Mallika, 47, stitches clothes for a living. The clothes she stitches are not ordinary but neither are the clients who wear them. People die to wear the clothes she stitches. Literally.
But she makes sure they are well dressed for their final journey.
Mallika produces funeral garments and her customers are always the deceased.
So why did she choose this living? (That’s anyone’s first question to her.)
"Because the customers never complain,” she would laugh, “Not until I get to heaven anyway."
"To tell you the truth there was nothing I was good at," she says. "I used to get impatient and lose interest in anything I started to do."
"My mother was a tailor. She used to stitch beautiful bed linen, curtains, clothes, sari blouses... Anyone would think I’d inherit the talent. I thought so too. I started to stitch pillow covers, and blouses for sari but something was always wrong."
"My customers kept complaining, saying clothes were too loose here, too tight there, so I gave up. But when my husband lost his job and it was difficult to provide even the basic needs of our children, I decided to start stitching again. But this time funeral garments."
"How could I give up customers who never complained?"
"You see, with funeral garments I could cheat on the quality and I don’t have to stitch things perfectly. The customer lies still, so we can hide mistakes. I only made half a garment because you don’t get to see the back anyway."
The new product gave her a better income but her life became worse. Neighbours considered Mallika a bad omen, slamming their doors and windows as she passed by. Hurt, she worried about the effect on her two daughters, but with the household crammed into a borrowed one-room house, she knew she had to continue.
"I was struggling to feed everyone at home and felt old, tired and sick," she says. "My husband was still unemployed, so I was often angry with him. I threatened divorce if he didn’t find a job."
"The programme changed everything. It helped us to see our potential and inner strength."
Meanwhile World Vision had begun working with Mallika’s community and its local team invited her to join its motivation programme.
"I wasn’t sure how people would react seeing me there, but I still went and the programme changed everything,” she says, “It helped us to see our potential and inner strength."
"I’ll never forget the story about an eagle," she continues, “which goes through a painful change to live for 70 years. I decided to be like the eagle."
The programme also focused on training in entrepreneurial and skills development, including strategies for marketing and financial management, as well as vocational skills such as tailoring.
"Although I was better at sewing afterwards, I decided to continue making funeral garments," she says. "How could I give up customers who never complained?"
"But now I started making quality clothes to ensure they were dressed their best. They got full shirts and other clothes good enough for a wedding,” she continues. “And if the clothes were for a poor family, I did them for free."
Using her marketing know-how, Mallika began offering a free coffin pillow with every order, which encouraged more undertakers to use her services. Her husband contributed by fetching material and delivering products.
"I used to go to the mortuary to get measurements, but as the business grew, I made the garments in three sizes and offered to do any necessary alterations," she says.
"Once I had an order from a family who wanted a long white dress for a woman who had died. They had tried many places, but nothing had fitted."
"I took down the measurements over the phone and realised her body had an unusual shape. But I made the dress in one night and gave it to the family. A month later, I received a card with extra money in it and a note that said, ‘Thank you, it fitted perfectly.'
As her income rose, Mallika bought a three-roomed house near the local church, while her World Vision-sponsored children excelled at school. She saw herself differently and so did her neighbours.
"They began to joke about my job,” she says. “Sometimes they’d see me on the way to church and say I was going to pray for people to die! And I would always tell them that I only pray that when people die they’ll have the opportunity to be best dressed for their funeral."
Today, Mallika’s business covers several districts and serves some of the most prestigious funeral directors in Sri Lanka. Having invested in a delivery truck, she takes care of her family’s needs and even supports several poor students’ education, while also employing the most vulnerable women in her community.
"As long as people don’t stop dying, I’ll have a business,” she jokes. “But I make sure they’re dressed their best for their final journey."