New Delhi, India – You have heard of a food bank, a book bank, maybe even a toy bank. But how about a “dress bank”? Well, this unique model of charity gives out once-used wedding attires – saris, ankle-length skirts and dresses – donated by privileged families to women of limited means.
Run by Nasar Thootha, a taxi driver based in Thootha village in Malappuram district of India’s southern state of Kerala, the bank has so far helped more than 260 underprivileged brides with free outfits for the most important day of their lives.
Last year, using WhatsApp and Facebook, 44-year-old Thootha, a Saudi Arabia returnee, started requesting people to pass on their idle wedding dresses for the cause.
As word spread, a trickle soon turned into a flood and dozens of bulky packets containing good-as-new dresses started landing up at his doorstep, many anonymously.
“Wedding attires are all about vanity. They are worn for a few hours and then never come out of the cupboards. Realising this, many families came forward to support our cause,” Thootha, who worked for a food supermarket in Riyadh for more than 10 years before returning to India eight years ago, told Al Jazeera.
‘Pass on to the other needy’
The philanthropist says he started the “dress bank” on an experimental basis in April 2020 from a room in his house. The brides’ families contact him through Facebook and then directly visit the bank to select the dress of their choice, irrespective of its cost.
“When the family doesn’t have the money to travel a long distance, or if any of the members are ill, the dress is sent directly to them through our network of volunteers,” said Thootha, adding that he never asks the families to return the dress “but we do encourage them to pass them on to the other needy”.
The donated dresses are collected from different locations across Kerala through charity organisations and friends. After dry-cleaning, they are wrapped in airtight packets and stocked neatly in racks in Thootha’s humble rural abode.
“With God’s grace, I personally don’t have to invest any money in running the dress bank. I am just a channel through which women who need them most receive them from kind donors,” Thootha told Al Jazeera.
Such has been the initiative’s success that the bank currently has more than 800 dresses in stock – ranging in prices from 5,000-50,000 Indian rupees ($66-660) – that can work for Muslim, Christian or Hindu brides.
Over time, contributions have started coming in not only from all over Kerala but also from neighbouring Karnataka and Tamil Nadu states, as well as from the non-resident Indian (NRI) community in the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia.
Mumbai-based Sakina Khan (name changed on request), 31, is the recipient of a pink Banarasi silk saree from the dress bank for her marriage scheduled on December 27. She says it is the most valuable gift she has ever received.
“My father and uncle both passed away when the Delta variant hit India this summer. I also lost my job as a school teacher. So my mother, who cooks food in four homes, is the only earning family member. We have already spent $5,000 on venue and food for my wedding, so there was no money left to buy my wedding dress,” says the bride-to-be.
When she contacted Thootha on Facebook, he was most helpful, she says. With no money to travel to Kerala, she simply chose her outfit over a video call. It was delivered within a week.
“When the packet arrived last week, me and my mum broke down and hugged each other in sheer joy,” Khan told Al Jazeera.
What made a man of modest means with a large family of four children, wife, parents and a handicapped sister take up this cause?
“After returning from Saudi Arabia, I was helping state agencies rehabilitate the poor and homeless. During that period, I met many families who were struggling to arrange wedding dresses for their daughters, which are usually expensive. So I decided to help them,” said Thootha.
The philanthropist initially operated the bank from his home, but admiring his dedication and expanding operation, one of his friends offered a one-room shop for the venture near his place. Thootha says he plans to shift the bank to this new location in March next year.
Does he have plans to stock grooms’ dresses also? After all, men also want to look dapper on their big day. “Well, we have not received any requests for bridegroom’s outfits so far. Only brides. If we get such inquiries, we can consider stocking them as well,” he says, laughing.
Apart from his taxi, Thootha also runs an ambulance service. Here too, he tries to help as many people as he can. He makes the rides free for those who cannot afford them.
“During the pandemic, I helped many poor families transport their dead relatives to the crematorium free of cost. Generally, I charge only those who can afford the ambulance. Some good-hearted people also donate petrol or maintenance money for my ambulance,” he explains.
The Indian wedding industry is pegged at $50bn, second only to the $72bn industry in the United States, according to a report by IBISWorld, a US-based data research firm. While the wealthy can afford to splurge on big, fat weddings, it is the poor who have to undergo immense hardship to get their children married.
“Indian families spend significant sums of money on the venue, food, outfits, jewellery, and gifts for their relatives. Loans taken for weddings from moneylenders often entail astronomical interest rates and crippling debts for the poor. Inability to pay can also result in public shaming or suicides,” Ranjana Kumari, a female activist and director of Centre for Social Research, a women’s advocacy organisation, told Al Jazeera.
In 2016, a 58-year old farmer died by suicide along with his family members in Tamil Nadu’s Kancheepuram district after his attempts to arrange funds for his elder daughter’s marriage from his friends failed.
In another incident, 25-year-old Vipin (who went by his first name only) took his own life last week in Kerala’s Thrissur district after failing to get a loan for his sister’s marriage.
According to a survey by LenDenClub, a digital lending company, wedding loans accounted for more than 35 percent of all other purpose loans taken by Indians. As per the data analysed by the company, demand for wedding loans surged by 40 percent in 2021 from 2020.