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Nasreen: just surviving

Nasreen: 'When we earn we will eat, otherwise we will continue to sit idle'

Nasreen is a 62-year-old woman who lives in Sohchiparah, a poor Hindu community in Sanghar. Her husband works as a shoe repairer – their caste occupation – and his earnings are erratic.

Nasreen used to sell bangles, but now goes to different homes begging for aata (flour) with which she makes their daily bread, and she buys vegetables and lentils with her husband’s earnings. “We are just surviving,” she says.

Her parents lived in a similar way, with her father polishing shoes and her mother begging. But they managed to survive without loans. Nasreen’s greatest worry is debt; she has taken out about 10 loans, largely to finance marriage expenses for her children.

[My husband] polishes shoes. This is the work of the poor. Sometimes you find work and sometimes you do not…

[We have] eight girls and four boys. Four girls are married…Of the four boys, two are married. Of those, one is a widower whose young wife left him with four children – one girl and three boys. How can they study? Where will we get money from? …Of the eight girls, none have studied – it is a matter of money.

The boundaries of caste

In my youth, my parents came to Sanghar… [My uncle] was here…and so we came… I grew up here and got married [when I was about 12]…I am the youngest of six brothers and two sisters. [My father] also used to polish shoes.

Our entire caste does this work. We have never got a job nor have taken up one. Even if we study, we do not get a job. My son has passed eight classes but he has never got a job. Even those who are educated are polishing shoes….

I was that age when we came from Nawabshah [pointing to a small girl]…and then when I grew older my father got me married off…We use to sit at home the whole day. My father used to sit at the shop polishing shoes and my mother used to go out begging. They use to beg and fill our stomachs… they did not have to take a loan.

After I got married I got tied up in debt… I still have four unmarried daughters… We give a bit [of dowry]. The money is spent on the wedding itself. We give clothes, jewellery and dishware. We give dishware worth 5000 to 6000 rupees, two to three shalwar kameez (loose trousers and tunic) – the debt continues to mount. Forty to fifty thousand rupees are spent on one wedding…

“The interest keeps rising”

We have just built [this house]. Before we use to live in a thatched hut… Whatever way I could, I have made a shelter for my children. I have a debt of 2 lakh rupees. Even after paying the interest it does not end [gestures helplessly]… the girls had grown up and I took it to pay for [four] marriages.

I took the loan from outside. Sometimes Nawabshah, sometimes Hyderabad. I still have debts from there. I go there to ask for a loan…They are also our own people. They are also shoe repairers… From two, four, 10 people are my money lenders…I took 4000 rupees from someone and the interest on it grew. What can I do? …The interest keeps rising.

Rising prices

Since my daughters have grown up there has been only pain. When they were young I use to feed them lentils and bread… Earlier there were not that many expenses…Now it has increased… Aata (flour) for our two houses costs 60 rupees and in the morning we get 2 kg for 30 rupees [and] 2 kg of aata in the evening. Our stomachs do not fill up…

Even the vegetables are expensive. Look at how expensive the onions have become. If we buy one kg it cost 20 rupees. How will we survive?

If there is money then I will make tea [in the morning]. We will bring two or three rusks and buy sugar worth 2 to 3 rupees. We have to make our children happy and they will not go hungry. I cannot see them hurt. I also fell ill but did not have any medicine. If the children are happy then I am happy. One day at a time…

Begging

If I am well I go and beg for aata. I go to peoples’ homes. They give me a little bit. I leave in the morning and return in the afternoon around one or two. I feed the children. What work can I do? I can’t get a job. I used to sell bangles. Every day I used to take a basket of them. Now there is no money [to buy stock]; that is why I have stopped.

When I fell ill I used to fill the basket and give it to [my daughter]. The poor thing feeds the children something and then returns after filling the basket… Five hundred bangles fit in [in the basket]. It is very expensive — [the basket of bangles] will cost 1000 rupees.

Sometimes I earn 100 rupees, sometimes 150 rupees. If I don’t sell any then I come home empty-handed. Sometimes there is a sale and sometimes there is none. I do not do this work these days. The poor girl takes them. It has been eight days and there is no money. Where will I get the bangles from?

The stress of debt

If we get the money then we will pay off the loan – if the children find a job. It is all a matter of money… All this worrying about what will happen when my daughters and sons grow up has made me a heart patient… It’s been five years since I have been ill. I sometimes buy the pills; sometimes I do not.

There are two grown-up sons. One son lives in Karachi. He is married. He also takes loans and has a lot of debt. He is also under stress. The loans are not his own. They are someone else’s. He became a guarantor and got stuck with it.

My husband earns. Two of my sons earn [polishing shoes]. One daughter sells the bangles. [So] four people work. [They earn] 50 or 60 rupees. [My husband] also earns the same. [My daughter] sometimes makes 100 or 150 rupees.

Family conflict

There is a lot of fighting [at home]. He fights with me…my husband. He asks what can we do by living here? He says let’s go [to India]… I have so many daughters, where can I go? He wants to go. [He has relatives] in Jodhpur… He says that we will live there peacefully.

I will not go. My daughters are here and my sons are here. What will I do there alone? Should I think of my own peace of mind or my daughters? How can we take the children? …I have four grown-up daughters. How will I have so much money?

Everyone in our community is poor. Nobody is educated. Moneylenders have money. They have shops. Some have cloth shops. Allah gives a lot to some people and keeps some in poverty…

There is no [potential to make money through] bribes in polishing shoes. We can’t find any other job. We have no money in hand. We continue to repair shoes… When we earn we will eat, otherwise we will continue to sit idle…

“We are just surviving”

The interest on these loans has risen so much… [My debt is] more than 1 lakh rupees… For a boy’s wedding, we have to give jewellery to our daughter-in-law and food and transportation for our relatives and friends – 10,000 rupees.

What good will thinking [about the wisdom of this] do? …It is a happy thing that by taking this loan my daughter will be married. It is an unhappy thing if she is unmarried and lives at home. [But it would be better to] hand over some of the money to the girl…

Both [of us contribute to household expenses]. I get water by paying someone… My house does not have an electricity meter and, say, you do: I take a wire from your house and pay for half the bill… I manage to beg and get some aata… He also earns from his [shoe] polishing and pays for the vegetables. We are just surviving…

This interview has been specially edited for the web and cut down by more than half. Some re-ordering has taken place: square brackets indicate ‘inserted’ text for clarification; round brackets are translations / interpretations; and dots indicate cuts in the text. The primary aim has been to remain true to the spirit of the interview, while losing questions, repetition, and confusing or overlapping sections.

Project

Nasreen: just surviving is produced as part of the Living with poverty: Pakistan oral testimony project.

Testimonies

Allah Bux: older generation

Basran: desperate times

Chhutta: migrant’s tale

Fatima: vulnerable lives

Hodat: diversifying business

Karim Bux: lacking support

Khamiso: looking back

Kishore: living prudently

Mircho: losing dignity

Nasreen: just surviving

Nazeer: high standards

Salma: independent spirit

Key themes

Introduction to the project

Loans and debt

Survival strategies

The cost of poverty

Environmental decline

Gender

Political representation

Powerlessness

Insecurity and conflict

Education

Food security and health