Suryakant was under orders of transfer and would be leaving the village shortly. People were not happy that the present bank manager was leaving them. They were very apprehensive about the incoming officer. They were quite pleased with the existing manager, his style of functioning, easy access to him, eagerness in redressal of grievances, customer-care relationship etc. He was alone here as his wife and son were at America. Put up in a small village, there was not much of social life for him. The manager willingly dedicated all his time for office work. No wonder the people liked him.
Once the new manager would come and take over, Suryakant would pack up and leave. He was waiting for Umesh. In a few days’ time, Umesh came and met Suryakant. He came. It was not for reporting. It was to make a survey of the village, look for accommodation, ensure school admission for children and for such other personal matters. Suryakant did not have such problems. Since he was single, he stayed with village Sarpanch as a ‘Paying Guest’.
Umesh anticipated problems in getting a decent accommodation in a small village. He knew that. In fact, that was the reason for coming alone and make a survey. Once accommodation was solved, getting school admission would be easy. Suryakant could not help him. He sought the help of his customers and other villagers. One said he would arrange for a make-shift arrangement by casting a thatched roof on his terrace and provide the same as temporary accommodation. Umesh dismissed it saying he was not single. He was a part of family of four. Similar unworthy suggestions poured in. All flimsy and unfeasible. Umesh insisted on decent accommodation. One customer whispered about a big house in a remote corner of the village. It was lying vacant from a long time as it was believed to be haunted. The owner had left the village after being repeatedly hit and bitten by the haunted ‘Ghosts’. There were many mis-happenings in his family. The mishaps included both loss of life and assets. He wanted to dispose of the house and get rid of it. He was not getting a proper deal. Already the house had a bad reputation. If some more accidents or mishaps recurred, nobody would dare to buy the house. He was adamant not to give it on rent. Neither anybody would dare to come.
Umesh insisted on getting details of the owner and bargain with him for rentals. When the owner adamantly refused to let out, Umesh agreed to indemnify the difference in the expected amount of sale and actual amount he would eventually get on sale of property. Even then he was not willing. After many such repeated requests, he reconciled half-minded.
When Umesh entered the haunted house, someone from those gathered around the house mentioned, “When a bigger ghost enters, the smaller ones flee.”
Umesh turned to him and said smilingly, “I appreciate your sense of humour. I do not mind being a bigger ghost.” The commenter was stunned. Instead of getting angry, this man was taking the brickbats as bouquet. “Surely, he is different.”
Such was the beginning of his journey in that village.
Immediately on settling down and after solving his initial problems, he reported for duty. Suryakant had to be relieved. A grand send-off was initiated by the bank staff, by inviting all patrons, lenders depositors and village VIPs, etc. Speakers, one by one, spoke about Suryakant praising him sky-high. Finally, it was Suryakant’s turn. Already melted by the icy showers of praises, he had to hide his sentiments. He recalled his tenure at the village as a golden one, his stay as a pleasant one and his memories to be lasting forever. When he said that the village was very safe in the hands of next incumbent, Umesh, there was mixed reaction. Whispers and murmurs floated. ‘We are yet to see’, ‘let him prove’, ‘not like you’ and ‘big ghost’ could be heard distinctly. Suryakant feeling odd at the reaction, suddenly concluded by saying, “My stay here was happy and pleasant. You people made it so for me. I enjoyed working in this village. I love this village. Yes. I simply love this village.”
People instantly cheered and clapped. An emotional send-off followed. Parting gifts and return gifts also made the evening a memorable one.
Umesh on collecting the reins of the bank, started his work by noting down details of good-bad-sticky loans. He could see a pattern in some sincere and wilful defaulters. If the loans were repaid, only then bank could run smooth and depositors too could feel secured. ‘Credibility depends on creditors.’ He convened a meeting of all those who defaulted the bank. Obviously, it invoked displeasure among them. Instead of opening on a pleasing or a positive note, this man was stressing on negative features. ‘Sticky loans, NPAs, stern actions ….
Umesh asked every member about their financial status and reasons for why they could not meet their commitments. Most of them attributed their inability to repay on failure of crops which depended on monsoon and water availability. Repeated failure of monsoons and fast depleting ground water rendered them helpless and made them to avail loans time and again. They did not realise that they were falling into a vicious cycle called debt trap. Umesh concluded the meeting with a warning that no further loans would be given unless the previous ones were cleared. At least an attempt should be made to clear the arrears.
All peasants who were accustomed to availing loans every season were shocked and blamed the bank manager as rude and heartless. It was one more feather to his cap of bad reputation. Obviously, they could not remain without comparing him with the previous manager. How great he was!
Umesh on the contrary, kept an office order on the notice board announcing that fresh loans to farmers would be considered on a case by case study. Most of the farmers were in debt and they were told no further loans could be offered unless earlier ones were cleared and here was a notice advising fresh loans would be given on a merit basis. They could not understand what the manager wanted to say. One of them, Vishnuram met the manager for clarification. In that one-to-one interaction, Umesh understood that the farmer was truly hard-hit and was willing to repay if only he had some other source of income. It was then that Umesh advised him and through him others too, that all farmers unitedly should avoid water intensive crops and switch over to millets course-grains and dryland farming. There was no point in availing loan and going for crops requiring heavy doses of water and later blame it on failure of monsoon. He shared a few videos from you-tube, how farmers elsewhere changed and prospered. A Punjab farmer switched over from wheat to Dragon fruit farming and was now earning in crores. Punjab, once the wheat bowl of India! Now running dry due to water shortage.
Umesh asked about Vishnuram’s family. He had a son who did his matriculation but did not prosecute further studies due to financial crisis at home. Umesh wanted the boy to give tuitions to his school going children who were new to village and to their school curriculum. But on one condition that half the fees would be taken for repayment of loans and balance only would be given to the boy. Vishnuram after consulting his son, agreed to half-payment of salary to the boy and other half for loan EMIs. If children inherited their parents’ assets, they should inherit the parents’ losses and loans also.
Umesh was not an easy guy as others had rightly observed. When he paid the salary to the boy, he asked him to enrol himself in some skill development classes, like mushroom cultivation, Eri-culture, setting up biofuel units, food processing etc. He made him understand that further studies did not refer to graduation or postgraduation. The boy chose mushroom. Salary paid to him was used his for training in mushroom cultivation. After a few months’ tuition, children gained confidence to manage it on their own. Their ‘tuition master’ was now free to prosecute his own studies. He approached Umesh for help and assistance in setting up a mushroom unit. That was exactly the reason for engaging him as tuition master. Otherwise his wife Raagini would have taken care of children’s education.
Now that the boy was fully trained and had a bit of savings, Umesh agreed to help. He advised the boy to prepare a project and submit the same to the bank for loan. He should bring his salary and other savings as part of required down-payment. The shortfall if any was made good by Umesh. After a thorough scrutiny of all check points like, availability of raw materials, forward and backward linkages and storage and marketing facilities, Umesh sanctioned the loan.
On that day, the village saw a first entrepreneur was being born. Young fresh and promising! The villagers were in for a surprise. They viewed him differently. ’Surely he is different.’
Days rolled on. The ‘big ghost image’ of Umesh also got reduced. Vishnuram’s family was not the only beneficiary. Soon others too came up with different plans and proposals. He considered a few, on their merits though he dismissed many. He convened a meeting of NGOs operating in their taluks. It was mainly for skill development of young men of the village. He also sought their opinion on available resources of the village and how best it could be tapped. They expressed their inability as water was the very essence of all activities, without which nothing could be thought of. He advised them to consider in a big way about ‘Waste-Water-Management’. He wanted them to create awareness on use of grey water for fodder crops, casuarina grass and Milwaukee forests on vacant fallow arid lands. This would ensure groundwater recharging and replenishing in due course. He also assured his full support as a banker. NGOs too promised of their best performance in the upliftment of the village.
Umesh had a younger brother by name Paramesh. He was a vivid bicycle rider. He often participated in marathon races and won medals too. Recently he called Umesh and told him that he along with some friends was taking part in a big marathon cycling event from Bangalore-to-Delhi for a social fund-raising cause. He wanted to use the opportunity for one of the major problems of this village. Umesh instantly told him to include ‘Watershed Development’ for this water-starved village. Paramesh explained that fund could be raised only in the name of an NGO engaged in that line of activity. That was surely a ‘plum on the cake’ or you can say ‘two in the bush that too coming and landing readily into the hands’.
In the recent meeting of NGOs, he learnt about a few NGOs dealing with water management. He called one of them and apprised. NGO, ‘PONVAYAL’ meaning thereby Gold Fields, was thrilled beyond words. They had never heard of such events so far. Umesh applied a brake on them. He said that no doubt, a sizeable amount would be raised, but that might be insufficient to cover the entire cost of constructing a permanent Watershed in the village. Right from selection of land for watershed, cleaning and clearing the bushes, laying channels, restricting the users on rampant usage of water, arresting illegal lifters… hurdles were many. NGO had to cope up accordingly and frame rules wherever necessary. Ponvayal was well equipped with those strategies and had already handled similar projects.
Umesh advised the NGO to use the fund raised by Paramesh’s marathon as margin money and prepare a well thought of project and submit the same to the bank. As the project cost would be beyond his limits of sanctioning, he might have to send it to bank’s regional or head office. That is why a thorough scrutiny. Ponvayal gave their banner highlighting the words ‘Mission for Watershed’ and it was passed on to Paramesh. Photos of Bangalore-to-Delhi on Bicycle, Watershed for villages were displayed on bank’s noticeboard.
Customers coming to the bank were surprised as they mistook Paramesh as Umesh. Brothers looked alike became a plus point for Umesh. Word of mouth was faster than any other means. Almost the whole village thronged on Umesh and started praising him. He had to struggle a lot to contain them. He cautioned them that the first step was not the final step.
“Let the marathon be over, let the fund be raised, let Ponvayal find location for the pond in the village, let it prepare the project, let it be approved, let the project be commissioned, let there be rains, let the water be collected, let the watershed be filled up …. Then you rejoice. That is meaningful. Even then I do not admit that I am responsible for the success. I am nothing when compared to my brother Paramesh who is pedalling nonstop. Covering the distance of 2200 kilometres by cycling is not a joke. He is doing it. That also for a social cause! For the benefit of this village. This is nothing less than penance. Ages ago, Bhageerathan brought Ganga to our motherland. Here Ponvayal will do it for us. They are going to make this dream come true. Of course, without you people, your little contributions in labour time energy money food etc. the project will not be complete. I am instrumental and my role in this project work is only to the extent of putting things together. Let us wait for that final day when our efforts bear fruit. Maybe by then I will be transferred. Even if I am transferred, I shall certainly come here with my brother to see it getting inaugurated.”
The villagers did not allow him to complete. They started shouting. “NO, no. we will not allow you to go.”
They also were singing, Paramesh Jai Ho! Ponvayal Jai Ho! One person raised slogans in favour of Umesh. Our banker Jai Ho! Umesh turned to see who could be the one. He was none other than the one who called him ‘Big Ghost’. Umesh smiled at him.
Umesh came to this village as an unwelcome guest, no-no as an unwelcome ghost. As a newcomer he was not welcome. The villagers were suspicious. But now? He had been accepted as a good banker and a good person.
A village that challenged his stay and career and questioned him to prove. He could now prove to himself and stand above their expectations. He could not withhold himself from saying, “I love this village.” Just like his predecessor, Suryakant, he too would be remembered for long. Only at the time of leaving the village, Suryakant said, “I love this village.”
Umesh says it right now.
I love this village.