Patna (Bihar) [India]:
The elder son was sitting beside her and the younger son was in her lap, she bowed her head and was constantly rolling the tendu leaves filled with tobacco to make the poor man's cigarette called "beedi".
Since childhood 27-year-old Rukhsana Khatun (name changed), living in Habibpur village in Bhagalpur district of Bihar has been working as a beedi worker.
Narrating her sad story, she says, "Without even being given a chance to enjoy my childhood I was married off at a very young age. When I turned a little mature I realized what it meant to live with one's in-laws. My in-laws house did not have many people living in it. Apart from my Father-in-Law and Mother-in-law, there was just me and my husband."
"My husband was working with a friend in a nearby grocery store. He earned a decent wage which helped in running the house. My Mother-in-law also used to work in a few houses doing sweeping and swabbing. Yes, my mother-in-law never asked me to work. Everything was going fine till first my father-in-law and then soon after that my mother-in-law passed away."
"After that my whole world turned upside down. The shock of losing his parents one after another was too much to bear for my husband. He got sick first and then his voice went away. As much as I could do I did for his treatment. I even showed him to the village Maulvi, (A term generally used for a highly qualified Islamic scholar) but nothing worked. Before I could realize it, all the savings had been spent on my husband's treatment."
" Now his situation is so bad that neither can he talk nor can he walk. In such a situation how can I leave him and go out to work?Never did I in my wildest of dreams think that my life would change so drastically, but what to do, life must go on. I had my three children to take care of. I decided to speak to a friend who was working in a house nearby to help me get employed as a beedi worker. At least I would be able to earn some money while sitting at home. Now all the household expenses get covered by making beedis".
Ask Rukshana why she did not take up any other work and she immediately responds saying, "I can't read and write so I cannot become a writer like you.Yes, I did try to work in the houses where my mother-in-law used to work but they refused to employ me". So why choose beedi making? "There are many such houses in our neighbourhood where the women complete their household chores early in the morning and then for the rest of the day they sit down and make beedis."
"During my childhood I have learnt this work from my maternal grandfather. I used to sit with him and help him to make beedis. My parents would scold me whenever I would sit down to help my grandfather to make beedis, who knew that what was just a childhood fantasy for me would turn out to be my source of income one day" replies Rukshana.
How much does she earn and how many beedis does she make in a day? In response, she says, "Each day's earnings differ depending upon the number of beedis that one makes. For example if you make 500 beedis you earn Rs. 60.00, you make less than that, you earn less money and the more you make the more you earn. But it is not easy to make 500 beedis alone. In some homes, the whole family is engaged in this work, they make more beedis and their earning is better than mine. But the amount I earn I thank God for that, at least I am not begging for my living."
What are the problems faced in doing this work? After a very long silence she responds, "The biggest problem I faced when my third child was going to be born. How I managed for nine months only I know - a child in my womb, an ill husband and two small children to look after and also make the beedis. As my pregnancy progressed, it became more and more difficult to sit cross legged in one position and make beedis, at the end of the day my whole body would feel absolutely sore."
"Many people advised me not to continue making beedis in such a condition as the child in my womb would be affected, but all I could think of was my family. So I continued to work and by God's grace my son was born healthy. Perhaps even God understood my situation and gave me the strength to work in such a condition. Each and every day I take God's name before I start my work and he gives me strength." She then drifted back to her work.
Rukhsana Khatun's story is certainly very inspiring, but how many Rukhsana's are there in Habibpur district and how many families in the entire State of Bihar who have to make beedis in order to make both ends meet.
What can be done to improve the living conditions of these people? Can these affected families hope for a better tomorrow? Can this hazardous occupation be ended and alternative forms of livelihood found -especially for the women?
The views expressed in the above article are that of Nikhat Perween of Charkha Features.