A gift of cloth is a traditional gesture of goodwill in India. The weave of the yarns symbolize the entwinement of our lives, and the act of giving stands as an acknowledgment of our fundamental unity.
It is only natural, then, that Anshu Gupta would make clothing the poor his life’s mission. Few people I know are as instinctively empathetic or take the oneness of humanity as a basic, everyday operating instruction, rather than a kind of esoteric philosophy. Anshu understands the metaphor of the weave in an intuitive, visceral way; and as a consequence, he thinks broadly, creatively, and incisively about the suffering of others.
In 1999, Anshu left his career as a photojournalist and corporate communications director to found Goonj, an NGO dedicated to gifts of cloth. “We consider clothing one of the three basic human needs,” says Anshu, “along with food and shelter. Yet when you look at the mission statements of the major NGOs and funding agencies, cloth is nowhere to be found. It is a basic need that few are addressing.” Grinning broadly, he wisecracks, “It is not fashionable to talk about clothing.”
In India, as elsewhere, countless poor people die in winter for lack of warm clothing. In the villages, where more that seventy percent of India’s population reside, it is not uncommon for families to go into unrepayable debt at festival time in order to purchase new garments, thereby transforming a Rs. 200 (approximately $5.00) obligation into a life of cruel bonded servitude. Anshu understands the many ways, obvious and subtle, in which a gift of cloth can save lives.
Most of us have clothing we don’t really wear anymore. For all the comforting choice it may offer, an unused garment mostly occupies drawer space and its value is a contingency which never plays-out. To Anshu and Goonj, dormant second-hand cloth represents a tremendous untapped asset; and the giving of that resource provides a burdenless opportunity for each of us to improve the lives of another.
At Goonj, every scrap of fabric is put to use, even if it is no longer suitable for giving as a garment. School bags and other items (including consumer goods) are made from old clothing. Anshu’s latest project involves transforming scrap cotton into sanitary napkins, an undertaking of such insight and compassion that it just earned him a prestigious award from the World Bank.
In February I was handed the honor of speaking at Goonj’s anniversary celebration in Delhi. Last night, the tables were turned and Anshu spoke at the Mehta’s Wednesday night meditation gathering. But somehow, though the roles were reversed, the honor was still ours.
To find out more about the work of Anshu, his wife Meenakshi, and the other volunteers who comprise Goonj – and to figure out how you can contribute to the effort – visit their website at www.goonj.org.