Shweta and her family used to make rakhis every year for 15 days for just Rs 1,050. Now she is seeking a new life in a coffee shop.
Making rakhis has become second nature to Shweta and her little cousins, their nimble fingers working dexterously even when they are transfixed by their favourite soap on television. Even little Ira, Shweta’s one-and-half-year-old cousin, knows how to thread a needle.
“She tried to eat the needle once, so she’s not allowed anymore,” the family said, laughing.
Shweta’s family, which doesn’t use a last name, has been assembling rakhis in Delhi for the past nine years. “First thread a needle and tie a knot, then slide the thread through a plastic bead, followed by the red felt flowers, the plastic green leaves and the golden tassels,” said Shweta, 19. “Press them together with your finger and push the needle through the cardboard sheet. It’s simple. It takes about 40 minutes to make a dozen of these.”
Every year, about two months before Rakshabandhan, Shweta’s mother Anju pays a visit to a rakhi wholesaler in Sadar Bazaar to ask for work. After this, every morning, the wholesaler drops off the raw materials for one gross – or one “gruz” as they call 12 dozen rakhis. At times, he gives them a little more, depending on the orders he receives. The raw material sets the target for the day for the family.
“We work for around four hours every day,” said Shweta. How much money does one gruz, or 144 rakhis, fetch them? Rs 9 is the quick reply.
Shweta’s mother Anju says the payment for the work hasn’t increased ever since she can remember. “We do it because if we don’t, someone else will,” she said. “We need the money. It is seasonal work, so we do it. There are some rakhis which need more skill and could get us better earnings, but we don’t have connections with those wholesalers.”
For a number of families at Koocha Mohtar Khan, a low-income neighbourhood in Old Delhi where Shweta’s family lives, seasonal work during Rakshabandhan is an important source of income. Local NGO workers say Koocha Mohtar Khan is a sweepers’ colony, a remnant of pre-independence India – Mohtar is a corrupted version of Mehtar, which means Jamadar, and even today most residents in the area are from lower castes.
With its proximity to Sadar Bazaar, Delhi’s largest wholesale market, many women rely on various kinds of piecework – making rakhis being one in the months from June to August. There are also small factories being run from homes, producing the raw materials for rakhis.
The rakhis that Shweta’s family makes have a simple design and are more traditional. They sell for Rs 5 to Rs 10.
“They aren’t sold here, people buy them in villages in Rajasthan, UP and Madhya Pradesh,” said the owner of Anil Bhai Rakhi Wala, a wholesaler at Sadar Bazaar for the past 30 years. “Now there are newer raw materials and designs that are popular. Rakhis with stones, imported from China, zari work rakhis, cartoon character rakhis and rakhis with geometry boxes, these are most popular now. Most of this work is done by women at home.”
Shweta’s is a mostly-woman household, her younger brother being the only male member. Her mother is a matchmaker who finds some work during the wedding season setting up matches in the Jatav community, a social group that is a part of the Chamar caste. Her aunt and grandmother earn some money filling in for cooks at affluent homes in the neighbouring colonies. They moved in with her uncle’s family after Shweta’s father died a few years ago. With 14 people cramped together in a tiny two-room apartment, fights and abuses are routine. Their room lacks a proper roof, which means the rains invariably bring inconvenience. For all these reasons, Shweta’s family has been trying to save enough money to buy their own place.
Being the eldest child, Shweta has always felt responsible for contributing to the family’s income. Last year, over 15 days, she and her siblings earned a total of Rs 1,050 making rakhis, an accomplishment they were excited about. Some money went into their savings, the rest they spent on a little celebration.
This year, Shweta’s approach to Rakshabandhan is evidently different. Around eight months ago, she found herself a job as a barista at a famous Indian coffee chain. The training she received for the job equipped her with English and computer skills, and she was confident about her prospects. But there were more complex and unanticipated concerns that challenged her like questions of dignity and class difference.
“Her café is in front of a college and the same set of students visit regularly,” said Anju. “They are the same age as her and like her they are in the first or second year [of college]. It bothers her that she can’t afford to sit on those sofas and so she has to serve them.”
Her little cousin added proudly, “Didi works on a computer,” referring to her work at the cash counter.
With Shweta just about finding her feet at the entry level of the organised sector, rakhi-making is a reminder of the insecurity and precariousness that characterises the lives of those employed in informal work, something she is trying to break away from.
“I have recently got a promotion and a little raise,” she said, even though she is paid only a little more than the minimum wage. “I will stay here for another year if there are good growth opportunities. I have PF [Provident Fund] and ESI [Employees’ State Insurance], and I can also save money. In another two months, we will save enough to complete the renovations at our apartment. Then we can move into a room of our own.”
The experience of Rakshabandhan too has changed for Shweta. Whereas a year ago, she was content with earning Rs 1,050, this year her café has a sales target of almost 30 times that amount. “We won’t get fired if we don’t meet the target, but it will hamper our chances of getting a raise,” she said. “Appraisals are performance-based, so we need to meet our target.”
What about the rakhis? “I didn’t make rakhis this year. I was too tired after work.”
While rakhi-making at Koocha Mohtar Khan might be fascinating for a curious outsider, evoking a romanticised image of women smiling and working together, for Shweta it has become a reminder of the extra work she has to put in to make any celebration possible.
Previously published on scroll.in