The combination of a kind heart and an innovative spirit can work magic, as social entrepreneur Lakshmi Menon continues to prove over and over. When the handloom industry of Kerala lay wet and defeated following the 2018 floods, Lakshmi not just revved it up, but created waves, literally, by coming up with the idea of turning leftover bits of cloth into cute little dolls named Chekuttys. No less than a profit of Rs 42 lakh was made from the sale of the cloth dolls, which continue to be a symbol of survival and hope. Just as the State was beginning to stand on its own feet came the deadly virus attack. Lakshmi came to the rescue again with multiple initiatives, like the Shayya project, which provides free mattresses for needy Covid patients, made from the tons of piled up PPE kit tailoring waste.

But her latest project is something entirely different, and much larger in scale, titled Quilt India Sammaan. With the project, Lakshmi used crowdfunding to buy unsold stock from handloom weavers in Kerala, makes ‘Mommy kits’ out of them with the help of crowdsourced volunteers, and donates them to newborns in war-hit zones in Yemen.

Why Yemen?
It all started with a chance Facebook post she came across, “One of the worst hit during the pandemic in Kerala are the artisan community. Nobody bought the traditional set mundu or dhoti for Onam and Vishu last year and crores worth of unsold stock were weighing down on the Chendamangalam and Koothampalli handloom weavers alone – saris, set mundus, dhotis, shirt pieces and more. I had been racking my brains on how to find a use for all this fabric when, like a divine intervention, I spotted a Facebook post by UNFPA (United Nations Population Fund) asking for Mama kits for newborn babies in war-hit zones in Yemen. A Mommy kit comprises frocks, baby sheets, baby diapers; basically cloth. On the one hand, I see a surplus of cloth here and then there are people who don’t have cloth even for a handkerchief! I realized that I just need to act as a bridge here,” she says.

Lakshmi’s earlier project, Shayya, had been listed in the ‘UN list of Best Practices during the pandemic’ and so she had good contacts with the organisation. The talks were successful and that’s how ‘Quilt India Sammaan’ movement took off. And the delicate white handloom cloth of double mundus turned out to be apt for frocks while the thicker shirt pieces, for nappies. “Just like with Chekutty, people are coming in, looking for a platform through which they can be part of something good. This time it’s crossing the country’s borders. A group of 40 Class 11 students from Kochi started off with the stitching immediately. The Rotary Kochi Central is engaging autistic children, their parents and teachers to stitch and also paying them. The children have drawn all kinds of designs on the frocks – elephant, cat and dog etc.! St Teresa’s college, Kochi, made 100 sets for us while CMS College Kottayam said they will help. The youngsters keep asking me, shall we paint, shall we embroider something. It’s heartwarming, because they’re not even going to meet these babies,” Lakshmi states.

Which is also a question she gets asked often, as to why she’s doing something for babies in Yemen when there are needy ones in India. “The situation in a war zone is entirely different. A poor person in a slum in India has the possibility of buying a baby dress from a shop if he pays for it. In a warzone there are simply no shops, nothing. They have to depend on Red Cross even for a matchstick. The poverty and deprivation is another level, I realised,” she justifies.

“‘Sammaan means gift in Malayalam but in Hindi it also means dignity, honour, respect etc. which is also what we’re providing them. In one ‘Sammaan’, we include a baby frock, two nappies, two sheets, a burp cloth and a swaddle wrap, all from two metres of cloth. The frock too is easy to stitch. We cut the mundus into frock sizes and the volunteers do the rest.”

Lakshmi is connected to a pan India group for artisan’s welfare named Creative Dignity, and so if there is a need for a blanket for colder weathers, she sources it from weavers in Himachal Pradesh, for example. More people are coming forward to be part of the project as of now. “The Rotary, for example, gave us Rs 50k to buy more materials from weavers. Industrialist Anand Mahindra has asked us to send a proposal. The National Museum of Scotland, who had included some of our earlier Covid related initiatives has expressed their interest. The UN’s sister organisations are contacting us for collaborations.”

Around 1000 frocks and 500 Mommy kits have been made already, but Lakshmi says they’ve only begun. “We are still in the process of perfecting the kits. Within a few months’ time, we hope to send across the finished sets.”

A designer by profession, Lakshmi Menon is a member of the National Innovation Foundation Council and has been involved in such humanitarian projects since 2014. Of late, she has also been involved in providing training in converting PPE kit scrap into mattresses to countries across the world. Quilt India Sammaan is the 12th such project for her, but all that she has done is turn things considered useless into something useful, she says. “There is no such thing as waste, there is only TUF -Till the Utility is Found. It is tough but it can be done. Of all the projects I’ve done, I find Quilt India Sammaan the most noble. And we don’t wish to claim any rights over this process. We want people across the world to emulate this model to survive tough times.”

— By Asha Prakash