Friday, December 14, 2007

Lihaaf ki Baat

Of the many sights announcing the onset of an Indian winter, one that is particularly heartwarming is the annual lihaaf or razaai sunning. It is no easy task maintaining these five kilo warmers.

Prahlad, whose quilt shop in Sadar bazaar is over forty years old says, “It is advisable to have your razaai aired and the cotton beaten every year because germs collect inside cotton very easily. Cotton also has a tendency to clot and the razaai becomes lumpy making it less effective if it isn’t beaten”.

Most lihaafs have a history, wedding presents and ‘first’ razaais are stored by many loyals. “This maroon velvet one is what was given to me for my wedding”, smiles octogenarian Nirmal Kaur running her hand over the once rich maroon quilt. But she is no longer loyal to her sixty year old favourite lihaaf, she has taken to using her bright new Jaipuri razaai over a Chinese blanket this winter. “Well it’s softer and not as heavy as my lihaaf! Though this new arrangement isn’t quite as warm.” Young Rizwana and her mother in law Hamida are in sadar bazaar looking for soft yet sturdy cloth for Rizwana’s year old daughter’s first lihaaf. “I think this one with red flowers will suit your purpose”, says Prahlad as Hamida inspects the cloth carefully.

At his ‘cotton center’, customers usually arrive with bundles of old quilts while others come to order new quilts. “A kilo of cotton costs anywhere between sixty and eighty rupees whereas the fiber is just fifty rupees a kilo. Besides, fiber is washable”, explains Prahlad. A fiber lihaaf sounds appealing to Rizwana but Hamida insists on a good old cotton one. “At least it will last!” she says.

Prahlad had also designed a handmade catalogue of various stitching styles for quilts. “The more ornate, floral or circular sort is Bengali silai while the one with squares is dibbedar silai and then the barfi design is called kishti silai”, he explains. “The most popular is the Bengali silai but few people have the time to choose or pay as much now. They prefer simple and fast products!” laughs Prahlad. His workers live around sadar bazaar and some come to his center to work. “We keep them on a monthly salary and then there are commissions too. They have only three months of work though”, he says.

Outside the cotton center sit Nazneen and Prem who are veterans of this winter tradition, they stuff close to four quilts a day quickly stitching double and single sized cotton and more recently “fiber” quilts. “It is easier to stitch through the fiber quilts, but it’s not the same thing”, says Nazneen as she calls out to the chotu in the tiny paan shop a couple of feet away.

“We used to put pieces of capoor into the shaneel razaais in the olden days. It used to help in keeping the germs out and giving a fresh scent too”, remembers Prem threading her finger sized needle with a thick brown thread. “Some of our old customers still ask us to put ittar and capoor into their lihaafs while we stuff them with cotton”, adds Nazneen who is smoothing out the cotton in the quilt with a short cane stick.

On asking both how long they’ve been making quilts since, both say “Umar beet gayi” and smile. Their own lihaafs are old and precious, “Mine has cotton in it, very very old cotton” says Prem. “Cotton is too expensive today, besides it takes four to five kilos of cotton to make a good lihaaf but you need at least six kilos or more of fiber for a lihaaf”, mutters Nazneen. She learnt the art from her mother and father who used to make quilts at home, her children don’t know how to stitch.

“The lihaafs that used to be made in Maulviganj were famous but their quality went down and now the shopkeepers only sell mattresses etc”, says Prahlad who is helping Baba, his old assistant weigh cotton. “This comes from Ganganagar, Harayana and Punjab and that comes from China”, he says pointing at the fiber. In place of the old wooden contraption which Prahlad calls a “behna” that used to beat cotton for as few as three quilts, sits a metal machine that beats out cotton worth over twenty. And this cotton beating green metal machine is made in India.

Saturday, December 01, 2007

From Narhara

Aslam had visited the primary school he lived next door to in the past ten years only once, to enroll his sons and daughter there. But that was till he became a member of the school management committee in his village, Narhara. “I come to the school for an hour everyday and I also see to it that the children don’t loiter about outside during class hours!” says Aslam, who presses oil for a living. He, Nathulal, Munni Devi and others were selected by the village to be part of this new committee of parents and guardians that intend to provide voluntary assistance to their local primary school.

Bringing the Pradhan, teachers, parents and guardians together was not easy. It involved no less than three to four meetings before a final ‘big meeting’. Anil, who is a twenty five year old post graduate from a village close by has been motivating the locals to participate in school management. “Many villagers were skeptical when I met them first. They used to say we have had enough of these programs and would turn away but we managed to convince them eventually!” he says with a grin.

Supporting Anil in his endeavours have been an equally young post graduate Anuj and veteran development worker Dinesh of Sarvodaya Asharam. For the past three months, they have been camping in a school in Sitapur, directing nine other motivators like Anil to form school management committees in villages around the area. “We are implementing a project that aims to involve local villagers in managing primary schools,” explains Anuj who with his team has worked on every Sunday and festival in the past few months. “We have only till December to see the results!” adds Dinesh.

The results are encouraging, not only are the children benefiting from the extra attention being paid but the committee members too, have found new confidence and awareness because of their new responsibilities.

Munnidevi is a widow with two children who study in the primary school. She has never participated in anything ‘important’ earlier and is one of the three female members in the group of seven. “I come and clean the classes every other day”, she quips. Mrs. Verma, the young primary school teacher looks after five different classes with approximately fifty children each and is assisted the school Shiksha Mitr. “It is a big help now that the parents are coming to school and volunteering to help in cleaning the classes or to cook the midday meal. Earlier, my voice used to go hoarse screaming at children and supervising the cooking!” she says.

Nathulal, the president of the committee talks about their progress, “We have had four meetings till now and have collected five hundred and ninety rupees from villagers as well. We have also requested the pradhan to build a toilet for the school as well”. Local contributions range from rupees ten to rupees fifty, two pink chart hang from the primary school walls, one states the aims of the committee and the other is a list of donors. Anuj points at the area in front of the school, “These furrows in the earth have been made by the members of the committee so that the children stand in straight lines during PT and their morning assembly. These are small innovations made by the locals”, he smiles.

The school management committees elsewhere have been actively involved in maintaining the school property by peeling weeds and wild grass, cleaning school toilets and repairing doors. “It has been observed that teachers are suddenly becoming more active because of the parents involvement and school visits. But it is explained, during the training period to the committee members that they are not to fight or argue, all disputes are to be settled amicably”, says Dinesh. The members understand this and ask the head master or mistress of each school in what way they can be of assistance before they begin work.

Before one leaves the little primary school at Narhara, Aslam, Nathulal and Munnidevi walk across to the small patch of land behind the school and Nathulal says, “We intend to clean this area and cultivate green vegetables here so that the children can eat an extra sabzi with their midday meal. They are all our children after all”.