People of Bharat: Narayan

Surviving the present and optimistic about the future

‘Did you have lunch?’ I ask Narayan. ‘No madam and no breakfast either.’ I arrange a South-Indian meal for him and encourage him to settle down while we wait for his lunch to arrive. At first he is restless and walks around the office looking at the posters on the walls. As lunch arrives, he washes and sits down at a table, digging into hot idlis and steaming sambar. I wait till he finishes; after all it is 3 pm now and he must be famished. Narayan is lean, slightly gaunt and sports a salt and pepper beard and moustache. He is middle aged and this shows in his receding hairline. A vermilion dot marks his forehead. I watch his moustache twitch as he downs his meal and I contemplate the reason for his visit. While the lockdown affected everyone in some or the other way, many people of the low and middle income groups have found it hard to make ends meet. Besot with joblessness, many have not been able to make a living — let alone save. Yet, Narayan has continued to make regular deposits in Lakshya’s savings product. He has agreed to meet me here at the office and reveal how he managed to save a small amount despite all odds.

After lunch, Narayan and I sit down together to talk. ‘Since morning, I have earned only 188 rupees’ he starts. ‘Of that, I spent 50 rupees on gas. For the remainder of the pandemic I need to focus only on feeding my family. All other expenses, EMIs, etc. will have to wait’.

Narayan was born in Mollakur near Tindivanam in Tamil Nadu. The oldest of four sons, he studied till the tenth standard. He didn’t even wait for his results to be out — he knew he had failed the exam! His mother persuaded him to go to Bengaluru where her sister lived and search for a job there in order to support his younger brothers’ studies. So at the age of 16, Narayan left home and went to Bengaluru to live with his aunt. ‘My aunt helped me find a job at a garments factory’ he recalls. ‘For five years I lived with my aunt and her husband. My aunt would help me send money to my parents back home. However my uncle was a drunkard and habitually spent my money on alcohol. He would also create a lot of problems for my aunt on account of me. I knew I had to leave.’

Rejected by his family, Narayan was adopted into another. His neighbour and friend Nagesh was sympathetic towards him and invited him to live with his family. The two of them erected a tent on the roof of Nagesh’s house and lived there. Nagesh belonged to an upper caste and Narayan was of a lower caste, yet the latter never felt discriminated against. ‘I ate the same food they ate and had full access to the house’ says Narayan who quickly became a part of their family. ‘They never took any money from me and I continued to send my earnings home to my parents’. A few years later, Nagesh’s father built a power loom for his son. Not wanting to leave out Narayan, they gave him a rent-free space in the same premises and also bought him a sewing machine. Narayan was able to quit his job and start out on his own as a tailor. After Nagesh’s wedding, the family also found a bride for Narayan. They helped him buy the mangalsutra(essential wedding jewellery) for his bride and paid the deposit for a rented house. After the wedding Narayan moved into a separate house with his wife, ready to start a new life.

A couple of years later, Narayan found that running the tailoring shop was not profitable business. He started contemplating getting an auto driver’s license. Around the same time, his mother-in-law passed away and his father-in-law invited the couple to live with him. Free of the burden of paying monthly rent, Narayan felt emboldened to give up his tailoring business and buy an auto rickshaw. ‘When I started I did not know any of the routes around Bengaluru and was helped by the passengers themselves’ he says. Over time, Narayan started enjoying the freedom that came with being in control of his profession.

Narayan and his wife had three children — two boys and a girl. In time, Narayan accumulated some debt and turned to alcohol. ‘I used to earn 900 rupees a day during those years. Of this I would give my wife 200 rupees a day and I would spend not less than 300 rupees a day on drinks. The debt we had accumulated to alarming levels due to my irresponsible behaviour. There are days when I have beaten my wife and children after having had too much to drink. I am now ashamed of that behaviour’ he adds sadly. With creditors knocking at his door almost daily, Narayan ran away to Tindivanam to live with his brother.

This time was a period of renewal for Narayan. His brother, a former alcoholic, started taking Narayan to meetings of the Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). ‘When I saw how people had changed themselves I too felt hopeful. What was most powerful about the meetings is the fact that other members would come forward and share their personal stories. It had a deep impact on me. I was able to understand that I would completely destroy whatever little was left of my life, if I continued down the same path of drink and destruction. I stopped drinking and have never had a drink since that day’. While attending AA meetings in the evenings Narayan found tailoring work during the day. He started sending this money home to his wife in Bengaluru and she slowly repaid the most pressing of debts. Eventually, Narayan returned home and also discovered a spiritual guru who gave him a new lease on life. Narayan claims his spiritual practices have helped him remain calm in face of uncertainties and have helped him cope especially during the pandemic.

While Narayan pursued spirituality, his financial problems did not go away. He has accumulated a debt of Rs. 3 lakh towards family expenses and another Rs. 1 lakh towards the auto rickshaw he purchased. He is also paying monthly instalments towards his smartphone purchase. He makes and receives payments via Google Pay, PhonePe, etc. through his smartphone. Before the lockdown, he worked seven days a week earning Rs. 1–1200 daily. His children study at a government school so he does not need to worry about school fees. However, his elder son wants to study at a private college after completing his 12th standard. Narayan tells me the fees is Rs. 35,000 per annum and he doesn’t think he could afford it.

When the lockdown was announced in Bengaluru, Narayan had Rs.600 in cash and Rs.1700 due from a transport services company for which he works part-time. His wife who had recently taken up a job as a caretaker in an international school received half of her salary of Rs.6000 with which the household managed most of the expenses. Even so, they still had to borrow Rs.7000 from friends and family to tide over the 60 day lockdown — a time when Narayan’s income was nil. ‘We ate rice and some vegetables and could not afford to buy meat or fish’ he says. Narayan has been unable to pay instalments towards any of his loans/debts for the past two-months. He feels the private financier who lent him money for his auto rickshaw purchase is a reasonable man and has not demanded any payment so far. Narayan explains how he was able to save Rs. 2500 during this time. He had taken a loan of Rs.10,000 before the lockdown and needed to pay Rs. 100 as daily interest. Since the lockdown, social distancing was enforced and the person making the daily collections could not come. The money he set aside to repay this daily instalment got squirreled away as his savings. ‘I am confident that this situation will improve and when it does I plan to start saving in a chit fund’ he elaborates.

Narayan aspires for his sons to complete their education and settle down with good jobs. He worries about his younger son’s uncouth behaviour and advises him to be more helpful to people. He also wants to be able to save enough for his daughter’s wedding. ‘After that I want to withdraw from all worldly activities and spend the time quietly in a room of my house (doing spiritual activities)’ he says.

Narayan is the story of a man who has held on to hope, who keeps one eye on the bright side and who is not afraid of nurturing dreams.