Bidi worker Rousuna Bibi in Jangipur. Picture by Chayan Majumdar
Merina Khatun, 20, was divorced by her husband last week because she couldn’t roll enough bidis a day to supplement the family income. She had left school aged 10 to learn to make bidis but admits to not being very fast
Hena Khatun, 19, can’t get married despite her good looks because of her poor bidi-making skills
Jangipur, Dec. 25: In Murshidabad’s Jangipur subdivision, women’s chances of finding a husband, and of staying married if they do, can hinge on their efficiency at rolling bidis.
In the past 10 years, since the bidi factories came up and half the subdivision’s impoverished population became dependent on the industry, marriages have been breaking up because the wife cannot make the mandatory 1,000 bidis per day that would fetch Rs 75.
Eight lakh people, 60 per cent of them women, depend on bidi-making in Jangipur, whose hundreds of bidi factories account for more than 50 per cent of the state’s production.
The men do the packing at the factories, earning Rs 4,000-5,000 a month, which is usually not enough to sustain their families.
“Most of the factory workers engage their wives in making bidis at home to add to the family income,” said Zakir Hossain, managing director of Shiv Bidi Company.
Even the farmers, masons and stone-chip workers want their wives to roll bidis at home.
So much so that, Suti MLA Imani Biswas said, many girls drop out of school at the age of 10 to learn to make bidis, adding to their parents’ income and hoping their skill would help them find husbands.
The trend has had effects on social customs: a girl adept at bidi-rolling no longer has to worry about dowry too much.
The malaise of wives being abandoned for failing to deliver male children has seen a decrease too — a baby girl is welcome because she too can earn money by making bidis.
On the flip side, their relatively slow fingers have cost Rousuna Bibi of Suti and Merina of Debipur village their marriages. And ten prospective grooms’ families have rejected 19-year-old Hena in the past two years, her mother Golnoor Bibi said.
“My daughter is good-looking but cannot roll more than 250 bidis a day,” Golnoor said. Hena will probably need to bring in a heavy dowry if she cannot improve her skills.
Merina, too, could not make more than 300-400 bidis a day but didn’t have trouble getting married. Groom Rakeeb Momin and his father Montu had assured her she would “catch up in a few months”, she told The Telegraph.
When she didn’t, she says, the beatings and insults began. “About a year ago, my husband asked me to leave for my parents’ home, and return only when I had learnt to roll 1,000 bidis a day. I had no choice.”
Rakeeb, a packer at a bidi factory in Dulapara village who earns a daily wage of Rs 150, divorced her last week. He couldn’t be contacted: his brother Rafikul said he was away.
“My sister-in-law was lazy and refused to work,” Rafikul said. “She was told many times to improve her speed but she wouldn’t listen. That’s why my brother divorced her.’’
Merina is now trying hard to make the cut of 1,000. “These days, I can make 700-800. I’m not thinking of remarriage right now but if my efficiency increases, it will help my family financially,’’ she said.
Rousuna, 22, too was first sent back to her parents’ home and eventually divorced four months ago. She has a one-year-old son to look after.
“Before marriage, I used to make 800 bidis daily. But shortly after marriage, I began to have breathing problems and often fell sick. So, let alone make the required 1,000 bidis, I couldn’t even make 800 any more,” Rousuna said.
Her husband Azabur Sheikh said: “She deliberately stopped making more bidis. This led to a lot of unpleasantness because our livelihood depends on the bidi industry.”