Tuesday, June 02, 2009
Green and leafy memories ......
The papers are full of percentages. A rise in some indicates progress. A fall in some also indicates progress. These days the key word is inflation. Double digits of it, is supposed to be bad, and a drop in inflation of .01% is ecstatically reported by the government.
To normal, run-of-the-mill middle class folk, economy is all about the price of a bunch of coriander , at the local guy selling green leafy vegetables. In my not inconsiderable lifetime , I have seen the price of a bunch go up from Rs 3 a bunch to Rs 12 a bunch.
And it has been additionally interesting to see the life and times of Shyamsunder, our local leafy green veggie chap.
A late entrant, into what passes for a need based vegetable market, that simply established itself outside our area many years ago, he started out, establishing his stall (a big metal sheet , covered with plastic, balanced on a bunch of empty drums), for selling green leafy vegetables. The only available area was right next to the fish ladies, an entire mafia of tough looking, hefty ladies, who cleaned, cut and sold fresh fish, sitting, with a sharp meat knife at the ready, competing for customers. Shyamsunder, a vegetarian, soon learned to tolerate the fish smells, as many customers gravitated to his stall to purchase the coriander, chillies, ginger and assorted greens that were part of the makings of a great fish curry....
I would go several times a week with my young son, and get my supply of greens, sifting and searching for fresh looking bunches, as my son looked on with great morbid interest at the poor fish being hacked and murdered into pieces, by the fish ladies nearby. One day, I saw a lady working with Shyamsunder. A slightly built girl-woman, head covered, her nose ring prominently gracing her very innocent face, she was bending over the set up, organizing the day's veggies, shaking moisture out of some, throwing out those she thought had reached their use-by-date. Shyamsunder sat , enjoying a little glass of tea, something that came around in a steaming six-glass system, thanks to another smart entrepreneur, who moved around on a bicycle, and sold tea to the vendors and fish ladies.
Before I could ask, he held up some greens and called out, waving them at me....
"Behenji, (behen = sister), today's, fenugreek (methi) leaves are excellent. For you , 6 rupees. How many bunches should I pack ? "....and then (seeing me smiling at the lady) , he added as an afterthought ," Oh! her ? She's my wife. Came yesterday from our village, with my uncle who was travelling this way."
The lady smiled shyly, covering her head a bit more . She was from his village, and had done roughly, the first two years of school, before she was pulled out to help in a crowded house. Her greatest achievement, was that she could read and write and sign her name; Shyamsunder couldn't. But he was still considered an excellent "catch" by her family as he had a "business" in. Mumbai.
Anyone who migrated to Mumbai and could sustain life there, was looked upon highly in the village.
Shyamsunder's stall was doing quite well, given his knack of being customer friendly. He knew all his customers, their young children, and had figured out who worked and who were stay-at-home-ladies. He remembered that some people cooked and required lots of ginger-garlic frequently, he also remembered that South Indians amongst his customers needed lots of curry leaves in their cuisine, and was conversant with special seasonal dishes made in Mumbai with Colocassia leaves, which he stocked and sold.
One day I saw his wife at the stall. No sign of Shyamsunder. One of the fish ladies was helping out his wife with the customers. Turns out that his father was gravely ill, and he had urgently left to go back. By now he had 2 children, who were very young, and they couldn't afford the train fare back and forth for the whole family, so he had gone alone.
A fortnight later he was back. Head shaven. His father had passed away, and he had performed the last rites as a son should. We condoled with him, asking about his old mother and family. Life continued.
And one day, when there wasn't much rush at his shop, he asked me something. He wanted to open a bank account. Did I have an account, and would I help him get one ? One of the senior fish ladies had an account, and she had told him. What did one have to do ? And was there a fee ?
I said I would be very happy to help. We fixed a time to meet at the bank. He came by, wearing his one good shirt over his lungi (men's warp-around, traditional to south India but worn by most Indians), accompanied by his wife, wearing what appeared to be her Sunday best, head covered demurely, eyes suitably downcast. My arriving on a two wheeler with a faulty silencer was a bit of a contrast, but never mind.
The manager gave us some forms, and I was asked to fill in the details. They had brought the requisite photographs that were needed.
I looked up at Shyamsunder to ask the details for full name etc.
"I want this account to be in my wife's name", he said. "She can read and sign".
I was impressed. Here was a guy slogging 24 x 7, in the roughest kind of life, and wanted all his earnings to be in his wife's name. I explained to him the idea of adding his own name as the second name. And how no account should be held on a single name like this. It didn't matter that he could neither read or write. He could give a thumb impression.
I signed , entering their details on the form, and introducing them to the bank. In those days you needed to keep a minimum balance of 100 Rs. I made a gift of those , saying that , that was for his children, and the account got its initial deposit, as his wife looked on, trying to study how one went about depositing money. They were the proud owners of a passbook , which they had to carry at all times.
I would often run into Shyamsunder and his wife at the bank. He looked happy with his life. He enjoyed accompanying his wife to the bank. Proudly looked on as she signed. They were not minting a fortune. But their thinking was worth millions.
Today, 10 years have passed. Shyamsunder still has his stall, except it has moved across the road, thanks to the road widening. His children go to school, and he proudly tells me that his daughter sings very well. His wife doesn't attend the stall now, she has a lot to do at home. They keep getting visitors from their village, and she is kept busy.
While waiting at his stall for a friend to arrive, I once asked him why he insisted on having the bank account in his wife's name .
He shook his head, looked into the distance, and said, "My mother couldn't read or write. After my father's death, the relatives asked her to put her thumb impression on documents, under the guise of organizing her life for her."
She was systematically robbed of whatever she had by scheming relatives, and he was torn between wanting to go there to help, and being unable to stay away from work for indefinite periods ....
" My wife can read and write. So can my children . Whatever I have is theirs. And my wife should have first claim on that. I want to see her enjoy now, what little I earn in my lifetime. I don't want history to repeat. No relatives should cheat her after me. She is more educated than me. That's why I decided to have my wife's name as the main name on the account. "
I know of well qualified , super educated families, where the wife's earnings are handed over each month to the head of the household, simply because "that's how we do it in our family".
I also know of comfortably placed men, who discourage their wives from finding out about their businesses, and deliberately keep them ignorant of banking procedures.
His name may not appear in the papers, he may not have a certificate to frame and hang on the semi crumbling walls of his humble abode, and his children may have to make do with simple meals for months on end thanks to the extra expenditure incurred on their visitors from their village (who cannot be refused a place), but I am convinced , that come the next International Women's Day, if someone asks me to recommend a name for an award, it will have to be Shyamsunder, our modern, right-thinking, green leafy veggie seller.
(And he will promptly hand the envelope to his wife who will deposit it , expertly, into the aforesaid bank account, as Shyamsunder indulgently looks on....)