|We were little kids when this poster could be seen on every wall in our small town. However, little kids were not supposed to watch film in those days. So we waited for years before we grew bold enough to cheat our parents and teachers and skip classes to watch the matinee show. That’s how we saw Mahboob Khan’s classic Motehr India.
This image of Nargis as Mother India has remained with me since then. In recent years I have watched this film many times. While travelling in rural India, whether UP, Rajasthan or Orissa, I am compelled to conclude not much has changed for the rural poor. Many protagonist of shining India might feel horrified with this conclusion. I would like to remind them the critical word here is ‘rural poor’. Yes not much has changed for them. India is neither rising nor shining for them. In three generations both their land and the residential accommodation have been divided and sub-divided among family members. And the poverty has refused to leave their lives.
The moneylender that we saw in Mother India still remains exploiting the rural poor. The only change is that village Mahajan has been replaced by bank managers and government debt collectors. The nationalised banks have arrived in the nearby towns. They aim to provide low-cost credit to the poor. It’s an open secret that bank officials and their intermediaries swallow at least one-third of the loan they lend to a poor farmer. And when the farmer fails to pay the debt the ‘sarkari mahajans’ or official loan collectors arrive in the village.
This is exactly what happened in my village in western UP. On a hot summer afternoon a jeep-full of officials, assisted by local police, arrived in the village. They sat under a vast neem tree at the Thakur chaupaal and were treated to a lavish hospitality of the village headman. Then the real business began.
Meanwhile, half of the village has gathered around them. They read out a list of loan defaulters. The biggest defaulters were missing from the list, because they were powerful and politically connected. Almost all the village poor were on the list. Their names were announced loudly.
Sensing the trouble the clever ones among the poor had already run away from the village. But the honest ones came forward, with folded hands, bowing before the loan-collectors, pleading their forgiveness and praying for some more time to repay the next instalment.
The officials had to achieve a loan recovery target in a given month. They employed every trick that the old village moneylenders used to employ, but they had something more that village moneylender never had – the power of the state, i.e. two policemen standing with old rifles. They taunted the defaulting farmers, publicly humiliated them and ordered to make at least part payment.
Seventy-five years old Sumer Singh owed about Rs. 80,000. The loan was taken many years ago in his name by his alcoholic son. He didn’t have a penny to repay. So he was bundled into the jeep and was taken away. His son was ordered to arrange a partial deposit of Rs 20,000 to secure the release of his father.
Begging for the money, the son went around his relatives, friends and finally the old village moneylender, where he mortgaged family jewellery to raise part of the money. It took him a week to arrange this, while his father remained illegally imprisoned in a police lock up. The old man was released only after a Rs. 20,000 instalment was paid.
Sumer Singh, always a god-fearing man, returned to his village with his head permanently bowed in shame. He stopped talking to anyone around. Never in good health, he fell ill a few moths later and died within six months of his arrest.
When I saw his old widow in the year 2007, she reminded me of Nargis in Mother India. Mahboob Khan’s Mother India was similarly tormented by the oppressive moneylender in 1957. Half a century later not much has changed for Mother India. She still remains haunted and humiliated by the moneylender. The new moneylender is a million time more powerful then the village mahajan.