SONA PUJARI - STREET BANKER
Now, Sona's been
expecting me and Rashida for the past half-hour. Because at ten sharp she
wants to go to work. Sona's cooking Pohar, flaked rice mixed with onion, ground
nut, all soaked in water and then fried to make a simple mid-morning snack.
Now, Sona's hut is probably the smallest on 14th Gulli. Eight by five, made of bamboo and plastic sheeting, with a curb stone to anchor the rear wall. As neat as could be. Important papers and Sona's spare saris are stuffed under the bamboo eaves.
In the corner, in the place of honor, sits the Goddess Yellama, made of twisted tin and clothed with great care in gold, green and red silks.
Tuesdays and Thursdays, Sona carries Yellama round Bombay Central and quite literally begs for her supper. But this morning she's about to don her other hat - that of Mahila Milan Street Banker, and go off up the lane in search of a rather different sort of customer.
Sometimes, as in this instance, the customer gets to the bank before the bank gets to the customer.
Sona takes Padmabi's passbook from a pile on her cot, stuffs the ten rupee banknote inside, and returns to stirring the Pohar. .
“Needs another thirty minutes.”
Sona places a thali over the skillet. Uncrosses her legs, adjusts her sari, and stuffs the passbooks into a plastic bag.
“Come on. Chello. We've got time! Let's go and collect money!"
Fifty of the women here on the Gulli are members of Mahila Milan. Most of them have two types of bank accounts: a Crisis Savings account for emergencies. Where they get no interest and they pay no interest. They just have to pay back the loan at an agreed pace.
And then there are Housing accounts: the down payment on their eventual homes - their real pucca homes, one day, somewhere in the city.
Sundra Ramu slips her ten rupees, her regular repayment for a loan.
The next woman asks to put off paying Sona till this evening. Now, simply is not the right time!
“I asked her for money, for her savings. But she is saying that in my soul some Goddess has come, so I give you afterwards.”
Poor Harabhai! Sona is nothing if not direct in her approach: “Harabhai, Give!:
And then the money starts to come in, in dribs and drabs. But it's a steady stream that all adds up. Some for the Housing account, most of it to replenish their crisis savings, run down for a multitude of reasons.
Sujahari says she's broke today. Sona just stands there. The woman reluctantly produces a couple of coins from the folds of her sari. So five rupees from Sujahari, two rupees from Nimbewa, some into the Housing account, but most into Crisis Savings
Some of Sona's customers are familiar faces from less happy times, when Sona was herself forced to work as a prostitute on this very same street.
Most of the deposits today are small amounts they pay in every day - two, five, ten Rupees maximum, from a daily household income that can vary anywhere between twenty to sixty Rupees on upwards.
Just occasionally, you get an exception, such as Suresh Gaidkarke who pulls five crisp ten Rupee notes from her choli and hands them to Sona. That's fifty Rupees - a full day's wages! Sona pulls out the passbooks, looking for the right one.
How come? That's a large amount at one go.
Turns out Yellubi became a mother a couple of months back.
“She had a baby.” Explains Sona, “So, one month she didn't give. Today she is giving 50 Rupees.”
I ask Suresh Gaidkarke if she prefers to give large amounts every month rather than small amounts daily: “I prefer to give smaller amounts every day because it's easier. But it’s really problem for me to save during the monsoon months.”
She needed to withdraw from her Crisis savings to pay for the expenses of the baby Now, she’s starting to build them back up. Her husband works as a docker. But having the baby means just the one income. So anything she can put away now may come in very useful in the not-too-distant future.
Sona continues her way slowly up the gulli, stopping to chat with everybody - the prostitutes on the left-hand side, the pavement dwellers on the right.
Everyone hands over something. It's like making an offering to the goddess Yellama.
“Sona, you are quite simply the best money collector I've ever seen!” I spontaneously exclaim.
“ Don't praise me so much. Otherwise I'll be flying in the sky!” But Sona is absolutely beaming!
I often think the residents on Fourteenth Gully give to Sona as they would make offerings at a temple, to propitiate the gods, bring them good fortune. Sona isn't casual about making people learn to save either. She just stands there until you can bear it no longer, and you start to scratch among your clothes and somewhere find a rumpled note - two, five, ten - it's not important.
I sometimes kid Sona that she's really an extortionist, forcing people to save when they don't really want to. Sona plays dumb if I suggest this. Without saying a word, she encourages me to verify with any of her customers.
I pick on Jyoti because last week Jyoti told Sona to her face she had no money, and Sona still came away with two Rupees in Jyoti's savings book. Jyoti is quite forthcoming when Sona plonks herself down, all four foot six of her, in front of Jyoti who's washing beans.
"She does everyday. She comes even when I don't have any money. If I say I'm broke she does go away. But then she comes back the next day, maybe later that same day. Then, I have to give her something. Not because she forces me. But I have to give something to her, because she is the person who helps us to get the loan. That's why we feel like to give her even though we don't have. We get it from somewhere and give it to her. She doesn't leave us till we give her.
Poor Raju! He's not so lucky.
Raju's a few minutes late getting off to work. Sona sees him, stops, looks hard at hime, impassively, then nudges her eyelids.
Raju looks at Sona, reluctantly reaches into his trouser pocket, pulls out two ten Rupee notes, hands them to Sona and exits the lane fast.
Sona says that's not extortion, merely "Forced Savings."
On a typical morning, Sona will collect four hundred Rupees from the street ($8). And she admits she enjoys collecting money. Sona does this work for nothing. It's never entered her head to expect to be paid for it. It's her way of being useful. Her duty, her dharma.
One day, her customers will get the rewards. .
Some of the prostitutes on 13th and 14th Gulli now save with Sona.
“Hey, Rukma!” Sona bellows like a foghorn.
Sona plants herself on the doorstep of one of the brothels. She's looking for two of her regulars - Rukmani and Basava. Basava saves 3o Rs every day and Rukmani saves 10 rs every day. But both of them have gone to bazaar to buy vegetables. They are not here.
Basava has taken out large loans before. Once, she borrowed 5,000 Rupees to buy land back in her village. Now she wants to borrow 3,000 Rupees to celebrate her daughter's first child. A lot of money. But then Basava can earn fifty, up to a hundred a day, doing the cleaning in four brothels here on 13th Gulli. In fact, Sona's opened Crisis Savings accounts for at least twenty of the prostitutes here..
“Before making them Mahila Milan members I had a meeting with other Mahila Milan leaders and informed them that there are these prostitute womens, and they want to open Mahila Milan account. So, are you ready to accept them? They said: OK. It's a good thing if they want to improve their life, they want to save for their future.
Of course, most of the girls are already hopelessly in debt to a combination of pimps, ghawalis and moneylenders and will probably never get out. But Sona says saving with Mahila Milan has enabled maybe four or five to pay off their debts and move completely out of the business, much like Sona once did, fifteen years ago.
Basava's back. Sona's telling her the bank will loan her 1,000, not the 3,000 she's asking. Basava isn't arguing. She knows she's got a good deal at 12% per annum.
The moneylender would also charge her 12 percent. But 12 percent, a month!
Sona's spotted Raju. She stops. Raju looks at Sona. Then at me. He reluctantly reaches in to his pockets.
“Raju, saving 20 Rupees.” explains Sona. To me it looks more like extortion!
So, that's Banking's finished for the morning. Time to get back to her hut and sit and sample pohar. Maybe time to to chat about something other than money.
But in the corner of the hut, the Goddess Yellama is watching over our meal. I know exactly what I now have to do! Find a clean 50 Rupee note.
And hand it to Sona!
“This is for Yellama!”
Sona delicately folds the note and places it in Yellama's lap.
With most pavement dwellers a foreigner probably always remains just that, a foreigner. But with Sona, after a rocky beginning, a real friendship has developed. She's been trying to improve my Hindi, so we can have real conversations together. Sona wants me to go with her to Punam, a big festival in her native Karnataka. I can't go this year. But, one day, if the invitation still stands, I probably will.