January 2007
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Mundka plastic recycling market, 12.20.06

Savings Committee (Friday, January 12)

It was 8 p.m. and V. was bustling around with her committee ledger in the kitchen, wearing a blue sari with cream flowers embroidered on the border. Two women in saris were sitting on the floor when I got there. Inside, in the bedroom, V’s husband sat on the bed, which had a red flowery razai on it, under which two of V.’s four sons were huddled. One man in red trackpants and a beige wool cap sat on a white plastic chair while another man in a gray anorack was on the bed.

“Tell Pal to come, it’s time for the committee,” V’s husand told one of the sons, who hurried out on the errand.

V. was starting a new savings committee on the 10th of January, with 25 entrants, which would make for a pool of 75,000 rupees a month. The savings scheme would last 25 months.

By 8.15 p.m. Pal had come and there were about 11 women, most in saris but one or two in salwar kameez, seated in the kitchen. Some people were putting in two or three lots, which is how it added up to 25 entrants.

“Leave 7,500 or 3,000,” said V., discussing how much interest she would pay in the third month, when she as the committee’s broker, would collect her lump sum. There would be no auction that month to decide how much everyone would get back. She then said everyone would get 150 rupees back that month.

“Ask everyone if they agree first,” said a woman in an orange-and-white salwar kameez, as V. jotted numbers down in her ledger.

"What are you writing," she asked as I tried to quickly write notes.

"Everything you're saying," I answered. She wouldn't allow any photographs.

“Shall we start the boli (auction)?” V. asked. The boli, once agreed upon, would be divided by 25. That would determine how much of a discount each member would get on the 3,000 rupees they had put in that month. The remainder would go to the person who had bid the closing number.

The auction started at 6,000. The woman in orange, quickly jumped it to 10,000. In the beginning it rose quickly, in increments of 1,000 rupees to 17,000, after which it slowed. It became apparent quickly that two women were very willing to bid high this particular month to collect quickly, no doubt because of outstanding debts or an upcoming big expense. Most of the others stopped at around 22,000, except an expressionless woman in dark maroon shawl seated near the door and another plump woman in an olive shawl over a purple sari with two diamond nose-rings who was seated near the kitchen stove. After that it rose in increments of 500 and then 100, mostly in bidding between the green and maroon shawls, though every now and again another woman would jump in.

The auction eventually closed at 26,400 rupees. V. repeated the figure several times.

“The auction is about to close. Whoever wants to speak can speak now,” she said finally. Then the amount was settled.

Divided among 25, it meant that everyone need only put in 1,940 that month. The closer would get 75,000 less 26,400 or 48,600 rupees.

The woman in maroon said she needed the money to pay back a moneylender from whom she had borrowed in order to pay for her son’s wedding.

V. asked me if I would participate in the committee and I was tempted. But looking over my finances I wasn’t sure if I could put aside 2,000 to 2,500 rupees every month (50 dollars), which I was terribly ashamed to admit to her and which she looked highly skeptical about. After all, she pointed out, if they on their salaries could set aside that much every month then why couldn’t I?

But, as I concluded earlier, the more I earn the more expenses I acquire. I did seriously consider it though, as I don’t see how else I would manage to amass 50,000 rupees at one fell swoop. It’s true that you are not gaining on your savings, in spite of the monthly discount being referred to as “interest”, but at least you are saving. And if I did get the auction earlier in the cycle I could take advantage of my simultaneous access to the formal banking sector and put the money into a mutual fund or something. I discussed joining the committee with parents but my dad said -- he didn't mean it unkindly though it sounds a little unkind -- not to bank with bankrupt people.

Money (Wednesday, January 10)

The idea is that when you go from the first world to the third world (I mean "emerging economy" world, sorry) you are meant to have no money troubles. Partly this is because one assumes if you are leaving the first world, it is on a foreign currency salary and the exchange rate will be in your favor. But I find myself more worried about money then I have ever been since I was 22 and earned 22,000 dollars a year in New York City, which came out to 630 dollars every two weeks and out of which I had to pay 500 dollars in rent. Yet I managed to live within my means (and save 1,200 dollars which went to my crooked Sindhi immigration lawyer but that's another story).

Here, on what is a princely salary by journalism standards, I am struggling and after a great deal of thought I realize my money troubles are due to a variation of the Keeping-Up-With-the-Joneses syndrome.

In New York, I had no sense of any sort of lifestyle to keep up. Although my friends and I were all well-educated and probably from the upper echelons where we came from, in that city we were just one of the striving masses, at most at the bottom of the upper strata of society. We didn't know the hip bars or clubs and we didn't feel obligated to go there. We were all broke and there was no shame in saying so. If anything there was a sort of downupmanship on who was the brokest and how little each of us could get by on in a week. I think I managed to get through some weeks on 60 dollars, which seems unthinkable now.

But here, if you are even occasionally a drinking or bar-going person, you are perforce at the top of the top even if you don't feel like it and the few bars there are to go to are in five-star hotels and the like and a drink is not to be had for less than 10 dollars. And people go out a lot and I seem to know people who go out a lot and also have become one of them, instead of the economical homebody I used to be. Although I do it, it seems very not-the-done-thing to frequently announce you are broke and refuse to go out. As a result I find myself constantly at the edge of penury trying to support a lifestyle that is clearly beyond my means.

I think I shall have to give up drinking.