Indian man runs a clothes bench to help poor girls with their weddings | Philanthropy news
New Delhi, India – You have heard of a blackboard, a book bench, maybe even a toy bench. But how about a “clothes bench”? Well, this one-of-a-kind charity model is giving away once-worn wedding attire – saris, ankle-length skirts, and dresses – donated by privileged families to women with limited funds.
Led by Nasar Thootha, a taxi driver from the village of Thootha in the Malappuram district of the southern Indian state of Kerala, the bank has so far helped more than 260 disadvantaged brides with free outfits for the most important day of their lives.
Last year, 44-year-old Thootha, a returnees from Saudi Arabia, began using WhatsApp and Facebook to urge people to hand over their unused wedding dresses for the cause.
As the news spread, a trickle soon turned into a flood, and dozens of bulky parcels of clothes as good as new landed on his doorstep, many anonymous.
“Wedding attire is all about vanity. They are worn for a couple of hours and then never come out of the closets. When they realized this, many families came forward to support our cause, ”Thootha, who worked for a grocery supermarket in Riyadh for more than 10 years before returning to India eight years ago, told Al Jazeera.
“Passing on to the other needy”
The philanthropist says he started the “clothes bench” on a trial basis in April 2020 from a room in his house. The brides’ families contact him on Facebook and then visit the bank directly to choose the dress of their choice, regardless of the cost.
“If the family doesn’t have the money to travel long distances or if one of the members is sick, the dress will be sent directly to them through our network of volunteers,” Thootha said, adding that he never asks the families to do so to do so to return the dress, “but we encourage them to pass it on to others in need”.
The donated clothes are collected by charities and friends in various locations across Kerala. After dry cleaning, they are packed in airtight packages and neatly stored on shelves in Thootha’s modest country estate.
“With God’s grace, I personally don’t have to invest any money in running the clothes bench. I’m just a channel through which the women who need it most get it from kind donors, ”Thootha told Al Jazeera.
Such was the success of the initiative that the bank currently has more than 800 dresses in stock – with prices ranging from 5,000 to 50,000 Indian rupees ($ 66 to $ 660) – that can work for Muslim, Christian, or Hindu brides.
Over time, contributions came not only from across Kerala, but also from neighboring states of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, as well as the non-resident Indian (NRI) community in the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia.
The 31-year-old Sakina Khan from Mumbai (name changed on request) receives a pink Banarasi silk saree from the clothes bench for her wedding planned for December 27th. She says it is the most precious gift she has ever received.
“My father and uncle both died when the Delta variant arrived in India this summer. I also lost my job as a school teacher. So my mother, who cooks food in four households, is the only family member who earns something. We already spent $ 5,000 on the venue and food for my wedding so there wasn’t any money left to buy my wedding dress, ”says the bride-to-be.
When she contacted Thootha on Facebook, he was very helpful, she says. Having no money to travel to Kerala, she simply selected her outfit over a video call. It was delivered within a week.
“When the package arrived last week, my mother and I broke down and hugged for joy,” Khan told Al Jazeera.
What made a humble man with a large family of four children, a wife, parents, and a disabled sister come to this cause?
“After my return from Saudi Arabia, I helped government agencies rehabilitate the poor and homeless. During this time I met many families who had difficulty arranging wedding dresses for their daughters, which are usually expensive. So I decided to help them, ”said Thootha.
The philanthropist initially ran the bank from home, but admired its commitment and expansion, and offered one of his friends a one-room shop for the company near his home. Thootha plans to move the bank to this new location in March next year.
Does he intend to have the grooms’ dresses in stock too? After all, men want to look dapper on their big day too. “Well, we haven’t received any requests for the groom’s outfits. Brides only. When we get such inquiries, we can think about storing them too, ”he says and laughs.
In addition to his taxi, Thootha also runs an ambulance service. Here, too, he tries to help as many people as possible. He makes the rides free for those who can’t afford them.
“During the pandemic, I helped many poor families to transport their dead relatives to the crematorium free of charge. In general, I only charge those who can afford the ambulance. Some good-hearted people also donate gasoline or alimony for my ambulance, ”he explains.
According to a report by IBISWorld, a US data research firm, India’s wedding industry is valued at $ 50 billion, after the US $ 72 billion industry. While the rich can afford big, fat weddings, it is the poor who go through enormous difficulties in getting their children married.
“Indian families spend significant sums of money on the venue, food, outfits, jewelry and gifts for their relatives. Moneylender wedding loans are often tied to astronomical interest rates and crippling debt for the poor. Insolvency can also lead to public disgrace or suicide, ”Ranjana Kumari, an activist and director of the Center for Social Research, a women’s organization, told Al Jazeera.
In 2016, a 58-year-old farmer and his family members died of suicide in the Kancheepuram district of Tamil Nadu after attempts to raise money from his friends for his older daughter’s marriage failed.
In another incident, 25-year-old Vipin (who had only his first name) took his own life in the Thrissur district of Kerala last week after failing to obtain a loan for his sister’s marriage.
According to a survey by LenDenClub, a digital lending company, wedding loans accounted for more than 35 percent of all other special-purpose loans taken out by Indians. According to the data analyzed by the company, the demand for wedding loans rose 40 percent in 2021 from 2020 onwards.