'You will never be able to do any work for society if you wait to make enough money.'
We've all heard of blood banks. Toy banks. Gold banks. Food banks.
But a wedding dress bank is something unique and unheard of in India, especially since Indian women keep their expensive wedding saris and dresses. The sentimental value they attach to their wedding outfits cannot be discounted.
It needs courage, sincerity and openness to start a wedding dress bank and convince people to donate their precious wedding outfits to those who do not have the means to buy such expensive bridal wear.
That was what 44-year-old Nasar Thootha did in his village, Thootha, in Kerala's Malappuram district. And it wasn't as if Nasar decided to start a wedding dress bank one fine day; it is the culmination of a journey he had started as a humanitarian.
This Nasar Thootha's inspiring story.
An ordinary journey that became extraordinary
This incident happened 7-8 years ago. I was back in Thootha after working in a supermarket in Saudi Arabia for 10 years.
I was on a trip to Mumbai, accompanied by my friend Hamsa.
The train had halted at Shoranur Junction (Kerala), when we noticed a man in tattered clothes searching for food in a waste-bin. It was a heartbreaking sight.
We were carrying chapattis and chicken curry that my wife had packed for our train journey. We didn't think twice before running to him with our food packets.
Yes, we could have given him a few coins, but what he was in dire need of was food. No one will search through a garbage bin for food unless their hunger in unbearable.
I will never forget the smile he gave us when we gave our food packet to him. It said more than a thousand words could.
We returned to our train and continued our journey to Mumbai, both of us immersed in our own thoughts for a while.
Why should we help the hungry?
The first question that came to my mind was: Why do we work so hard? Why did I go to a far-off land like the Middle East to work?
Given a choice, I would have stayed in my village with my family. But all of us strive to give a better life to our near and dear ones.
When I say a better life, the first thing that comes to my mind is a full stomach.
The truth is that there are many people who are always hungry and are forced to find food from the waste thrown away by others.
I asked my friend why we couldn't do something to help such people. He said it was a noble idea and we should go ahead with it.
As fellow human beings, we felt it was our duty to help the less-privileged lead a dignified life and not have to forage through roadside bins when they were hungry.
The starting point
We realised that most of these hungry wanderers are seen either on railway platforms or near hotels. We requested the railway station master at Thootha to let us know so when they spotted such people so that we could take care of them. So they started calling us.
The first thing we do with these homeless people is clean them, give them a good haircut and then offer them food. After that, we send them to a nearby home for the destitute.
As more and more calls started coming in, I began carrying a bag with a blanket, a shaving kit, scissors, ointments and bandaids with me all the time. This bag is now my constant companion.
The blanket has been useful many times. We often spot people sleeping on the platform and on the roadside without a bedsheet or a blanket. When we see such people, we cover them with a blanket and walk away, without waking them up.
Today, I drive my own private taxi. And I keep a bag in that too, just in case I meet a needy person along the way....
Whenever I see someone lying on the side of the road, I stop, clean him, give him proper clothes and feed him before continuing my journey.
So far, we might have rescued more than 100 people from the streets and railway platforms.
Rescuing each person, cleaning them and feeding them is unforgettable but one incident remains etched in mind.
When we found this elderly person in Perinthalmanna station, there were ants crawling not just in his wounds but all over his body. The wounds were so bad that we had to first admit him in a hospital. When he was discharged, we washed him clean in our Thootha river, dressed him in new clothes and admitted him in a home.
When I was about to leave, he hugged me tightly and kissed me on both cheeks. I became so emotional that I had tears in my eyes!
No award in the world can match the happiness or gratitude he expressed through those kisses.
When he passed away after a week, we performed his funeral.
A wedding dress bank for the poor
As we became known for helping the destitute, many people started calling us to ask if we could help them with money for their daughter's wedding, whether we could buy rice or vegetables or chicken for the wedding, whether we could help them buy the wedding dress...
Though I was not in a position to help them financially, I was in contact with many people who were ready to help if I requested them to.
I felt buying a wedding outfit was the biggest financial burden for all parents. While you can buy a sack of rice or vegetables for Rs 3,000, or chicken for Rs 6,000-7,000, a wedding dress costs at least Rs 25,000-Rs 30,000.
On the other side of the spectrum, there are many families who buy expensive wedding outfits. Nobody uses them a second time. After being used once, they are carefully packed away and remain untouched in the cupboard.
My friends and I felt it was a good idea to tap this hidden treasure for the needy.
The dress bank becomes a reality
On April 10, 2020, we decided to start our project.
Using WhatsApp and Facebook, we sent messages to all our contacts, requesting them to send their wedding saris and dresses to us so that a needy family could benefit from their good deed.
The response was overwhelming.
We had also publicised through the local papers that those who were not in a financial condition to buy a bridal outfit could contact us.
The next problem was where to keep these outfits.
We converted a room in my house for this purpose. We first dry cleaned all the dresses that came from the donors, then kept them neatly -- exactly as they would be kept in a shop. I wanted the girls and their families to get the feeling that they were actually buying from a shop and not accepting any charity.
Since my taxi is my source of income, my wife and sisters-in-law would help those who came choose the dresses when I was not there.
We made it a point to note down the name of each girl, her address, phone number, date of the wedding, etc, in a notebook as I wanted to keep a record.
We could help 100 families in the first year.
Donors came from everywhere
When the number of donations increased, the room in my house became inadequate. We decided to rent a shop.
At this point, I must say that all this has been possible because of the help of many kind-hearted people. If one person paid the rent, the second paid the electricity bill, the third took care of the racks needed to display the dresses and so on.
We don't ask any of the families to return the wedding dress they take from the shop. If they return it, we are happy. In fact, 50-60 per cent of them return the dresses.
The reason we don't insist on them coming back to return the outfits is that they are so poor that they borrow money to come here by bus. It is inhuman to ask them to spend money to return the outfit after the wedding.
Instead, when we pass their area, we collect it.
If we could help 100 families in the first year, in the next 8-9 months, it increased to 185. So far, 285 families have collected wedding outfits from us.
When our dress bank got written about in English newspapers, we started getting outfits from many places including Bengaluru, Pune, Kolkata, Mumbai, etc. Many people collect wedding dresses from their relatives and friends and send them to us.
After the reading about us in Al Jazeera, somebody from Italy called us for our address so that they could send dresses to our dress bank.
We have 800-900 wedding dresses on display now for Hindus, Christians and Muslims.
But the incident that still touches my heart is about this young, unmarried man, Abdul Anwar. He is a school teacher by profession and has come to the shop three times with wedding saris he has collected from others. And he is blind!
I won't say that I have earned lots of money so that I could help people. I have my personal responsibilities as well; I have to take care of my elderly parents, a handicapped sister, my wife and four children.
You will never be able to do any work for society if you wait to make enough money. In fact, there is never enough of it; greed makes human beings long for more and more money.
But I have to thank my friends who have been with me throughout this journey. We have travelled this path together.
When we started the wedding dress bank, it was a very small initiative; we were only thinking of helping those in our district, Malappuram.
Soon, we covered the entire state of Kerala. Then, people from the neighbouring states started contacting us both as donors and for wedding dresses.
Now, we are getting requests to start such dress banks in other parts of India too. We plan to help someone set up a wedding dress bank in Madurai soon.
Not even in my wildest dreams did I expect this kind of response from people.
I still have one dream -- I hope to help at least 1,000 families through our wedding dress bank.
The biggest award I have received so far is my name itself. I was just Nasar but, today, I am known as Nasar Thootha, after my village!
Yes, it is a huge responsibility, but I want to work hard to be worthy of it. I want to leave behind a small mark when I depart from this universe.
Nasar Thootha can be contacted at 9747338823
Feature Presentation: Ashish Narsale/Rediff.com