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The mirch masala women of Lajpat Nagar…

The yellow building shedding paint at places, spread across a sprawling lawn, is certainly without the twinkle of a fantasy world that Alice found herself in but it is nevertheless a world far removed from what is outside the gate. Photo: Sangeeta Barooah Pisharoty

The yellow building shedding paint at places, spread across a sprawling lawn, is certainly without the twinkle of a fantasy world that Alice found herself in but it is nevertheless a world far removed from what is outside the gate. Photo: Sangeeta Barooah Pisharoty   | Photo Credit: 04dmccom

Founded by Lala Lajpat Rai, Servants of People is one of the oldest civil society organisations of Delhi. One of its highlights is its 40-year-old spice sale counter where women still hand-pound everyday spices, a practice nearly gone from Delhi homes

Snaking through the lanes of Delhi’s Lajpat Nagar — heaving with honking cars, tinkling cycle-rickshaws and a throng of people on the move, when you step inside the gate of Lajpat Bhawan opposite the Moolchand Metro Station, it is a near Alice in Wonderland moment for a first-timer like me. The yellow building shedding paint at places, spread across a sprawling lawn, is certainly without the twinkle of a fantasy world that Alice found herself in but it is nevertheless a world far removed from what is outside the gate.

If the sheer space that you suddenly find yourself in is not a surprise reprieve, a library filled with people and books, a little bookshop almost like in children’s story books, diagnostic centres with rate lists that you thought no more exist in the city, a busy relief counter for the needy, and a women’s centre with a unit that sells only hand-pounded spices, are the other abiding features that Lajpat Bhawan can throw at you. And yes, there is a school inside it too. Well, there we were, so many like me, who just took Lajpat Bhawan to be a building that only hosts sale of shirts and trousers from time to time!

Lajpat Bhawan belongs to Servants of People (SOP), a civil society organisation started by Lala Lajpat Rai in the 1920s in his home town Lahore. After Partition, Rai moved it to Delhi before spreading its branches to many places across the country. Raj Kumar, the present chairman of SOP, says, “Rai’s objective was to enlist and train national missionaries for the service of the motherland. Their duty would be to work for the educational, cultural, social, economic and political advancement of the country. This has been our endeavour since.”

Vasu M, the chief administrative officer of SOP, counts for me some of the many philanthropic services it does for the society. “We run 18 free balwadis in the slum areas of Delhi where we prepare kids between two and five years for regular schools. We also run a Government-aided higher secondary school at Lajpat Bhawan which has 1500 poor children. There is another school in Greater Kailash with 3500 children of which 450 are those with special needs.” SOP also runs vocational courses in homeopathy and naturopathy. Poor women in a village called Mandi, outside of Gurgaon, are also trained in tailoring, stitching, etc. for employment. It also runs Godhuli, a senior citizen home in Dwarka. “We have an allopathic polyclinic here where doctors diagnose patients for free for three days a week. We also offer highly subsidised treatment. Then there is an ayurveda and a homeopathy clinic too,” lists Vasu.

Its library has over 60,000 books. “Many people come here everyday to read newspapers, also to make use of preparatory books for competitive exams. Some students from nearby come here to study because of lack of space and silence in their homes,” he adds. Many Presidents, Prime Ministers and other dignitaries have served as its chairman and trustee after Rai.

Going past the library — also that hall rented out for sale of shirts and trousers, I walk towards its Rikhidevi Ram Das Suri Narishala which houses a masala centre, noting on the way a quaint looking children’s bookstore where you can donate books for the needy. The sight at the masala centre is certainly rare in today’s times. The sharp smell of the spices hitting your nostrils at once is as much reassuring as it is appetising. Certainly a spot of a Mirch Masala moment for me!

On that muggy morning, I find about a dozen women at the traditional stone chakkis and imamdastas pounding a variety of spices that are used everyday in our homes. They are powdering coriander, chilli, cumin, garam masala, turmeric and sendhya namak. Some others squat on the floor, cleaning seeds of carom, fennel, coriander, cumin and whole red chilli. Move a little ahead and you will find some of them packing the hand-pounded, manually cleaned spices to go to the adjacent hall for sale. Next to it is a reception-cum-cashier-counter complete with a rate list against the products available, the place where a customer reaches first.

The manager of the masala centre, S. Malhotra, surprises me when he says, “We sell about Rs. 50-60 thousand worth of spices everyday. Last year, we sold hand-pounded masalas worth Rs.1.48 crore.”

So who are its customers? “We sell it to only individuals, people who don’t go for labels but for good products. Masalas are sold in packets of 100 and 200 gms only. Compared to the market, our products are double the price but you just need a pinch unlike what is available in the market,” he says. “From 50 kg of carom seeds, 10 kg goes waste here every time because we are particular that each seed we sell is good,” he offers an example of quality control at the centre. Malhotra has been associated with SOP since his retirement eight years ago from a Government job. “I work on an honorary basis here, like so many others,” he says.

The centre has 20 women in employment, informs Sangeeta, the supervisor. Each makes a living out of the profit. Uttara Singla, associated with the centre for nearly 20 years now, reflects, “It was the dream child of Silawanti Sevak Ram, the wife of our former chairman Sevak Ram. She was an amazing lady who was convinced that women can be empowered with the traditional skills they already have. She started the centre in the early ’70s. I was lucky to have worked with her.”

Time for a photograph of these women at the chakki but they refuse to feature in it. What Malhotra states as the reason behind it is as much surprising as it is worrying. “People often say, jail main chakki peeste pecchh te hain. So these women feel that if they come in photographs working the chakki, their families and neighbours will laugh at them.” Well, such is the state of dignity of labour in our country!

Before leaving this vibrant team of women at work, I buy a host of spices from the counter, savouring the moment where spices are handed down to me in a brown paper bag. Simple packets of goodness and yes, without a brand name.

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Printable version | Feb 28, 2020 1:21:13 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/metroplus/the-mirch-masala-women-of-lajpat-nagar/article6275393.ece

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