Covering Deprivation, Government, Health, Profile

How one hardy lady brings kids to school

The government hopes to keep more and more kids in class. And, a resilient tribal woman is fulfilling that hope in her tiny village in H D Kote district, Karnataka. 


Every morning, Lalitha rushes from house to house in her village calling out  each Anganwadi kid by name, promising payasa – sweet porridge – on the condition that the kid step out of the hiding place, hold her hand, and march to school.

The kids hide in the newly built toilet, under the hay in the cowshed, on the roof, amidst goats– but, Lalitha wins. She beats the kids at their own game. She pursues a giggle to the giggler with joy, but follows a sob with heavy feet when it beckons her to a corner.

Some mornings, Lalitha begins her day, to her disappointment, by fighting with a parent. “Screams! Shouts! I employ them all to put it in their mind that their child must go up to higher classes,” she said.

Earlier, the parents would take their children to Coorg and enrol them as helping hands on a coffee plantation. Now, the owners fear the loss of reputation and the parents fear the police. Kids stay back in the village, and Lalitha is glad to fetch them every morning to school and accompany them back and forth whenever they want to use the toilet. She stands waiting, like a guard, to stop the kids from running away.

Rising aspirations in the village have reduced her tiffs with parents. Lalitha explained that the failure of the monsoon and non-availability of work convinced the parents that education is necessary.

Lalitha’s parents worked as coolies and farm labourers all their life and as soon as she was strong enough, they pushed her into coolie work. She spent her childhood in coffee plantations far away from her tribal settlement in Nagarahole.

Her pride in the kids she brought to school surges forth, especially when she sees girls going to college. She identifies them by name, and her questions to them, are mostly about their travel to town.


“A young mother standing at the door and wilfully sending her child to school is both heart-breaking and encouraging,” she said. “There are no jobs here, and you see boys loitering on the streets after failing their class 10 exams.”

Teachers from the school visit the village in search of the boys, trying to take them back to school. But, the boys run away. A boy, who doesn’t go to school or college, roams the streets for a few years until his parents decide to marry him off, saying, ‘that a wife and a child will set him right, instil responsibility, and send him in search of a job.’

Lalitha was herself a child-bride – married at 15, and soon a mother of three – two girls, one boy – about whom, she said, “Life here is much better for the kids than it was in the forests. They are seeing the world.”

In the afternoon, as soon as she finishes her rounds of dropping kids back at their home, she runs home, releases her flock of goat and lets them graze in the periphery of the forest while she takes a long, relaxing walk.


An old craft’s greying hair

For nearly two decades, Chennai’s premier theatre actors could babble a mythic speech, slay with a rubber sword, fire a fake pistol, zip into a furry animal skin, shake their painted cheeks in anger, howl their amplified threats, and even, ‘saw the air too much’ – but, they couldn’t, shake, prattle, fake, battle, without a properly-set wig crafted by their popular wig-maker, Shankar.

“I joined because there was demand,” said Shankar. Just like he was cajoled and pushed by a friend from driving auto rickshaws to painting walls, another friend had persuaded him to drop his wall painter’s brushes for a wig-maker’s glue and comb.

There was a demand. But, that was the scene three decades ago, when Shankar joined the industry at its peak and became a reliable addition to the coterie of illusionists who worked magic to assist actors in their performance.

“It’s not just a skill,” he said. “It’s an art.” He dresses like an artist and goes to his small ‘studio’ on Devaraja Mudali Street in Sowcarpet.

Shankar, who is in his late-fifties, wears a green stud in his right ear and sports massive side locks. He smoothens and sets his overgrown French beard continuously, and his hand goes to it every time he pauses to think. His style – blue shirt and green pants, a steel watch and two big rings – is, perhaps, reminiscent of his days in the prop shop of theatres.

He who was selling wigs to actors is now selling them to beauty parlours. This fall was quick, he said.

“Mudi?” said a young woman, entering the shop. She was asking for a short length of hair, about a palm’s length, which could be pinned to lengthen the hair.

“A thousand,” said Shankar, quoting the price.

The woman laughed and started bargaining.

After a minute, Shankar relented. “Come later. It will be ready.”

Shankar sits on the stool outside his shop all day waiting for customers. The wigs and clip-on hair of various lengths hanging on three walls of his small shop need non-stop dusting and brushing. Although his short girt makes it easier to move from one wall to the next and then back to his seat, the endless attention the wigs demand tires him out, he confessed.

Seeing him brush the wigs with care compels one to think of him as a mythical mother constantly brushing and braiding the hair of her sixty playful daughters.

A mother who visited the shop asked for a ‘choti’ – a braided half wig. She needed it for her little girl who was taking part in a school event. The girl had got a bob cut recently.

The lady paid fifty rupees and before she left, remembered to ask the critical question, “Baal mein kaise set karenge? How do I set it in the hair?”

Shankar picked up the choti and a hair clip, walked to a board, took hold of a hanging half-wig and clipped the choti in and tugged at it. The lady was convinced. He offered a pricier rubber elastic half-wig. The lady refused.

“People shave their head at temples, as a show of devotion,” he said. “That hair is collected and sent to us.” Shankar explained the process of wig-making: “Once the hair arrives, I sort it, soak it in a tub, wash it using a conditioner, rinse it repeatedly,” and after following steps similar to those given at the back of a shampoo bottle, “they are placed under the sun to dry – for 3 – 4 days”.

He, then, selects the length, cuts them in 16-18-20-22 inches and glues them onto a nylon cap to make a full wig or binds them together to make a ‘Mudi’ or a ‘Choti’ – a half-wig. These wigs are then classified as first rate, second rate, and third rate.

Weft hair, big curling locks, clip hair are all manufactured in factories using Nylon which are usually priced between 50 and 1500 rupees. The price for natural wigs touch 3000 rupees and are much harder to maintain as they come with the same issues as those of natural hair – dandruff, hairfall, dryness!

Later, when two old women came looking for a full length half-wig, Shankar walked from wall to wall, let his hand slide down the hair looking for tangles, and returned with his selection. Every time, he shows it to the customer, for their approval. Then, brushes it, silkens it, rolls it, packs it, hands it.

“When I watch TV artists, I can easily tell you if they are wearing a wig,” he said. There is a row of wigs placed on bald wig holders near the front counter. Alongside the mattlock Lord Shiva wig were two unrecognisable ones, crafted to resemble the hair style of Tamil cinema actors from decades ago.

“I would wear a cap and try it on myself,” he said. “There were many more – Indira Gandhi’s, Amitabh Bachchan’s, of mythical characters – for fancy dress competitions.”

Now, business has moved to prop shops that cropped up around Ram Theatre in Vadapalani.  “Everyone goes to such shops and buy Nylon wigs and since they are closer to the studios, they get better sales.”

Shankar lives in Thiruvattur and grew up in Chennai, watching films, he adds. His daughter is married to an auto driver. His son works as a smithy in a bronze workshop casting gods and goddesses.

On the bleak future of his art, he said, “It is dying.”

Shankar has been selling wigs to cancer patients and to those who have lost all their hair.

“I need a wig for my mother-in-law,” said a young woman, stepping into the shop. “She has shaved her head. She needs to attend a marriage. She is worried about not looking good in the photos. Give me a nice wig.”

When Shankar uttered the price, she turned into a regular disappointed-by-price customer and gave the disappointed-but-interested Indian shopper’s answer, “I’ll come back later.”

Shankar gave an intent look and sat down on his stool.