Swimming with the sharks

[ Asok Pillai ]
Barely a week after the passing of the Arunachal Pradesh Money Lending Regulation Bill, a group of women money lenders scrambled to the press club, where they held a conference through which they appealed to the governor to not give his assent to the Bill until it is reviewed.
Now, I neither condemn nor condone the business of unofficial money-lending – I have no truck with it in any way – but one of the group’s concerns is understandable, on one level. To play the devil’s advocate: if I were a money lender – usurer, I think, is the better word – I too would be worried if the scores of people who had borrowed money from me on interest suddenly refused to pay up because they feel they are protected by the Bill – or that they will be once it becomes an Act. No wonder the group of usurers, jolted out of their complacency, rushed to the media to express their grievance – of course under the banner of a ‘committee’…
The story of money-lending goes far back in history. It existed even during the times of kings and empires. In the Roman times, the only form of banking was a kind of trade in which private individuals or pawnbrokers would lend against collateral. Our own popular consciousness of money-lending comes in the form of the ‘Kabuliwalas’ – Afghans with rugged features handing out loans at high interest rates all across the country.
As far as I could learn, the so-called Kabuliwalas started trooping into India in the late 19th century and the early 20th century. Their primary business was selling dry fruits, and the money they earned from it, they put into the money-lending business. And thus began the legend of the Kabuliwala, or the man from Kabul… although I doubt if all of them are from Kabul.
The practice of usury finds a place in Indian pop culture also. Bollywood has produced several movies featuring usurers. Socialist Hindi movies of yore often featured a leery-eyed ‘Lala’, who would lend money to the heroine’s father at an exorbitant rate of interest; usually he would simply ask for the old man’s land and bullocks as collateral. As the movie progresses, the old man, through some turn of fate, becomes unable to pay up. The Lala then makes him an offer he evidently cannot refuse: he demands that the old man offer him the heroine’s hand in marriage.
It is interesting to see that usurers are usually cast – and perceived – in a negative light. But we fail to understand why they exist in the first place. When a man is down on his luck and in desperate need of money, pronto, what’s he going to do? Of course, besides the banks, there are the micro-finance companies. But if the need is urgent and the man has no time to go through the processes, there is but one person he will turn to: the money lender.
I like to compare the money-lending business to the tobacco industry. They both serve people’s needs. Just as the tobacco industry would die if tobacco users got a grip on their cravings, the business of usury would likely fade away if we used prudence and stopped seeking loans from usurers.
It is for us to make the choice. We know the potential risk in not quitting tobacco, and not paying our debts. After all, if you go swimming with the sharks, sooner or later you’re bound to get bitten.