Gaya: Swathes of saffron shrouds have been left to dry on the terrace of 50-year-old Jitendra Prasad’s three-storeyed home at Patwa Toli town in Bihar’s Gaya district. The other congested floors house raw materials and nine powerloom machines required to manufacture the shrouds.
Prasad reluctantly admits that business is booming. Not only are his nine powerlooms running 18 hours a day, he’s had to even rent more of the machines.
“I had to rent nine more looms in the last month as the demand for kafan has increased drastically. It is three times higher than my normal sales,” Prasad told ThePrint. “We’ve been overworked in the last month. Our labourers had fled due to fear of Covid in the beginning but now, we’ve had to call them back as the workload is too much.”
But this is no ordinary business — the saffron shrouds, called kafans in these parts, are used to cover bodies as part of funeral rites.
In the current Covid wave, the shrouds have now become a symbol of the devastation that the pandemic has wreaked in rural areas of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, especially after photographs emerged of shallow mass graves, with bodies covered in kafans, along the banks of the Ganga.
If the kafans dotting the banks of the Ganga are evidence of the scale of the pandemic in these rural areas, the weavers of Patwa Toli provide further proof.
According to Prasad, he has sold over 40,000 kafans in the last month alone.
“On an average, we sell 25,000 kafans in summer months. Last year, due to the first lockdown, that dropped by 40 per cent during the first lockdown but things are different in the second wave,” Prasad said.
According to Prasad, whose family has been weaving kafans for the last 20 years, 80 per cent of his product is sold in Bihar and the remaining 20 per cent is sent to West Bengal and Jharkhand.
The 50-year-old weaver does, however, admit that he at times grapples with the moral dimensions of meeting this surge in demand. Especially since his 80-year-old father succumbed to the virus on 28 April. He said he had shut his machines for two weeks.
“Lekin itna jyada demand tha ki fir kaam chalu karna pada. Kharab toh lagta hai hi hai lekin hum nhin banayenge toh kaun banayega? (I had to re-start work as the demand has increased. Of course, we feel bad about the deaths but what other option do we have? We only make kafans),” he said.
A town buzzing with activity
Patwa Toli in Manpur block of Gaya district is known for its work with cloth. The 150 families in the town are mainly members of the Patwa community, who are traditionally weavers.
The small town has another claim to fame — a number of its children are IIT graduates.
When ThePrint visited on 26 May, the narrow lanes of Patwa Toli were filled with the sounds of thudding looms and dust from the homes.
Residents say that while they themselves are worried of Covid — over 100 people have tested positive in the second wave while 15 have died in Patwa Toli — this is their sole source of income, especially during the pandemic.
There are 20 weavers like Prasad in the town who are manufacturing kafans.
Among the biggest weavers is Paras Nath, who has 35 powerloom machines.
“I produce 400 kafans a day and my stock is sold on a daily basis these days,” Nath told ThePrint. “Earlier, we had to stock the kafans as there were fewer deaths during summers.”
The kafans manufactured by Prasad and Nath are sold at Rs 10 and Rs 30 respectively.
Durgeshwar Prasad, another weaver who makes kafans, along with gamchas, told ThePrint selling the shrouds has helped his business stay afloat.
“Agar machine ki aawaz nhin aayegi toh humein neend nahin aati hai. Yehi humara rozgaar hai. Peechle saal se manda pada tha, lekin ab jaakar kam se kam kafan bechne se humara pet to bhar raha hai (Without this constant sound of machines, we can not fall asleep at night. This is our livelihood. Last year, it was hit due to the strict lockdown, but this we are earning our bread and butter by selling kafans),” he said.
“Lekin aisa bhi mahamari nahin aana chahiye, lekin humein demand bhi poori karni hai ki maut mein to kam se kam izzat de saken (We dread this pandemic but we cannot do anything other than doing our bit of providing dignity in death),” he added.
Other stakeholders also attest to the rise in demand. Prem Bhagat, a retailer from Hazipur who shops at Patwa Toli, told ThePrint that he had ordered over 40,000 kafans in the last month-and-a-half.
“This is not a regular year. The demand has been unprecedented,” he said. “Villages after villages are demanding it in bulk. It is also in contrast to the first wave, when our business took a hit.”
(Edited by Arun Prashanth)