They opened the door reluctantly. I stepped inside the house hesitantly, prickling with the knowledge that I am not very welcome. Siddique sahab was aware too, but pushed ahead anyway. 'They need to speak up. Their ideas of diginity are secondary to the battle for survival.'
But how hard it is! Half-remembered stories came back to me - about the landed rich of the area who grew so poor that everything in the house was sold, and there was nothing to eat, but the old man of the house would still step out in his sherwani. Of people starving to death but nobody knowing because they would not speak of it.
It is not easy to speak of hunger. Especially for those who once had enough. The weavers of Varanasi once had enough. Now, they describe their handlooms as a sort of living grave.
The analogy is curiously fitting, you realise, when you see a 'workshop'. The looms are fitted into a hole in the ground. Take away the loom and it does look like grave.
The ground floor of the home of the Ahmeds had once been a busy place. There were four looms. There were employees. Nizam Ahmed took his sarees to the mandi, where customers and traders from near and far awaited the weavers. They were paid on the spot. Then, somehow, things changed. The 'mandi' no longer existed. Traders began to claim that the benarasi saree no longer sold. There was no demand. They could not afford to pay so much. The weavers, pushed to the wall, began to accept lesser and lesser. The sarees that once fetched them Rs 1500, now go for Rs 600.
The Ahmeds had shut the workshop up for the day when Siddique sahab knocked on their door, but they unlocked it for us to look inside. One loom had been dismantled long ago. Two lay silent as death. Only one was still strung with anticipation, looped with silk and silver and golden threads.
The son, Riyaz slipped into position and started work. The father brought out a bit of graph-paper on which a design was printed. This design can be the border or the 'booti' of the saree. The more elaborate the border design, the harder the weaver has to work.
I was somewhat awed to see what it takes to actually make a saree, a zari border, the simplest booti. The loom was strung and overhung with what looked like cardboard streamers with holes punched into them. Turned out, these bits of cardboard represented the border design. Imagine that each pixel on the design graph had to be represented in a linear fashion. Thousands of dots go into a pattern. Thousands of holes have to be punched into cardboard and strung together, and finally attached to the loom, with thread passing through the holes at the appropriate places. It takes weeks to just set up a handloom, if you're going to create a new, exclusive design. (This part of the contraption was invented locally, it is said.)
The hard work begins much earlier, though. Silk has to be acquired, skeins organised, rolled into spools etcetra etcetra. This too takes weeks, and is usually done by the wives and daughters of the weavers (it goes without saying that they are not paid and their labour is never taken into account).
And here, the young weaver's son sits, legs dangling in the mud floor. His fingers work swiftly, his eyes rarely the fabric that he creates, line by line by line. With a sort of awed fascination mixed with a tight-rolled terror in my heart, I watched. The endlessness of it. The spool moving from right hand to left and left back to right, the wooden loom making a dull racket, as rhythmic as a heartbeat. It would be easy to slip into a sort of trance here. And line by line by line, the fabric is created. Silk thread seems to be melting under his fingers. He pauses just an instant, replacing the silk with silver, then gold, then silver, then silk. And while I am talking to his parents, his grandmother, while I am listening to them speak of families mixing poison in roti and feeding it to hungry children, of widows of suicides making a barren living by cutting off the tiny rough edges on the underside of the embroidered fabric, of weavers not yet taking to crime of any sort - except one incident when a man snatched a bag of food from a passerby in the market - my eyes and ears stayed with that live loom.
And Nizam Ahmed was saying - "This saree will take us 15 days to make. I know I will not sell it for more than Rs 600."
Saying that it is not that the weavers don't want the market to change. "Tell us what the demand is like and we will meet that demand. Tell us what the international market wants, what people in Bombay and Delhi want. We will make it."
And Siddique sahab was telling me of how, when he visited weaver families and stayed overnight, they would often ask him to go and sleep in a neighbour's house. It took him weeks to realise that he was being sent away because the family had no food and so, sent him to the house that could provide dinner for a guest.
And I was wondering - how hungry do you have to be, before the hunger becomes official?
Weavers - about 5 lakh of them - living like this. And this family is better off than many others. In rural areas, artisans have simply taken to lifting mud at construction sites. Weaving brings nothing. There is nothing to weave.
But I am glad I came here. Glad that I was given a chance to see what six yards of Banarasi means. Glad that I can finally see the hope and time and blood and skill that go into line upon line of expensive weave.
I do not buy benarasi silk, and if I did, the temptation to buy cheap, to beat down the price would be great. But ever since I walked into that workshop, my attitude to clothes has changed. I can do with one good Benarasi saree; nobody needs fifty. If it cost me a month's salary, I'd happily pay up; I now know that it is worth every paisa.
I've begun to wonder if our inability to judge the true value for things has something to do with the fact that we don't have a clue about how they're made. We don't see fields. We don't have the stain of soil on our toes. We don't look at the sky with aching eyes and have terror sieze our soul each time cloud passes us by, each time the earth develops another crack. We don't know how each fibre is drawn out of our fingertips as a wheel turns between our knees. We don't know how yarn must be rolled over and over and over until the wrist turns into a numb machine, and we don't know of the pleasant shock of having one inch of silk and glittering thread forming suddenly a border, in such glamourous contrast to the cardboard festooning our heads. We don't know how things are made.
And so we stand at bazaar stalls, haggling about why a pair of leather jootis costs two hundred rupees, haggling about why a dupatta should cost three hundred, haggling about how a painted wooden doll can cost one hundred.
I wonder how much we'd think these things were worth if we had to make them ourselves. I wonder what price we'd put to a silk saree if we were born into the Ahmed household in Varanasi.