Habib, by now Anshu's friend [see box] concurred. "In winter time I am over-worked", said Habib. "There are too many bodies to pick up". Meenakshi and Anshu heard a doctor say of cervical cancer in poor women: "Most of the time, the cause is lack of hygiene during the menstrual periods. Women live with vaginal horrors. I have found a live centipede lodged there". All because menstruation is a woman only phenomenon and so treated as a subject too dirty to talk about. The poor cannot afford sanitary napkins. Early death is an easier, practical solution.
These experiences made them sombre, but they had not found a focus yet. They went away to pursue their careers and start a family. Anshu's passion for photography and writing kept him vigilant for human interest stories, even as he held a full time job as a corporate communicator.
Echo off a cloth heap:
Come every disaster, peoples' first instinct is to bundle old clothes to give away. It's a quick and easy way of feeling good. The first time Meenakshi and Anshu put their pile together, they stopped in their tracks. Then they sat down and pondered the message behind the pile: "Here we are, a young family of two adults, new home-makers for just three years, not wealthy by any means and we have 67 pieces of good, usable garments we don't want any more. Yet, but for the disaster we wouldn't be giving them away."
The year was 1998. Goonj [meaning "Echo"] was born that moment. They resolved, that it'd collect old clothes round the year, sort them and target them precisely to the needy, who must receive them with their dignity intact. Meenakshi had a job with the BBC that could support them. Anshu quit his at Escorts to build Goonj.
From the beginning the centrality was receivers' dignity and not givers' pride. Goonj does not accept torn or under- garments. They must be usable pieces given with care and deliberation. These are inspected individually, sorted, folded and packed according to indents received from service agencies in rural India though whom Goonj distributes clothes.
Goonj encourages people to audit their wardrobes regularly and not wait for disasters, as the need for clothes is steady. It organises neighbourhood meets to which people bring their old clothes. At these day long get-togethers, a sense of community builds up and enthusiasm rises. "It's the sort of exercise that gives, at the end of a single day, a sense of fulfillment", says Anshu. Invariably someone puts up a hand offering to organise a meet in another's neighbourhood, a friend's or a relation's. So the movement has spread, first in Delhi and now to other cities. Delhi alone has over 100 hard core volunteers passionate about the movement. Notable among them has been Ajay Sharma, a long time friend and supporter and Yasmeen and Ruchika, two young graduates whom Anshu calls, his extra hands.
Care is in the detail:
Till three years ago, the collection used to arrive in Gupta's small house, where volunteers and paid staff processed the clothes. [Goonj has a separate office and work place now]. Intimate wear is rejected. Torn clothes are set aside for conversion into usable products. Good but dirty clothes are removed for washing. Then, requisitions from organisations are taken up. These contain requirement by gender, age and size. These are selected and packed in used sacks. Sacks are numbered and the numbers recorded in a database. And finally they are on their way to close to 200 destinations around the country.