Vijendra Shekhawat remembers the precise moment the bizarre idea struck him. "It was the first time Mahima Mehra, who is now my business partner, and I were visiting the Amber Fort together," he says. "She nudged me just in time for me to step back, avoiding placing my foot on a mound of elephant dung."
Elephants abound at this fort on Jaipur's outskirts, built by Raja Man Singh in 1596, and elephant rides are one of its major attractions. Naturally, piles of elephant dung are a permanent part of the landscape.
As he stared at the stinking lumps, however, Shekhawat, who ran a small handmade paper business, saw a business opportunity. He began to wonder if he could use it as raw material for his paper.
Most people Shekhawat shared the idea with thought he was insane, but he knew something they did not: elephant dung has high fibre content.
"The elephant's gastrointestinal tract cannot digest fibres well and thus its dung has the potential to form the pulp needed to make paper," he says. "This is an animal which digests only 40 per cent of what it eats."
Some Haathi Chaap products
Today, Haathi Chhap, the brand of paper Shekhawat and Mehra make from recycled dung, is sold at 40 outlets within the country and even exported, earning total revenues of Rs 35 lakh in 2011/12. There are Haathi Chaap cards, notebooks, bags, photo albums and numerous knick-knacks. It has outlets in every metro, with the most demand coming from Mumbai, Bangalore and Chennai.
The company began in early 2004, but it has not been a comfortable elephant ride. "Barring Mahima, everyone criticised me," says Shekhawat. "My mother went ballistic at the idea of bringing dung into the house. She claimed no one would ever marry me because of my occupation."
Collecting the dung was itself a difficult proposition, as few workers were willing to sully their hands doing so. It had then to be disinfected and experiments carried out to see if it would yield the right quality of pulp for making paper. Shekhawat spent months on his experiments till he perfected the method he uses.
"I have no obsession with dung," he adds. "I had experimented with other things too," he adds. "I used the fibrous remains of banana tree stems. I tried to use silk threads to make decorative paper.
But somehow none of these worked, while elephant dung did." Shekhawat finally managed to win over his family by invoking religious associations.
"I told them that when one of the most invoked gods of the Hindu religion, Ganesh, was elephant-headed there was no reason to consider elephant dung unholy," he says. "I informed them that there was a section of Brahmins who regarded elephant dung as sacred."
Today most teething problems have been left behind. Shekhawat's wife - he had no problems finding one - is actively involved in the production, as is his brother. It remains a cottage industry, with Shekhawat employing just three men to heat, clean and sort the dung, while the subsequent processes are handled by himself, his wife and his brother.
Shekhawat still personally collects the dung every morning. To improve its quality he supplies the owners of the elephants he collects from with green fodder for the elephant's diet. Every 1,000 kg of dung yields around 150 kg of pulp.
"My previous experience in the handmade paper industry helped me in various degrees to establish Haathi Chaap," says Shekhawat's partner Mehra, who handles most of the distribution. She revealed that Haathi Chaap struggled for the first few years, but saw a remarkable spike in its revenues after 2007/08.
"Till around 2010, there was hardly any company barring ours that mass produced handmade paper, so the market itself was diminutive," she adds. "Improved socio-economic conditions and more fledglings entering the fray also helped increase demand."
However, neither Shekhawat nor Mehra wants to scale their project. "We prefer not to go to big retailers because of the demands such people make," says Mehra.
"Sometimes our deliveries are delayed, especially during the monsoons, when the pulp takes a long time to dry, but our retailers do not mind." Shekhawat agrees. "I think the collegial nature of our business is what makes it sustainable," he says.