It was at a meeting of people associated with projects in slum areas that I first met Umatai, a few years ago.
At her invitation I later went to visit her, at her home.
She lived in Kamathipura here in Mumbai, which is known mostly as a red-light district. Her family owned a two-story house there, with a small manufacturing unit on the ground floor, and living quarters on the floor above.
When they first started living there, many years ago, it was some distance from the red-light area. Over the years, the red-light area had expanded and was now just a few blocks away. However, since it was convenient for them to live close to their manufacturing business they continued to stay there.
Most of the residents living near Umatai’s house were Telugu-speaking families. Many of the women worked as Beedi-rollers in nearby Beedi-manufacturing units. Frequently, they were the only earning members of their families. Some of the husbands had lost their jobs when the mills began shutting down in Mumbai some years ago. Often the men spent their money, as well as that earned by the women, on drink or gambling.
Umatai noticed this, and decided to do something to help the women.
Persuading the women to participate, she set up a credit society. She taught them to save a little money regularly and immediately deposit the amount in the credit society.
These women, who earlier never had any savings, began to learn to save money regularly so that they could accumulate a modest sum to be used in case of an emergency.
When any of them were in need of a loan, they obtained it from the credit society. She taught a few of the women how to maintain accounts, and in a short time they learned how to manage everything themselves.
Loans were very strictly monitored. They were only given to the women, never to their husbands. Umatai explained that loans should be taken only for emergencies like a sudden illness in the family.
Sometimes the women took loans at the beginning of the school year to buy books and uniforms for their children. These were usually paid off in a few months. She discouraged loans for financing weddings, but it was not always possible to avoid that.
The woman often kept any gold jewellery they owned, as collateral for a larger loan. Umatai told me proudly that they had never needed to confiscate jewellery because of an unpaid loan. The women sometimes were late in making payments, but it was a matter of pride for them to settle the loan.
I met the two young women who were looking after the accounts of the credit society, at Umatai’s home that day. They did not have much formal education but seemed very self-confident and knowledgeable about the running of a credit society.
I have known several women like Umatai who work for the betterment of society in various ways. Some are working, some are homemakers like Umatai. They do not leave their usual occupations to do this work. They simply reserve a little time for it in their daily routine.
The work they do is done without any fanfare or publicity. It is on a very small scale- it will not trigger any great movement or revolution in society. But it does make a difference.
I am reminded of a story that I read recently-
A little girl who was on a beach noticed that the tide had washed up hundreds of fish onto the shore. The little girl started picking them up one at a time and throwing them back into the water.
A man who was watching her said ” Little girl, you can’t make a difference by throwing a few fish back in the water, for there are thousands on the beach.”
She threw another one into the sea and said “it made a difference to that one.”