By Afsana Rashid:
Baramulla (Women’s Feature Service) – Reading aloud the ‘talim’ (the script for weaving a carpet) while sitting at a loom, Masrat Bano, 21, and her sister, Fancy, expertly weave beautiful carpets. Their loom has been set up in the attic of their small home in a small village in north Kashmir, although the girls find it tedious to work there because of the extreme weather conditions. The roof heats up during the summers making the room very stuffy and uncomfortable while the harsh winter brings in the creeping cold and a continuous draft. However, keeping their discomfort aside the duo works hard every day because they need to step up to make ends meet.
A resident of Chak Jamal in Baramulla district’s Palhallan-Pattan, around 35 kilometres from Srinagar, Masrat, the eldest of five siblings has been shouldering the responsibility of keeping the household going ever since she lost her father, Habibullah Dar, who used to work as a labourer. She had just appeared for her Class 5 exams at the nearby government primary school where she was enrolled and it was during the long winter break that followed that he passed away, leaving her with no option but to quit her studies. Recalling that difficult phase in her life, when she had to take a tough decision for the sake of her family, she says, “My father had been very keen to send me to school; he wanted to ensure that I excelled in studies. Had he not died I would have finished my education by now and taken up a very different career. But destiny had something else in store for me.”
As she couldn’t step outside the home to earn a living, Masrat decided to learn carpet weaving from her maternal uncle. Incidentally, in Kashmir, this craft is traditional and passed on from one generation to another. The designs are indigenous, and most artisans still do the knots that make the carpet by hand. Masrat, too, had to work really hard to pick up this skill, which requires patience and diligence, but today she has established her proficiency at it.
The young woman’s day starts at six. She first gets around to finishing the household chores with her mother and sister after which the two sit down to make carpets. Masrat, who is initiating her sister into this work now, reads out the ‘talim’ while the youngster follows the instructions to the T. There was a time when their mother did this work but due to her advancing age and failing health she has given it up altogether. Instead, she spends time cultivating a vegetable garden on the small piece of land they own. On most days, Masrat is stuck at the loom from morning to evening while her sister goes to school in the morning and joins her later on. Festivals and Fridays are the only off days for them. They take a few short breaks but only to help their mother. “Sometimes we take a break from the monotonous work and go to our mother who keeps busy with cultivating vegetables,” she shares.
Masrat is not really happy with the way her life is going. “Throughout the day one has to sit in one place, head bent over the loom and fingers delicately knotting the wool. It is very tedious. After hours of continuous toil, my limbs start aching, and I end up feeling very unhappy and dissatisfied. I would have quit this, but I am not good at anything else; I don’t have any other skills. So, whatever my feelings, whatever the money, I keep my frustrations aside and get on with the job at hand. It is our bread and butter,” she says candidly.
Depending on the size and the intricacy of the design, on an average, it takes three months for Masrat and her sister to make one carpet. They make ₹10,000 for every finished carpet, but that money is not even enough to take care of everyone’s basic needs; there are a number of times when they have to purchase household essentials on credit. One of Masrat’s brothers works as a labourer to contribute to the family earnings. “I hand over the entire money to my mother because bills have to be paid, food has to be bought, my younger siblings need clothes and school things. There is never any left for me. Though I wish I could get some to spend on myself I never have the heart to ask my mother for it,” she says.
These days, Masrat works on a loom that has been rented out to her by a ‘wosta’ (middleman), who also provides her with work contracts and the raw material she needs. However, earlier, she had tried to strike out on her own. “There have been times when I have wanted to quit weaving and opt for some other livelihood that would at least ensure regular, decent earnings, there was a brief period when I had thought why not try and do this work on our own. Kashmiri carpets are well-known and popular nationally and internationally, so I thought if my sister and I can save some money and buy our own raw material and link up with buyers we may be able to build a business. But that plan didn’t work out, and we had to go back to the ‘wosta’,” she reveals.
Circumstances at home may not have allowed her to study, which is her true passion, but since the last three years, Masrat has found a way to stay in touch with her books. For two hours every evening, she makes her way to the Child Activity Centre set up in her village by the Jammu and Kashmir Association of Social Work, a non-government organisation. Initially, having left her education in the primary school itself, she could barely even read; nowadays, apart from confidently reading she can sign her initials as well. “The class begins at four, and we are provided with the reading materials as well,” she says. Of course, once she’s done there it’s back to the loom.
According to Masrat, widespread poverty in the area has pushed scores of families and especially young people like her into poorly-paying informal work. “Instead of focusing on education which can actually help us get better-paying jobs, we are stuck in home-based work like carpet weaving that is exploitative and detrimental to our health in the long run. Moreover, those like me who are keen to study despite our schedule have to deal with several problems. For instance, one has to traverse a long distance on foot to get to the nearest school, and there is no way we can spare that kind of time. For dropouts like me there is no hope because we can’t afford the private tuitions one would need to catch up,” she elaborates.
In her village of 120 households, this story of struggle is echoed in nearly every home. With few economic opportunities coming their way, families do what they have to in order to survive. Women and girls, consequently, are bearing a double burden – of managing the home and bringing in money, too. In the winters, they are solely engaged in carpet weaving; in summers, there is the added work of agriculture. But this comes at a cruel cost; the cost of deeply cherished dreams. In Masrat’s case, the hands that once wanted to hold a pen and become a teacher are today callused from carefully threading wool to make wondrous carpet patterns come to life.