Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Usury in the city that never sleeps

Thoonganagaram (தூங்க நகரம்) ....Madurai. The city that never sleeps...and it is the city that never lets some sleep. The city that is famous for the Meenakshi temple, for its malligai poo (jasmine), for its jigarthanda, for its Murugan idli, for its 'passakkara pasanga' (beloved pals)...and once upon a time for its Tamil Sangam, is now infamous for Usury.

Some years back, I had watched usury in all it's glory at close quarters. Meter Vatti, Kandhu Vatti, Speed Vatti , Hourly Vatti were strange and scary sounding words, when one of my client had got into this trap.

As a banker usury was not an uncommon concept for me. Lending ₹ 90 to small traders - particularly vegetable vendors in the morning and collecting back ₹ 100 in the evening is not uncommon in many places....go ahead and calculate the rate of interest for this ...This is an 'acceptable and accepted' business model for lending. People in the know vouch that this lending model does work for small amounts, particularly when the money is lent for productive purposes. It is supposed to 'help' small traders, who borrow on an unsecured basis and can return cash back in the evening.

When the ticket size increases, it doesn't help....particularly since such borrowings are for consumption. The meter and speed interest charged by these modern day Shylocks is so exorbitant that borrowers can never repay fully in a lifetime. Money that is repaid keeps going to service interest and the principal remains unpaid for most of these borrowers. The lenders live off the lives of the borrowers. A blank pro note or a cheque is usually the only document taken - but defaults seldom happen, for debt collection is merciless. Detailed records of repayment for such loans are seldom maintained and borrowers meekly submit to the terms of the lenders.

It is not just so in the unorganised sector. Sometime back micro finance institutions had charged usurious interest rates...and credit card companies conveniently charge as high as 3.26 % per month...that is some 40% p.a. When the organized sector can get away with such rates, one can easily guess what the unorganised sector can charge.

Although there exists a Tamil Nadu Prohibition of charging exorbitant interest rates Act 2003 and the Tamil Nadu Money Lenders Act 1957 prohibits usury and fixes a maximum rate of 12 % pa for unsecured loans , a vast majority of the people are unaware of this Act and its provisions and its implementation is virtually absent.

Helpless borrowers who are in dire need of money fall into this trap. Yet another category of borrowers is that segment which does not postpone gratification and borrows for consumption. Either way, very rarely does a gullible borrower who resorts to this borrowing escape this trap.

Madurai is a hub for usury and it is not surprising when Justice N.Kirubakaran called it the 'capital' of usury. Many people commit suicides, women get abused and children abducted...the number of cases filed is low and the conviction rate is even is obvious that the implementation authorities of the laws in this city that never sleeps have gone to sleep....making it a நரகம் (hell) for borrowers.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Was it Manu Cholan or Manu Needhi Cholan ?

The Cholas were one of the longest ruling dynasties from Tamilnadu. The earliest references to the Cholas are in the Sangam literature, although the Cholas claimed to be from the Solar Race ( the Ravi Kula / the Surya Kula / the Parithi Kula). They were the biggest 'Hindu' kingdom after the Guptas (the concept of Hinduism as an 'ism', came in much later). Historians classify the Chola dynasty into three eras - the Early Cholas from the pre and post Sangam era - upto 200 CE ,which included kings like Karikalan, Ilamchetcenni , Killivalavan, Kochengannan and others,  the Medieval Cholas from Vijayalaya Chola till Adhirajendra Chola ( 848 CE to 1070 CE), and the later Cholas from Kulothunga Chola till Rajendra Chola III ( 1070 CE till 1279 CE )...

The Cholas prided themselves in belonging to the lineage of two legendary selfless kings - Sibi and Manu.  King Sibi is said to have offered his flesh to a hungry hawk to rescue a dove and King Manu , who killed his son to atone for his son accidentally killing a calf that ran into his chariot wheels. The legends are still popular , with Sibi being referred as Sibi Chakaravarthy and Manu being commonly referred to as Manuneedhi Cholan. Herein lies a confusion. Was it Manu Cholan or Manuneedhi Cholan - for Manuneedhi is often interpreted as Manusmirti and the logic is stretched to say that Cholas are supposed to have adopted the Manusmriti and more dangerously to say that Saivism accepts Manu smriti. 

A detailed story of Manu was first presented by St Sekkizhar in the first sarukkam or chapter , when discussing the glory of Tiruvarur in his Periyapuraman (திருமலைச் சருக்கம் ,  திருநகரச் சிறப்பு). A more elaborate version was written by Vallalar St Ramalingam. 

Sekkizhar never uses the name Manuneedhi Cholan. He always refers to the king as Manu cholan or Manu Vendhan ( மனு வேந்தன் ). He sings in detail how Manu's only son and prince, rode with his retinue on the main street , how a calf runs into the chariot and dies. The Cow, seeing its calf die wails, goes to Manu's palace and with its horns tolls the bell hung for citizens to call the king and seek justice. The bell which was remaining unused was used for the first time, bringing Manu and his ministers to the door. On seeing the strange happening, Manu looked at his minister who informs him of the entire event.  Manu is pained to see the grieving cow and decides to seek atonement. Manu's ministers tell him to seek atonement as per the rules prescribed by the Vedic Pandits . Here again Sekkizhar uses the word Vedhiyar ( வேதியர் ) , and not Andhanar (அந்தணர் ) - clearly indicating the difference between the two. Manu declines to adopt it.  Sekkizkar says, when his ministers talk to him of laws of justice, Manu dismisses them saying
“Let your exposition of law be, what it is; 
You speak, not knowing the truth of the great nature ..."
And says only the loss of His own and only son will make him fully feel the true pain of the cow. So saying, he proceeds to run a chariot over his son and kills him.
A sculpture in Tiruvarur depicting the scene 
The story concludes with the Lord of Tiruvarur appearing to bless Manu and restoring the life of the calf, and the prince. 

Manu's idea of justice was hence very different from what 'Manu', the law giver had prescribed. To Manu the law giver, slaying a cow was a 'minor' offence that can be atoned. Manusmriti in Chapter XI says 
109. He who has committed a minor offence by slaying a cow (or bull) shall drink during (the first) month (a decoction of) barley-grains; having shaved all his hair, and covering himself with the hide (of the slain cow), he must live in a cow-house.
110. During the two (following) months he shall eat a small (quantity of food) without any factitious salt at every fourth meal-time, and shall bathe in the urine of cows, keeping his organs under control.
111. During the day he shall follow the cows and, standing upright, inhale the dust (raised by their hoofs); at night, after serving and worshipping them, he shall remain in the (posture, called) virasana.
112. Controlling himself and free from anger, he must stand when they stand, follow them when they walk, and seat himself when they lie down.

King Manu obviously hence did not follow Manu smriti. His idea of justice was egalitarian. While rebuking his ministers for asking him to follow the texts of law, Manu in Sekkizhar's words remarks 

“Is not the ruler of a realm that guards its lives
Duty-bound to rid his subjects
Of hindrance-breeding fear fivefold
Stemming from himself, his men in power,
Harmful hostility of foes, thieves and wild animals,
And thus protect Dharma? 

A close reading of the Manu smriti will clearly indicate that what the Periya puranam talks about was King Manu's justice and not Manu the law giver's justice. It was hence Manu Cholan and not Manu Needhi Cholan. 

To refer to the Chola king Manu as Manu Needhi Cholan is either a result of ignorance or is a result of a mischievous attempt to gain sanctity for the Manusmriti , which atleast in its present form is one which fosters inequality and injustice. Manu smriti not only contradicts the Bhagavad Gita and the Unpanishads (by fixing one's varna at birth), it also is against the spirit of Saivism and even if one were to suggest its adoption selectively, leaves too much scope for confusion. There is nothing universal or 'Hindu' about the text. The book needs to be read only to understand the extent of damage such a text can cause to generations of humanity and should otherwise be discarded. 

Monday, September 22, 2014

The odd, old house on Vysial Street, Coimbatore

On Coimbatore's busy Vysial street is this odd, old house ...where time remain frozen. It is probably the only house on that busy street that has trees in front. And one of them was planted by the freedom fighter V.O.Chidambaram Pillai.

The wooden door opens into a small flight of stone steps....on both sides of which are long 'thinnai's. You don't get to see such platforms in the newly built houses these days. In the 'good' old days, folks would sit, work and chat on these platforms. It was also available for travellers to sit and relax....As I entered the house, I wondered if anybody sat on these platforms these days. As I knocked I was warmly welcomed in. The house had an amazing old world charm.
The house is called 'Sekkizhar nilayam' and it was in this house that Siva-k-kavimani C.K.Subramania Mudaliar lived. CKS was a lawyer by profession, a five time Councillor and was for sometime the Vice Chairman of the Coimbatore Municipality. CKS and his wife Meenakshi were ardent supporters of the freedom movement. CKS used to correspond regularly with Lala Rajpat Rai and Aurobindo Ghosh and for sometime harboured and supported the famous Neelakanta Brahmachari. CKS was interrogated and his house was searched for hours in connection with the sensational shooting down of Ash by Vanji. The police could find no material evidence, for while they waited for CKS to return from court, Meenakshi had destroyed all evidence and letters.

CKS argued for V.O.Chidambaram Pillai when he was imprisoned in Coimbatore. In gratitude, V.O.C named his third son as Subramanian and his daugher as Meenakshi. 

Sivak-k-kavimani C.K.Subramania Mudaliar
Meenakshi, CKS's wife, who was the daughter of the Zamindar of Gangavalli 
But CKS is more known for his massive commentary on the Periyapuranam ( பெரியபுராணம் ). This the 12th of the canonical works of Saivism - called the Tirumurais. The Tirumurais (திருமுறைகள் ), are divine poetry sung by 29 Saivaite Saints and collectively have a little over 18000 poems. It is said CKS had read these over 40 times in his lifetime. The last of this work is the Periyapuranam or Thiru-th-thondarpuranam (திருத்தொண்டர்புராணம் ), which was composed by Sekkizhar , who was the prime minister of the Chola Kingdom, during the reign of Kulothunga Chola II ( or III). 

CKS spent over 19 years to complete his well researched , massive and nonpareil  commentary on the Periyapuranam. His huge effort was supported by the Madras University, the Tiruvavaduthurai Adheenam, the Dharmapuram Adheenam and the Tirupanandhal Kasi Mutt - which gave a princely sum of Rs 1000 (a huge amount in those days) for the work. The work which he commenced in 1934 ended in 1953 , during which time, he had to suffer numerous travails and tribulations - including non-availability of  paper to write (during the days of the world war).  This 7 volume commentary is a treasure of Saivite philosophy and living. Apart from this work, CKS has written several books - including one of Sekkizhar and several poems. He was also an active member of the Kovai Tamil Sangam and his contribution to Tamil literature and Saivism is immense.  

An ardent devotee of the Perur Pateeswaram temple, which was renovated by his father Vidwan Kandaswamy Mudaliar, CKS instituted trusts for regular conduct of several festivals in the temple. CKS in his later days took sanyas and was called Sambandasaranayala Thambiran. When he passed away in 1961, he was interred near the temple , as per his wishes. 

These days, in this old, odd house, which is maintained as such, with all its old glory, lives his disciple and relative Thiru.C.S.Kannayiram, himself an ardent devotee of the Lord at Perur , an author and Tamil poet who has authored 37 works, including a 7 volume commentary on the Tiruvasagam , the 8th of the canonical works of the Saivaites.  Going strong at 90, Kannayiram is a voracious reader and has a massive collection of books. He continues to teach and write and six of his works are in various stages of completion. He and his children continue to publish and print, CKS's works. I was pleasantly surprised to hear that there is renewed interest in C.K.S's works. 

As I took his blessings, collected some books and took leave, I could not help thinking that like C.K.S, his disciple's scholarship and contribution deserves more recognition than he actually enjoys...and there are probably many stories that remain to be told of such old odd houses in various streets.... and the people who live in them.