Those were the days when most of the paddy fields were given on tenancy to farmers by the landlords. The landlords used to either keep only a small holding for their own cultivation or else lease out the entire holdings to tenants. These paddy farmers used to find it difficult to raise the necessary finance at the time of cultivation. My brother-in-law started financing such needy farmers. The understanding was that they would pay back the loan after the harvesting, by way of paddy only. The farmers of Malnad used to raise only one crop of paddy during the rainy season of the year. My brother-in-law owned a bullock cart that was used to collect the paddy from the farmers. He would also engage other bullock carts if found necessary.
The paddy would be stored in the house in large wooden storage spaces called panathas in Kannada. The house had large halls attached to the main building where these panathas were located. Additional temporary storage spaces would also be created by using mats made from bamboos. These were called Khanajas. Normally the price of paddy used to be low at the time of harvesting. Most of the farmers used to be in a hurry to sell the paddy to meet their other commitments after settling the dues of my brother-in-law.
My brother-in-law used to settle their accounts by offering them prices better than the prevailing market rates. He was also charging very reasonable rate of interest on the loans till the date of settlement. He would sell the paddy to the rice mills and big traders at a later date when the market was up. That way he could make money both by way of interest and by way of profit margin. Some of the farmers who had the ability to ‘hold on’ would come for settlement only after the market went up. My brother-in-law was generous enough to offer them the rates comparable to the prevailing rates at that time. This attitude of him fetched him lot of goodwill. Needless to say the money-lending business grew by leaps and bounds.
In addition to crop loans, my brother-in-law also started offering loans against gold and silver items. Such loans were short-term in nature and were being raised to meet urgent family needs. As my brother-in-law had no way of checking the genuineness of the gold and silver items pledged, he would offer the loans to only selected respectable persons. These loans attracted slightly higher rate of interest. Gradually, over a period of time, the profit generated from the lending business started contributing to the corpus earmarked for the acquisition of the lands.
At this stage, my brother-in-law started looking for landholdings (both arecanut gardens and paddy fields), which were coming up for sale. He had to ensure that the acquired lands could be cultivated by the manpower available within his family. With his younger brothers joining him, he thought his hands would be strengthened further. He went on acquiring those lands till the holdings were sufficient for the cultivation by the expanded family over a period of time. Eventually he succeeded in acquiring sufficient lands to be addressed as the head of a rich landholding family. He had made it a point to avoid taking over of lands from poor farmers by way of distressed sale. Thus unlike a traditional rural lender, who would look for grabbing the lands of the poor farmers, my brother-in-law’s name came to be established as a benevolent lender and a savior of the poor farmers. The name - Mahabalaiah of Hokkalike - became popular in the society, business and the Government circles.
My short stay at my brother-in-law’s house as a young boy was quite a unique experience for me. Two of the younger brothers of my brother-in-law were also married at that time. The family had grown quite big. There used to be lot of activity at the house. Everybody appeared to be quite busy. A number of people would visit the house daily. They included relatives, neighbors and a lot of others. Of course, the other lot was mostly the loan seekers. There were a number of male and female servants attached to the family engaged for different purposes. All in all, the atmosphere was like a typical Bengali family described in the novels of Rabindrananath Tagore and Sharatchandra Chatterji.
My brother-in-law’s mother was bed ridden due to old age. Her bed was placed in the central hall in a dark corner. During my entire stay I had no occasion to see her face. The house itself was very old and big. The electricity had not yet arrived. The lighting was through kerosene lamps only. Most parts of the inside of the house were totally in darkness. My sister’s bed room was also a darkroom. I had opportunities to enter the room a few times.
I had observed my brother-in-law taking out currency notes from a steel vault kept in the bedroom under lock and key. He would often shift the cash from this vault to another steel vault kept in the main front hall of the house. I had also observed him taking out money from there for handing over to the borrowers. I was fascinated to witness and watch handling of so much of cash by my respected brother-in-law. I thought my eldest sister was blessed to marry such a rich and popular person!
I had a few adjustment problems at the house. My sister had warned me that I may face some problems in the matter of morning breakfast. While the breakfast at our Adekhandi house was an elaborate and interesting affair, at the house of Hokkalike a formal breakfast was almost non-existent! For reasons quite unknown to me, the male members of the house were reluctant to have a formal breakfast. Naturally the women had to follow suit. They would prepare some item like Uppittu, Akki Rotti or Dosa and place the same in a vessel in a corner of the kitchen. Those who were interested had to take it from there at their convenience. Only two brothers of my brother-in-law would eat the breakfast. But their timing was uncertain. I was asked to take my breakfast along with them.
I had to play a waiting game in the morning. I would keep a close watch on the movements of the said two brothers. I was supposed to join the first among them the moment he entered the kitchen! My sister did not want to serve me alone, perhaps, as a matter of Joint-family policy!
A brand new house had been just then constructed adjacent to the old house. This house had better lighting arrangements with a number of windows and glass tiles. The house had not seen the Gruhapravesham yet. The expectations were that the house would be occupied by one of the elder brothers upon partition of the property that was supposed to take place shortly. I started imagining my beloved elder sister occupying the new house at the earliest!
My stay at Hokkalike came to a sudden end when a message was received that the Upanayanam of my elder brother had been fixed at the Horanaadu Annapoorneshwari temple. We traversed the same route on the return journey. Unfortunately the whole journey was on foot only as we found no Lories plying on the route.
---------To be Continued----------
A V Krishnamurthy