tracks every detail of the household administration but admits she knows very little about what Dimbeshwar does all day at Elrhino. "He is making paper from elephant and rhino dung--that's all I know," she shrugs.
When Dipangkar grows up, he wants to have a job as a policeman. Dimpole, with her two ponytails bobbing, adds that she plans to be a teacher. There is no question in this home whether both kids will attend college, "because we parents have set it up for them," says Dimbeshwar.
When he thinks about future goals, he does not think about himself. "I want to continue working at Elrhino, and with the money I earn, educate my children so they can be big in the world--and grow up well."
The Northeast-Indian sun, framed by the sprouted heads of tall palm trees, begins its descent over the rooftops of his house, parents' house, and rice storehouse. He leans back in a plastic chair, visibly proud of the life he's created. More than getting by on subsistence farming, he now has a reliable monthly income all year, no matter what happens with the weather, crops, and livestock. He has a sense of community. "I like the people [at work], and I'm learning a lot," he smiles. "I like to work because there is so much love there. We're like a family." He feels good about the way Elrhino "uses only waste to make the paper--out of dung, paper and fabric scraps, and other things."
Every day when he comes to work, Dinbeshwar sees new chances to get creative, Because all products are made by hand, he can design one-of-a-kind notebook covers, picture frames, calendars, clocks, and lampshades, using fabrics from the local Bodo and Rhadha tribes and pressed leaves from plants in the fields and forest just outside the factory. "I have too many designs in my head to even tell!" he throws his head back and chuckles.
Just one year since starting work, Dimbeshwar has a vision for Elrhino that extends far past the village where he's lived all his life. While his end goal is opportunity for his son and daughter, he also sees progress for himself and his coworkers as inevitable.
"My dream for myself is to become a good designer," he says. Now that Elrhino is taking orders both in India and internationally, he predicts growth far beyond their current fifteen employees. "I'd like to see the company expand," Dimbeshwar says. He absentmindedly curls his hands into fists and runs his knuckles lightly, back and forth, across his jeans. The sky behind him is streaked in orange and purple, and neighbors and relatives have begun to gather in his family's courtyard for an evening chat.
"And as Elrhino expands," Dimbeshwar proclaims, "we'll all advance together."