What Money Lenders Know About Life

IN THE book, ‘Ants Among Elephants’, which is a memoir of a Dalit about her “untouchable” impoverished family, Sujatha Gidla says that she grew up believing that all Indian Christians were “untouchables”, and poor and fated to “turn servile in the presence of Hindu”. One day, when she was fifteen, the truth struck her in a movie theatre.

She had gone to watch a film that she thought was made in her mother tongue, Telugu. Only later would she realise that it was a Malayalam film dubbed in Telugu. The film opens in predictable ways. A rich girl falls in love with a poor man; her family is repulsed and they drive the poor man away and condemn the girl to marry a man worthy of her stature. Gidla had seen many stories like this but then the “shock came at the wedding scene” when she sees the rich girl dressed in a white gown. That is when Gidla realised the rich girl was a Christian, and the poor man she had fallen in love with was a Brahmin. In essence rich Christians had considered it a disgrace that their daughter must fall in love with a poor Brahmin and had driven him away. On seeing this Gidla writes, “My blood froze. My brain went numb. I couldn’t breathe”.

Years later she would learn that such ‘high-caste’ Indian Christians chiefly hailed from Kerala. She would meet many of them in her post graduate programme at the Regional Engineering Collect in Warangal — girls who were “all so beautiful, rich, happy charming, high-class

The hero of the memoir is Gidla’s uncle, K.G. Satyamurthy, who once wished to overthrow the Indian state through armed struggle, and co-founded the People’s War Group. There was the light of political genius in him and those who saw it early were women. In an extraordinary scene in Gidla’s account of his youth, a beautiful Christian ‘upper-caste girl’ who was smitten by him drew him to her house when nobody was around but she made him come in through the back door because he was “an untouchable”.

The Christians whom she was describing hail from central Kerala and they belong to a few ancient sects that do not owe allegiance to the Pope. They are the old money. Like this family that has assembled in a small village which no Indian nationalist can pronounce — Kozhencherry.

Down a little lane here, in a large gracious home of an ancient Orthodox Syrian Christian household, a feast is underway. The air is filled with laughter and banter. The crowd in the sunlit dining room are family; not friends. If they had been friends they would have been of a uniform social and economic type, as adult friends are these days. The surprising thing about a large family gathering is that it assembles all sorts of social classes, even though everyone may have the same nose.

On the rough wooden table there is food that only a home in Kerala can achieve. There are the red embers of fried fish, crispy beef, thick coconut gravy of chicken, and vegetables from the garden that are so bright that they appear to glow. All through this, a silent matriarch sits watching her brood. She appears to recognise only those she loves.

For a few interesting and uninteresting reasons I will only refer to them as “the Family” and by their famous family name. They have assembled to remember the matriarch’s husband, who surveys from several walls with an amiable face. Let us call him the Patriarch.

He was a shrewd and affable moneylender. Strangely for a Malayalee, he had a morbid fear of elephants. He was a farmer who owned hundreds of acres of fertile land in Kerala and Tamil Nadu, and invested in several businesses. He even invested in wind energy. “Every time the wind blows,” he told a friend, “I will make money”. But his core, his masterpiece was lending loans against gold. He compared his enterprise to a rubber tree, which grows slowly but after it has grown it never breaks in a storm. Because it knows how to bend.

Like other big money lenders of his time, the Patriarch was socially respected and theologically condemned. In Kerala’s Christian community, especially, the profession was stigmatised. In my mother’s farming household, near Kollam, when farm workers needed money they used to surrender their metal plates as guarantee for money but the household did not charge any interest. As charging interest was a Christian sin, Christian homes never lent any money when the poor came asking during an emergency.

As it was the case with almost all religions, usury, or lending money for interest, was condemned in Christianity, which took seriously the pronouncement of Jesus Christ: “Lend and expect nothing in return”. Across the millenniums that Christianity spanned in Europe moneylending was a disgraceful act and even a risky for Christians which could be punished with painful execution. Around 1515 a German called Jakob Fugger, who is regarded as the richest man who ever lived by some estimations, changed this. He bribed Pope Leo, who legitimised profiting from moneylending. To be precise, the Pope legitimised lending that involved “labor, cost or risk.” There is no human activity that does not involve at least one of these three qualities. In this way, Fugger and the corrupt Pope set the foundations of modern capitalism. But the Christian rehabilitation of moneylending did not last very long, and the stigma never really left the profession. As the Patriarch knew, and all the the family after him know. For centuries people in Kerala attributed any disease among moneylenders to a divine retribution for moneylending. Even today people make that connection. Not just the poor customers of the Family but even their social equals, their acquaintances whisper to them that all their sorrow emerges from their profession.

The passports of some of the Patriarch’s grandchildren, do not carry the family name. Because people behind the counters in any airport in Kerala or Tamil Nadu always react to that name. There is scorn at times, there is servility, too, but there is always a movement across the stranger’s face, muscle groups move under the weight of opinion. The name is concealed in school records too.

The stigma, especially in Kerala, is odd. Kerala is an ancient, mature and advanced market for gold loans. In fact, the very reason why Kerala’s gold ornaments are so ugly and austere is that historically their purpose was for mortgage more than adornment. Malayalees buy gold to leverage it, to pawn it, and not so much as to flaunt it, at least flaunt it the way Tamil women do. (Jayalalitha even had a gold belt and it took considerable amount of gold to go around her waist). In Kerala, it is easier to find hoardings that announce jewellers and gold loans than it is to find a woman bedecked in gold. Of all Indian states there is least shame in pawning gold in Kerala. Yet, all the shame is on the pawnbroker.

This is changing though. The modern times have somewhat rehabilitated the the family. But one dark quality of the stigma has not left. It is the supernatural, mystical dimension to money-lending. The curse of the poor. “Your family has a lot of curses from people. It’s people’s tears,” a friend told a member of the Family, a girl who is expected to play a crucial role in the future of the business.

The Family are deep believers in god, so they never dismiss any supernatural phenomenon as completely baseless. They themselves have wondered at various points in their lives whether the family’s line of business was indeed wrong.

Large banks do not face any stigma. In my life I have paid over a crore to the ICICI as interest payments alone towards home loans and car loans but they do not worry about my curse even though I do curse them a lot. Even pure micro-finance companies don’t have any stigma; in fact they are viewed as pious and one of its pioneers won the peace Nobel. Only a particular kind of money-lenders face the curse even though what they have done is diminish the traditional street money-lender who used to lend at over 100% a year, like the pawn-brokers my mother used to borrow from and the gigantic Pathan who was my father’s financier.

The Patriarch, like most rich men of his time, was deeply religious, and was accorded great respect by the religious establishments to which he donated enormous sums. There were days when the Patriarch rose and decided that he had to give a sermon at the Sunday mass. He would then lure his sons into taking him to a church, where he would make the request to the priest. It is unusual for a man who is not a priest to be allowed to give a sermon but it was hard for most churches in Kerala to refuse the Patriarch. He believed that he had something to offer precisely because he was not a man of god, because he was a man of the material world, a merchant. And lay people connected with him and what he said the way they didn’t with the priest.

This is what Indian intellectuals didn’t get about Mukesh Ambani when he built the most expensive home a twenty-storey high modern palace in the heart of Mumbai. They said it was self-destructive for Ambani to mock the poor in this way but the poor did not feel mocked; they saw hope. It is the old-money millionaires who resented Ambani — for diminishing their sea-views.

The Patriarch knew that people wanted to know his secret, how he had made so much money. He knew he was a good brand ambassador of god. He made god look very useful. Solemn priests made god look mean and dangerous.

A regular theme in the Patriarch’s sermons was that god forgave “instantly”. He sold the idea of “instant” more than the forgiving bit. All that people had to do was plead to god to forgive and god forgave “instantly”. Standing in a church he was advocating a direct communion with god, which he thought was efficient as opposed to licence-raj prayers where a person has to go through the bureaucracy of priests to ask for pardon.

The Patriarch, in his time, may have wondered why no saint ever cared to explain to people that if there is anyone who wishes you well; wishes you quick and sustained prosperity and a very long economic life it is your moneylender. But then it is in the nature of people to imagine friends as well-wishers and money-lenders as people who wish ruin. It is very odd that people must think this way because the fact, often, is the inverse.

The Family, today, has thousands of branches across India, most of them in Kerala where there is one every 300 metres. This is not monopoly because there is one gold-loan branch every 100 meters in Kerala. In most of Tamil Nadu there is one every kilometre. Each of the thousands of branches of the Family’s gold loan business follows a procedure that is a response to an emotion the Family believe is in the core of the gold-loan business. That when a person comes to pawn her gold it is a very serious moment in her life. The staff is instructed to be solemn. They are to abandon laughter, banter and the phone, and respect the excruciating solemnity of the moment even if it were just a trivial bangle that the person has brought.

It will deeply move my mother — to know that pawnbrokers always knew how she felt. It is possible that even the Jains of Chennai were not being contemptuous when they sat with their serious faces inspecting my mother’s jewels — maybe they were trying to look solemn, hence respectful of my mother’s bad moment.

The Family also followed another important layer of decorum, which is a response to their belief that the moneylender, no matter in which village, municipality or era he might be set in, is essentially a neighbour. So the staff is instructed to do small talk with the customers, which like the most successful small talks is not designed or even intended to extract information, but the flow of information is an inevitable consequence.

The Family doesn’t accept gold without a word, they also need to know why a customer is pawning her gold. When the reasons are not honourable, or are not clear, they even refuse. It is not unusual in Kerala for drunkards to walk in with wife’s gold. They are sent back (with their gold). The larger idea here is caution, and the idea behind caution is to erase all association of exploitation from the action of pawning gold even if the exploiter is not always the pawnbroker himself, even if the exploiter is a lover or a husband, or a thief. Women should not pawn gold unless they wish to. This is how the Family rehabilitated the very idea of pawning gold.

There is much that the staff in a gold loan branch finds out about a customer even though their mandate is to close the transaction in five minutes. The transaction involves asking amiable questions, collecting the gold with solemnity, putting it in a pouch, weighing it and checking it to ensure it is indeed gold, and giving away about 90% of its value in cash, or if the amount exceeds two lakhs writing a check or wiring the amount.

Speed, rustic nosiness and respect while taking the needy’s gold — these were once innovations that were adapted by a generation of Kerala’s pawnbrokers a few decades ago. Among them the Patriarch.

According to an old employee, when the Patriarch visited any of his branches he never sat in the manager’s chair. Most people who mention this to me misunderstood it as an act of great humility but the fact is that the capitalists of the Patriarch’s time were efficient humans; their actions usually had deeper purpose than false notions of humility. Why wouldn’t a Malayalee capitalist, a moneylender, sit on a manager’s chair when he visited a branch office? An old employee of the Family told me the reason. If a customer walked in and the Patriarch did not know the customer’s name it would be a disgrace. The old moneylenders placed considerable importance on familiarity, and even today the Family tries to retain that rustic feel, even in the heart of Mumbai.

The Patriarch did not mean to lead a life that would protect him from the revolutions of the poor, but inadvertently he illustrated why the poor do not “kill” the rich:
Moral ideas like the importance of family, sacrifice, culture, religion, nation and the idea that a community is more important than an individual, are ideas that primarily favour the rich but they are enticing to the poor who wish to emulate or imitate the rich.
The rich who think these ideas are tricks to control the poor usually fail. The rich who believe in these ideas and whose own lives are hard evidence that they believe in these ideas are the truly powerful transmitters of social morals that restrain the poor from overturning existing order.
Austerity is not a trick. It is a form of intelligence.
The state of wealthiness is not a caste; being posh is a caste. The poor despise symbols of money far less than symbols of poshness.
The self-interest of a merchant is beneficial to the society.
But the feudal act of direct intervention through charity is not only useful to the poor, its optics also protect the rich.

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