If you have ever crossed the small lanes of Gaondevi near the railway station in Maharashtra’s Thane, you have probably come across Surekha Ramesh Kshirsagar, who is also known here as Kalaiwale. In spite of the many odds she has faced — including losing her husband to Covid-19 in the first wave –the 38-year-old lady has continued the slowly-vanishing traditional art of Kalai.
Surekha is one of the very few ‘Kalaiwalas’ now left in the city. Around seven years ago, she took over the work after her father-in-law passed away and when her son was just three-months-old.
“Our family has been in the business of Kalai for the last 40 to 50 years. Earlier, my father-in-law used to look after it. I joined the work around seven years ago after he died. However, the responsibility fell completely on me after my husband’s death due to Covid-19,” says Surekha.
Surekha starts her Kalai work at 10am and it goes on till 2pm. She is also accompanied by one worker who is employed with them for decades to carry out the Kalai process that involves washing copper-brass utensils with caustic soda, applying acid, heating with the furnace, rubbing ‘Nausadar’ powder (ammonium chloride) with cotton, and then dipping it into the water to get the tinted shine.
But the last one year has been the toughest of Surekha’s life. Like many others, her world too turned upside down as she not only lost her husband to Covid-19 at the age of 47, but also her brother-in-law, and mother-in-law, that too in a span of just over a month.
“First, I lost my brother-in-law due to Covid-19. He died just two days after he returned home after being in isolation. In the next 15 days, I lost my husband. Later, my mother-in-law too passed away. It was not at all easy for us to come to the fact that three of our family members are not going to be with us.“Surekha Ramesh Kshirsagar
Today, when Surekha recalls the moments she shared with her life partners, she is short of words and full of emotions. She could not even see him for the last time and got to know about the husband’s demise almost 10 days after his death.
“I did not know about my husband’s death. I too was admitted due to a Covid-19 infection. After recovering, I went to my mother’s place, says Surekha, adding, “However, when my brother, who too was undergoing treatment for Covid-19 returned home after recovery, I got to know that my husband is no more. Not even in my dreams, I had ever thought that something like this would happen.”
While Surekha was already battling personal loss, she had also lost her source of income due to back-to-back Covid-19 induced lockdowns. However, she decided to face the situation to make sure her children didn’t suffer. She has 4 children, one of whom has just got a job with a private firm, while 2 are still in college. Her youngest son is still in school
“I want my children to get a good education and they should make progress in life.”
Now, with people once again turning to use copper and brass utensils for cooking like earlier time, she hopes her income will grow.