*At least in Karnataka
Being a freshie to microfinance last year, I had vague notions about the evils of moneylending based on what I had read before I started working in the field. But as often as the moneylender was referenced as “bad” in all the literature I was reading, I found nothing explaining exactly how he was bad other than high interest rates. And if you know anything about microfinance, compared to regular banks, most mfis have high interest rates themselves. So I had to find out, to assauge myself that I wasn’t working for the devil and that moneylenders weren’t just some innocent scapegoats.
Things have been working out in the field enough that I’ve been able to do some digging through client and staff interviews. When I get the chance to talk to clients about our loan impact, I always ask them what their other options were and more often than not it’s a moneylender that would have charged them an interest rate of 3-4%. Still, doesn’t seem high relative to regular banks and it’s lower than my firm’s rates. So why did they choose us?
After some digging, I found out that this 3-4% rate is a flat interest rate. This means that your interested is calculated based on the initial amount of the loan. Your interest does not decrease with each payment. If you took a $6,000 loan to be paid in 12 installments, you might think 4% is manageable and a good deal. Until you realize that on your $6,000 loan, you paid $240 in interest for the first repayment (not so bad compared to the $6,000 you have in principal) and you paid $240 in interest on your last repayment (very bad compared to the $500 left in principal).
I think this flat rate case is common in most developing countries with strong informal financial markets. But something I suspect may be unique to India (or maybe unique to Karnataka. I don’t know, not enough experience) is the additional conditions set by the moneylender. The moneylender requires that the borrower pay the entire principal back at once, in one lump sum. So until you have $6,000 to pay back all at once, you are required to make $240 payments. This could last for years. And if you happen to have $480 one month and are excited that you can finally chip off some of that principal, nope. He’ll hold on to it and apply it to the next month’s interest.
Eventually, the moneylender gets tired of waiting for his $6,000, so after a few years of receiving a nice stream of income from your interest payments, he’ll compromise with you and agree to forgive the loan if you give him your land or your house or some other valuable asset. Now you have no debt, but you have no assets either.
There should be some kind of Monopoly game for this.
After my mom left for the US from her week-long visit in Karnataka, I went to breakfast with one of my coworkers and started bawling. To him, it seemed like random soggy-face, because we had just finished up a conversation on self-help groups and microfinance. Say “SHG” and cue tears from Kam.
Naturally, he freaked out a little. The first thing he said to me was “Oh wow, you have feelings.” As an afterthought, he asked, “Was it something I said?” (Dialogue in my head when he said this: “No! Because you are not my boyfriend! But if you were, the answer would be “Yes, now go get me some chocolate and tissue. And tell me I’m pretty.”)
Apparently, according to his explanation, foreigners don’t have emotions. Only because our souls are so shriveled and hardened can we move far from home for college or jobs without doubling over with pain from missing our families. (I was going to say “loved ones” instead of “families” in the last sentence but considering the aforementioned stereotype, we don’t love anyone).
I could sense some cognitive dissonance as he watched me cry, and then he finally concluded with satisfaction, “But you’re mixed, so that’s why you have some feelings.” Key word: “some.” I’m hybrid, therefore cannot feel the full range of human emotion.
Then, to show me how sensitive the emotion-having population of the world is, he sent me a text message to make me feel better. He was being really genuine and very concerned about making me feel better, so I had to appreciate that. Anyway, this is what it said:
A Small Kid was resting on her Mother shoulder. She askd mom hw long can i rest on Ur shoulder. Mom replied: Till 4 people TAKE me on their sholdrs.
I cried even harder. Because of the spelling mistakes.
*a really bad reference to sci-fi
As an Indicorps fellow, we’re asked to write public columns throughout the year that the fellowship tries to get published in various outlets. In the meantime, I thought I would share it here. I’m not experienced in writing public columns - I’ve never even published one before. What I’m trying to say here is that there are good men in India, but sometimes the bad ones distract you. The good ones need to outnumber the bad ones so they lose their power. Hopefully, I’ve conveyed that here.
Yesterday, I stepped off the bus at a remote intersection where the country road meets the national highway. The only indication that this may be a bus stop are the few scattered people milling about. There, I sat on a cement block, counting the lorries go by and wondering when my connecting bus would arrive.
A car packed with young men pulled up, in high spirits from enjoying their weekend. Spotting me, they became even rowdier and started goading me to get into their car, laughing when I ignored them.
Instead of accepting their invitation, I walked over to the lone roadside stand that held chewing tobacco and biscuits. Inside the stand, I found a sister and brother. They were on holidays, the boy explained, so they were running the shop until school restarted. The boy, not more than twelve, struck me by his demeanor. If it hadn’t been for his height, I would have never guessed he was a child. When I asked about the next bus, he assured me it was coming soon and surprised me how quickly he was able to assert himself as a man helping out a woman instead of a boy answering an adult’s question. Once the bus came, he flagged it down and made sure I got on. The only glimpse I saw of him being a child was when he eagerly waved back at me as the bus drove away. Meanwhile, the car with the men was still parked at the intersection, playing music as loudly as possible and catcalling other women.
The bus, with its faux velvet seats, open windows, and no AC, reminded me of the one I had been on last week. A coworker invited me to his engagement and I accepted, eager to see a Kannadiga celebration for the first time. I joined his family, all of who had put on their finest, in a bus that barely fit us all as we trekked over one hour to the fiance’s house. The women and men were drenched in sweat and speckled with road-dust once we finally arrived.
Once inside the fiance’s house, I was surprised to find out that it was less of an engagement celebration and more of a business deal. The women, most of who were wrapped in the traditional six meters of silk cloth that make up a sari, were shoved into a side room that normally functions as a closet. We used our wallets to fan ourselves, and sat down crossed-legged on the floor, our knees overlapping. The kids took advantage this and enjoyed being able to roll from one lap to another without touching the ground. The men sat in the main room, with chairs and fans, spaced out with plenty of legroom. There, they began debating the price of the dowry, while the women occasionally peeked out from the door of our segregated closet. I listened as negotiations went on, seeming to be the only one finding the irony that the women were delegated to the storage room while the men debated the cost of marrying one.
The engagement, naturally, became office gossip, especially the size of the dowry. In an office that is dominated by men, I felt obligated to point out that I did not agree with the dowry system and had indeed tried to talk him out of taking one. Another coworker, Mahesh, chimed in saying the same. He too had tried to talk him out of taking a dowry. I was surprised once again – a man against the dowry? To me, this had always been a women’s fight. We spoke more and he told me about his older sister. Two years ago, she had gotten married and their family offered her husband a dowry but he refused to take it. After that, Mahesh decided he would do the same and refuse a dowry. “Besides,” he followed up, “I want to marry a career girl, anyway.” He smiled and turned away, running off to dote on his neighbor’s two year old daughter, who calls him Uncle Mahesh.
A car stuffed with six men and booming with pop music drowns out the quiet voices of men like Mahesh. Rooms with men loudly debating a dowry makes it easy to forget about the young men making sure you get home safely. But these men do exist. I’m waiting for India’s tipping point, when there are more men like Mahesh and his brother-in-law. The young man helping me on the bus will need older men to emulate. I hope the men he chooses are like Mahesh – I hope he even has options like Mahesh. So the next time he helps a woman on a bus, he can turn around and see other men acting with the same respect. And a young woman describing India can happily say without a second thought, without listeners doubting her, that the food is great but the people are even more amazing.
This is my cycle.
I have to remember to use the word cycle. In India, the word bike is for motorbikes, not for my silly little non-engined vehicle. If I say I’m riding my bike, people get alarmed. Then I remind them, haha, no I mean cycle. Don’t worry, I’m not riding on the mean streets of Karnataka, about to run over your kid when I lose control of my triple horsepower bike (yes I’m aware that triple horsepower means absolutely nothing). When it got really hot in Mali and my laziness increased in proportion with the heat, I would pretend to be lost and ask for directions from men with motorbikes. They would always offer me a ride. It was like furtive hitchhiking. For some reason, it doesn’t seem like such a good idea here.
One guy in my office, after he found out I was going to start cycling for my commute, told me, haha, to be careful and switch up my routine, haha, because there might be guys who decide to kidnap me when they figure out my timings. Maybe this is why I don’t do that furtive hitchhiking thing here. Also, is this an appropriate situation to use the word “highwaymen” in a modern context? Because I would really like to work that in somehow. Yes, so potential highwaymen waiting for me amongst farmland and scrubby non-bushes. It’s frightening, really.
The first day I rode my cycle gleefully down the country road back to my village, I kept getting run off the road and almost-hit by oncoming traffic. I attributed this to several things, one being that the road was incredibly narrow and another being that people just really didn’t like me. As it continued through the rest of my ride back to the village, I started thinking maybe it is a big deal for a girl to ride a cycle around these parts. These jerk drivers were just trying to run me off the road! For Being A Girl! On A Cycle!
The next day, I started off on my first morning ride back to the office. Much harder because now I had to pedal uphill. But lots of time to reminisce and reflect on the dilemmas of being a girl in India, gender issues, and my identity as an American. It’s weird how you feel more American when you go abroad. Like so American, that you cycle on the wrong side of the road because hello, it’s not the US and they drive on the left-side here.
I realize that my post title is misleadingly scandalous but I’ll point out from the start that my only companions were computers and office supplies. Very sexy, I know.
Lately, I’ve been on this mental kick where each minute holds extreme anxiety because that minute will never exist again (barring astrophysics, etc.). How do I take this precious minute and leverage it into the most amazingly productive, life-changing moment that has happened to me since the last minutes have passed?
As deep and reflective of an exercise this may seem, instead of producing the desired effect of making me the modern Renaissance Woman (I think the more common term is “superwoman who has it all,” but ugh), it instead paralyzes me. Because no matter what I’m doing in that minute, there’s always something better I can be doing. Cutting your nails? Bah! Go save some babies instead!
The pitfalls of this way of thinking are obvious. I mean, I can’t run around unbathed, unwashed, with dirty long nails, pretending to save babies all the time. First of all, who is going to let me near any babies when I look like the bag lady from The Simpsons (side-note: it doesn’t take much for me to get to that point. And by that point, I mean an animation.). Nevertheless, the night I had to sleep in the office because I missed my ride to my village, I was not thinking quite so rationally.
Instead I was over-ridden by several kinds of guilt, one of them being that I probably had been wasting time (oh those precious minutes) in the office when I should have been heading over to the timpo-stop, catching my open-air ride home.
In failed attempts to assauge my guilt, I decided since I was stuck in the office, with unusually good internet, I should post on my blog. But existential crises and spiraling guilt are not the best sources of inspiration, and all I could think to write about were my feet.
The Guptas* deemed them as pretty gross (I don’t really see it), so I felt like a follow up post was necessary with a few defenses and submitting photographic evidence. Basically, I just wanted to post this picture, saying “YO, They ain’t so bad:”
But recall my existential crisis. Instead of just submitting the post and calling it a (productive) night, I decided to have a back and forth argument in my head about the ridiculousness of my blog. I was making people look at my feet. For what? For no reason! I was wasting people’s time! Not only were my precious minutes ticking away, I was evilly, manipulatingly (not a word, I know) tricking people into losing precious minutes staring at my ugly feet.
Anyway, right now I’m on a lull from the existential crisis so I’m taking full advantage by evilly, manipulatingly posting a follow-up picture of my feet where they are not quite as ugly. I would like to point out, #1: that the original picture was from October, at the end of the rainy season, thus I proudly was displaying my battle wounds against the mosquitos. #2: They are oh-so pretty now. #3: I can now say that my night in the office was not completely wasted. Redeemed!
Also, yes, I did just spend precious minutes writing an entire post about this. In order to redeem this post, at least, I offer this lesson: Unproductive thoughts about how you are an unproductive person who wasted past time being unproductive just makes you more unproductive in the future. Rah!
*The Guptas, I have a feeling, will be playing more and more of a role in my life. Introduction: The Only People Who Can Match Me In Their Ability To Sing Obscure Hindi Film Songs.
I used to think sporks were one of the best things ever. You can scoop your Fruit Loops or you can stab them! Somewhat relevant side-note: my first spork was a prize in a Fruit Loops box.
Then I came to India and was given this when eating rice. I did the literal version of “shoveling food into your mouth.” Spork, I have jilted you for the Shovel Spoon.
I also added a gratuitous photo of my feet so I can show you my flip-flop tan line, circa Oct 2010. Now I wear my Keens everywhere so instead my feet have zebra lines, which isn’t nearly as interesting. If you’re like my cousin Kam (yeah! we have the same name. I stole mine from hers, for real.) and you’re grossed out by feet that aren’t your own, then I suggest you refrain from scrolling down. But your disgust of feet might over-ride your curiosity to see my really cool pink pants.
When I talk to some people, especially people from small American towns, they suddenly begin hearing an Indian accent. I do not have an Indian accent. I just have an Indian face. They seem confused by this.
When I talk to some people, especially people from big American cities, they suddenly hear a twang when they find out I’m from Kansas. There’s no twang. Newscasters get sent to the area I’m from so they can learn our bland accent that you can’t place. So like, hey, where was that twang for the two years we’ve been talking before you realized I was from Kansas? Maybe they think I’m like Reese Witherspoon from Sweet Home Alabama and it only comes out sometimes, like when I’m really worked up. No. If it does, I’m faking it because I am making fun of you. FYI. And such.
When I’m in India and I speak Hindi, I’ve been told I have an America accent. This has only been told to me by people who know I’m from America. Maybe I do - some letters are hard to roll on your tongue when you’re used to speaking English. But I can’t hear it. And then when a ticket conductor demands to see my passport because he doesn’t believe I’m American, I start thinking that I probably don’t have this so-called American accent. Especially because the ticket conductor insists that my passport is really a green card, despite the big letters stating “PASSPORT.” Also, it is entirely incomprehensible that an American would bother to learn Hindi. He actually said this, I’m not lying.
A few days ago, I was asked to pick up an American from the bus-stand because the directions to our office were a little complicated. I haven’t seen another American for about three months, so I was excited. What a surprise it will be for her, I thought, when in this big kind-of-scary foreign country, a fellow American appears. As I walked over, I imagined the scene that would play out. I would walk up to her. She would think I was Indian. I would shake her hand and introduce myself, and her face would light up with surprise: “Ah, a fellow American! Something comfortingly familiar.” This is what actually happened: I shook her hand, which is quite an American thing to do. I introduced myself. Her face did not light up. She asked me where I was from India. I told her I was from Chicago. She then asked me if I was born in India. I told her I was born in Chicago. She asked me if I visited India every year. I said no.
Moral of the Stories:I, like most people, always think I’m the exception to the norm. I sit back smugly thinking I’m worldy, I have roots in more than one place and I speak more than one language. Automatically open-minded. After I wrote these short stories though, I sat on it for about a week. It dawned on me that I’m no different. Sometimes, there are brief moments of almost-epiphanies, where something happening doesn’t fit my worldview. Like when I see fathers doting on their daughters everywhere I look in India and some of my best friends here are men from supposedly backward villages. This whole time I thought India was a breeding ground for 21st century misogynists and I was wrong. It makes me wonder about the other things I’m wrong about, the things that I regularly shove into my template of reality but don’t give me the benefit of an epiphany. I’m starting to think the message is “Tread Carefully.” …or at least “Tread Thoughtfully.”
People will project their ideas of what you should be instead of what you actually are, even in the face of strong evidence.
Well. I have typhoid.
Being alone as a woman in India is hard. It’s not hard because you’re going to die the minute you step outside. It’s hard because everyone tells you you’re going to die the minute you step outside. If you aren’t scared of the famous monster that thrives on the lives of vulnerable women, you will be after enough conversations. He will be hiding around the corner, waiting for you when you return from work. You may not see him, but everyone says he’s there. He will be sitting next to you on the bus, waiting to molest you. You may not feel him, but everyone has stories as proof.
The verbal concerns for your safety are not the only ones reminding you to question your decision to do things in India as a lone woman. There are plenty of stares too, from everyone but especially from men. Everyday, I give myself a moment of mental preparation before I walk down the street to my office because I know how many times heads will turn and how gazes will linger as I walk past.
I have yet to meet the person that makes me more afraid of men here than I am of the men back in America. I have yet to encounter a situation that makes me more concerned for my safety here than back home. But after enough well-intentioned warnings, I start to feel like this monster is real and I’ve met him before. His name is Fear. He stops me from leaving the house on a bright sunny day. He stops me from climbing the roof to see the view, because I don’t know what will happen to me if a stranger sees me there. He makes a woman gasp when she realizes I’m traveling alone by bus at night. He tells me to leave the curbside when waiting for this very bus, because “Don’t you know, men are watching you. Bad men.” This monster named Fear is ruining my life.
I’m going to scare him back though. I have the education and seven years experience of living alone to know how to conquer this monster. I know he’s just a mirage and when he manifests himself as an aggressive man on the street, my words are usually enough to tame him. I know I can speak up. I know that once I get on that nighttime bus, there is a woman there to offer me stories about her grandchildren, and a man to help me lift my luggage to the top rack. But I wonder about all the women and girls who don’t have my weapons at their disposal. I have no compelling stories to assure them that it’s okay to walk to school alone and they don’t have to drop out before graduation since they have no female companion to walk with them. I have no catchy urban tale that tells them it’s okay to speak up when a man bothers you and not every strange man is evil; no sticky jingle to remind them the world is theirs too. My anecodotes can’t compete with the lurid tales of kidnap and rape, and my measured words don’t carry the weight of a concerned grandmother or older brother - “don’t go out alone.”
All I can do is be fearless. I can’t return every stare I get on the street and I can’t fight with every single man that makes me uncomfortable. All I can do is march down my street with feigned nonchalance. They will stare at me everday to remind me that I’m alone and I will walk down that street everday to show them that I’m not afraid. I know their eyes are just curious, not hostile and there is nothing to fear. The stories I tell girls may not be as compelling as age-old horror stories and urban legends, but my march down the street will be strong and maybe one day I will catch a girl’s eye instead of just a man’s.
This week I was back in the trucker hotel in Koppal, and after spending a cumulative of three nights there, I believe that my new nickname for it, The Roach Motel, holds true. I realize this name could be applied to several places all over the world - let’s just say it’s a franchise.
As much as I want to hate on this hotel, it has one saving grace - great lighting and magic mirrors. For some reason, the mirrors in this hotel make me look like I’m a glowing beauty and should foray into modeling. The first time I stayed here, I thought I was just having a good face day, but after a third night here, I’m thinking it’s the hotel and not me. This must be how they keep the customers coming back.
Sadly, I have to say goodbye to Beauty Queen Kam, as I depart for Bangalore tonight on the Humpy Express.
Confession: It’s actually spelled Hampi Express, but it’s pronounced Humpy. I’m taking poetic license with transliteration.
Amy departed for Italy the same time I left for India. We’ve been exchanging emails with our friend Will. He responded with the message pasted below, but before you read that I just want to say:
1. I’m glad the only contribution I have to this is the lack of toilet paper
2. I’m especially glad it’s making Will jealous
On Fri, Oct 1 at 3:36 AM, Willie Nelson wrote:
look what you people are doing to my google ads links feed
STOP MAKING ME JEALOUS
Because I’m female, the amount of concern for my safety is at high alert. Add the facts I’m American and don’t speak Kannada, and the concern becomes almost overwhelming. The last person who worried all at the once about my health, my safety, and my emotional well-being was my mother. Here, I bring out everyone’s maternal instincts, male or female.
Slowly, the people around me are getting used to my independence. I figured out how to use the bus system in Bangalore, despite the language barrier, and they were quite impressed. Sometimes I’m surprised they don’t realize how helpful their own countrymen are.
Today I left Belgaum and took two buses to reach Koppal. The connecting city was Dharwad, about an hour away from Belgaum. I have never been to Dharwad before, so I kept asking the lady next to me “Dharwad? Dharwad?” every time the bus made a stop. She initiated a conversation with me, her in broken Hindi, me in broken Kannada. When she realized I was continuing to Koppal from Dharwad, she gasped.
"But you won’t get there until 5:00!"
"Actually, 6:30," I respond.
"Aren’t you scared of being alone?" she says, biting her lip and tugging her sari.
I say no, but then started wondering if I should be. I shrug away any doubts and remind myself that on every bus I’ve been on so far, there has been a woman or a man as friendly and willing as her to help me out.
Once I get to Dharwad, however, the bus to Kopal is curiously missing. The station attendants wave me away with curt responses when I ask where the bus is. Not a friendly face to be found, just a humongous wasp’s nest hanging over the bus station benches. I decide to sit on the curb of the parking lot instead, and run to each passing bus yelling “Koppal? Koppal?” Finally, I give up and plop down with my autobiography of Gandhi. Deep into the book, right about where Gandhi is describing in detail his anal tract after a bout of dysentry, a man walks up to me, his face swimming with disapproval and judgment. He keeps insisting that I sit on a bench. Figuring that the English word “wasp” is probably not in his vocabularly, I try demonstrating a wasp through hand gestures. Exasperated, he finally says,
"Don’t you know people are watching you? Bad people. Bad men. Go sit on the benches. Don’t run after the buses and sit on the curb."
I sheepishly settle on a bench until the bus finally shows up. As I’m waiting, I grow increasingly alarmed. Every male face that passes by becomes a potential assaulter, mugger, generic shady man wanting to do bad things to me. I wonder if I’ve made it too obvious that I’m not from here or that my normally goofy persona makes me seem like an easy target.
The bus finally arrives and I end up next to an older Indian woman, traveling alone. She offers me a Cadbury chocolate. A man joins us later. Both of them make sure I get off at Koppal, while she continues to offer me food throughout the bus ride. The man helps me take down my luggage. The male bus attendant clears the exit for me.
I arrive at the hotel that’s been booked for me that night. It’s on the edge of town and it’s next to a rest stop for truckers. I smile to myself, imagining the first woman’s reaction if she knew where I was staying.