Often, when I look back on my childhood days, one particular character keeps coming back in my memory. It is the character of Fatima Bi, the Balegarthi (The bangle seller).
This Balegarthi was a household name in our village in those days. On an average once in two months she used to visit our village. She was a devout Muslim Lady who lived in Sringeri. There was only a small population of Muslims in Sringeri. Her husband had a small kirana store.
It was really tough on Fatima Bi to travel to our villages carrying her bangle baggage with her. She had to cross the Tunga River, which used to be in spate for more than six months in a year. The boat facility was available during this period for crossing the river. But it was very risky to cross the river when in spate. Even after crossing the river, the journey was tough as one had to pass through thick forests. While it was normal for men to undertake such journeys, no women dared to undertake such a risk. The entire journey was to be covered by walk only as no transportation of any kind was available in those days. This was mainly on account of there being no bridge for the Tunga River at Sringeri.
We all used to call her Bibi. Only when I grew up I came to know that her name was Fatima Bi. Even though her main profession was selling the bangles, she had other sundry items for women and girls at home. She carried Snow, Talcum powder, hairpins, etc, which my sisters used to purchase from her. She also carried peppermints, which she offered to children of our age free! I would say that this was one incentive for which we used to wait for the arrival of Bibi anxiously!
It was very tough to bargain with our village people in those days. Each villager (whether a man or woman) was a master bargainer in the matter of fixing the price of an item for sale. As such, it was really tough on a Lady like Bibi to realize her money once the sale was over! While the trading used to be over within a short time, the actual billing and recovery from the Head of the house was a prolonging one. Sometimes, Bibi had to stay back for a day in our village to complete her recovery process. It must be mentioned here that while the villagers very stingy in spending their money, they were very generous in offering the food and stay-at-home facility for any guests including Bibi. Many a time Bibi used to settle her trade for kind as against cash; the cash used to be always in short supply with our villagers. The kind offered was generally Cardamom, Pepper or even arecanut! We always used to wonder how one single Muslim Lady could handle such a complicated business and earn profits out of it!
The Year 1956-57 was very turbulent for Bibi. Her whole world of business went haywire on account of introduction of 'Naya Paisa' by the Government of India! In the utter confusion that prevailed on introduction of this new monetary system, as against the earlier Rupee, Anna & Kasu (Paisa) system, the villagers really started acting tough! In the first place, nobody was quite sure as to what this new system was all about. Some of the villagers even held Nehru responsible for this mess! They felt that the earlier monetary system of British was far superior!
The main grouse was with regard to conversion of existing money into new money and spending it thereafter. The villagers couldn’t really get convinced about one major lacuna in the new system (as per them). While six Naye Paisa was equivalent of one Anna, how could four Anna be equivalent of twenty-five Paisa? They thought that they were losing one Paisa on every four Anna! Worse was the case of rupee where they were losing four valuable Paise! Each Rupee was equivalent to one hundred Paisa as against Ninety-six Paisa as it was supposed to be as per the earlier system.
The villagers decided that they would not pay a single paisa over and above the conversion table. They would pay only 96 paisa to Bibi for every one Rupee purchase! Thus, Bibi was made to lose 4 paisa for every one Rupee sale. The poor Lady did not know how to deal with such a situation.
I should narrate here how these villagers made 'Shankar Transport Bus Company' a fool in their calculations! This company had a monopoly in running the busses to Koppa Town. Our villagers had to walk four miles for catching a bus to Koppa. They had to invariably go to Koppa for Sunday Market for selling their produce and purchasing their necessities. Before the advent of Naya Paisa system each ticket to Koppa cost them four Annas. As per the new monetary system they had to pay 25 Paisa per ticket. 'No way', said our villagers! They were not prepared to pay this additional paisa at any cost. When the Bus Company refused to oblige, these innovative villagers found a way out. They would travel half way to Koppa by purchasing the ticket at 12 Paisa (2 Annas) up to Narve Town. There they would ask the Conductor to issue another ticket to Koppa from Narve, which cost again 12 Paisa only as per company rules!
To those who do not believe my above narration, I should mention here the behavior of Bengalis at Calcutta. I was in Calcutta in the late eighties. In those days, the Calcutta Tram Company was charging a minimum of 20 Paisa for ordinary class and 25 Paisa for first class. One day a Bengali Lady boarded a First Class Compartment by mistake and asked for a ticket of 20 Paisa. When the Conductor told her that it was First Class, she simply jumped out of the moving tram and ended up injuring herself! She did not want to waste that 5 paisa even though she belonged to Upper Middle class!
Let me come back to my original story. I have already mentioned that Bibi was forced to stay at our village on certain occasions. On one such occasion she stayed at our house itself. We children were very happy to have this guest stay with us. We were sure that she would tell us some story in the night. We were not at all disappointed. As expected, Bibi started telling us the story of Tipu Sultan, the Tiger of Mysore! She first began by telling us how her forefathers landed in the Hindu pilgrim Town of Sringeri.
During the third Mysore war, the invading Maratha army under Persuram Bhau caused a lot of damage to Sringeri, plundered the temple property and even displaced the sacred image of the goddess Sharada. The Swamiji of the temple left the place and went to Karkala in Dakshina Kannada District. The Swamiji informed Tipu about the Maratha raid, and sought his help for consecrating the sacred image of the Goddess. Tipu responded immediately to the request. He furnished the Swamiji with funds for reinstalling the displaced image, ordered the Collector of Bidnur to supply both cash and other articles and expressed his grief at the unfortunate incidents, which resulted in the damage to the holy place. He had stationed a small Battalion of Mysore Soldiers at Sringeri for quite some time to protect the Mutt from future Invaders. Bibi's great grandfather was said to be one of these Soldiers who settled in Sringeri after retirement from the Army.
In the First Mysore war Tipu, a lad of 17 years, suddenly surprised the English when he appeared at the gates of Fort Saint George in Madras. It was a providential escape of the entire Madras government, which were about to be captured by Tipu. The Second Mysore war came to an end by the Treaty of Mangalore with the triumph of Tipu. It was the last occasion when an Indian power dictated terms to the English, who were made to play the role of humble supplicants for peace.
The third Mysore war ended in the defeat of Tipu. Tipu was made to make peace by surrendering half of his kingdom, and paying three crores as indemnity, apart from sending two of his sons as hostages to Madras. While Bibi was describing the scene where Tipu had to say Goodbye to his sons, we were moved to tears. But we were made to weep loudly when at the end of the fourth & final Mysore war Tipu died at the hands of a British Soldier. None of us could excuse that wily conspirator Mir Sadiq who only revealed the secret entrance to ShriRangapatnam to the British, which resulted in the defeat and death of Tipu! In fact, Tipu had to stop his meals halfway to proceed to the battlefield from which he never returned. The story came to an end here. We hardly realized then that Bibi, in the guise of telling the story of Tipu, had in fact taught us the history of Mysore for the later part of the 18th Century!
It was customary for all our villagers to visit Sringeri on the Vijayadashami day during Navarathri every year. The God Sharadamba would be decorated specially on that day. The elder Swamiji would be taken around the Town on the Ratham and what a visual delight the whole thing was! We used this occasion to visit the Bangle stall of Fathima Bi specially put up on the receding riverbed of Tunga during the Dasara celebrations. Bibi would invite us to her small house at the entrance of the Town. She would offer us fruits, biscuits and order Tea from 'Amba Bhavan'. She knew we villagers were quite fussy in accepting any food at a Muslim house. But, nevertheless, she still used to be a good host.
Much water has flown down the River Tunga since then. Today nobody in our village knows when exactly this wonderful Lady left for the abode of Allah, the Parwardigar! We only know that Bibi Allah ku pyari ho gayee! I still remember distinctly how proud Bibi was about the great Tipu Sultan, who stood for the protection of this Hindu Temple when the Hindu Maratha warriors attacked and damaged it! A small house at the entrance of Sringeri Town still remains as the last evidence of the Jamana (times) of Fatima Bi. Whenever I visit Sringeri Town, my eyes get wet while passing in front of this house.
A V Krishnamurthy
3rd June 2007