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Finance, tribal style

A story from rural Maharashtra following the reports of India's huge bank write-offs

The mahua tree blooms in March-April, when the heat burns everything. Photo: Wikimedia Commons<br />
The mahua tree blooms in March-April, when the heat burns everything. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Earlier this month, Hindustan Times ran a piece about large companies defaulting on loans. The story, accompanied by a grim-looking shot of the always photogenic Raghuram Rajan, reported that our 29 state-owned banks have written off a total of 1.14 trillion in the last three financial years.

I think about these companies not paying their debts, affecting our economy, of men in suits who don’t care whom they let down. Who keeps their word in this wicked world?

I remember an evening 10 years ago, in rural Maharashtra. Here’s the replay, a little snapshot of time gone by:

Mati, the ageless Adivasi from across the river, comes over to visit. She holds up three gnarled fingers and adopts her most ingratiating look. “Baby? Give me 300." The evening gently starts to die behind her as the sun slides down the hazy western sky. “I’ll send it back tomorrow morning with Arun." Arun is her relative and our gardener.

“You need 300 for one night? Why? Are you going somewhere?"

“No, no, I just have my meeting and I need it." I give her the money, thinking that is the end of that, goodbye 300 bucks.

It turns out that the “meeting" is a bhishi meeting, and Mati needs the money to put into the pot so she can take some out of the pot.

Bhishis are very common in India, especially with women. They’re a way of having access to lump sums of money for an illness, a wedding or a big purchase. Everyone contributes to the village bhishi and everyone gets a big amount in hand sometime.

Our local bhishi started five years before this multicoloured evening, with about 20 members. Each member contributed some rice. They sold the rice for 2,000, and then met and agreed on their rules. They meet every month, and every member pays 5 as his or her dues (it’s more today, but this is a snapshot in time, remember). If anyone wants to take out some money, they can explain their reasons for wanting it, and then return it the next month with 5% interest. If they default, the penalty goes up. On this day, the bhishi has 76 members and the pot contains about 45,000, which is distributed among the members. Bhishi meetings are very long, and they usually last until 2 in the morning, as there is much to discuss and decide.

While people here miss the occasional meal and suffer from malnutrition, nobody starves to death. However, they do live life on the edge—the edge of the river, the edge of insolvency.

Mati’s finances and work history are tied to her particular geography, and of course to the cycle of seasons. Winter, summer, monsoon—work is seasonal, and so is money.

In the winter, she does odd jobs, cuts wood, grows vegetables in other people’s fields for her family. In the summer, there are berries and fruit to pick and liquor to make. Monsoon means rice, and between monsoon and winter is harvest time.

The dry season is hard. People have loans to pay back and few ways to make money. Some Adivasis travel for brickwork. Contractors come in vans, and pick up whole communities. They take them off to a strange town, a strange riverbank, bag and baggage, girls and goats, and leave behind only sad-eyed dogs in a ghost village that sits quiet until the villagers return months later.

In March and April, when the dry heat burns everything else, the mahua tree blooms extravagantly and pungently. The sticky white flowers are so potent that birds drink the nectar and reel drunkenly around the tree. Mati, along with many other people, gathers the flowers to make oil and liquor.

Summers are good for fruit—in May, when most other trees are dry and parched, the Karvanda bushes glisten with bright waxy green leaves and the berries ripen to a deep, sweet black. Mati has spent many seasons collecting berries from the thorny bushes, filling baskets, and travelling to the nearest town to sit by the side of the road and sell them. She and her family also sell leaves on occasion—like ratan gunj (coral wood), for Ganesh Chaturthi.

In the monsoon, she works in other people’s rice fields, and gets paid in kind. She weeds, transplants, keeps out greedy cows, and hopes for a good harvest.

Whenever there is money, there is always someone else to spend the money, if she doesn’t need it right away. Her brother Alo was afflicted with some kind of dreadful paralysis, and the family sold goats, borrowed money, and stretched itself painfully thin to raise the whopping 7,000 that a herbal healer charged him.

“My brother is a big cheat, but I want him to get well," she explained.

The bhishi provides money in times of need. People use it either randomly or according to need—to pay a doctor’s bill, buy an animal, get a month’s rations. It is a system of trust and credit more personal than credit cards, which aren’t an option anyway.

Funny how big corporations can get away with forgetting about crores of rupees, and yet we stubbornly think of men in suits as trustworthy and barefoot Adivasis as irresponsible.

The morning after Mati takes the money from me and walks across the river in the twilight, Arun arrives as the sun is skipping smartly up the eastern sky and gives me 300 in what look like exactly the same notes.

“Mati sent this to you," he says, and walks off to start watering the dry garden.

Sohaila Abdulali is a New York-based writer. She writes a fortnightly column on women in the 21st century.

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