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The Money Lenders of old

by Tissa Amarasekera - Sunday Observer Mar 3, 2002

Before Independence and until the last war spread to the East, the majority of the educated middle class who usually came from public schools found employment in the government, most of them as clerks. They went to work fully dressed in coat and tie in drill suits wearing Felt or Pith hats. Even though their salaries were comparatively poor, they could afford them although the items for the whole outfit were imported. They of course, had security of service with a pension at retirement and three railway warrants a year to travel free in the government railway, the concession extended to pensioners as well, restricted to two warrants, just as it is now. Besides, some of them had "Pita Wasi" usually a small monetary gift, not as a bribe, for some official service rendered. Anyhow, this was may be another reason why parents looked to them and sought them as suitors for their daughters. Nevertheless, specially those in the lower grades of the service and were rakes or addicted to vices like liquor, found it difficult to get a short term loan in a hurry or emergency. All the banks were foreign owned, opened for the benefit of the British Planters and businessmen. Even though others too could open Current accounts they could not easily get overdrafts even with collateral security. This was possible only on the recommendation of the Shroff of the bank, (this post has since been abolished), who happened to be a distinguished citizen chosen for his honesty, integrity and good connections. His recommendation usually was for known persons like businessmen. (After the Bank of Ceylon was opened in 1993 the situation did not change very much).

If a public servant needed money in an emergency he had to draw it from the Post Office Savings Bank which at the counter was for small sums and many who did not have Savings accounts and had to go the friends who themselves sometimes had no money to spare. Besides, they found it embarrassing to make frequent inroads into their kindness.


There happened to be at that time two other sources that fulfilled their need, One was the Nattukotai Chettiar - hetti - who came from some part in South India; they were short in build and dark in complexion. They were dressed in white Dhotis over which they wore a long white tunic and had a spot of holy ash on his forehead. When they went out they wore clogs or sandals and always carried a black urnbrella with the curved handle. They had picked up a smattering of Sinhalese and pronounced it with a strong Tamil accent uttering the 's' 'sh'. Their office was in front of their dwelling house in sight of the public. They sat cross-legged on the floor with a small desk like the ones in schools those days, but without legs, with a hole for an ink well and a lid. It was not difficult to get a short-term loan for a public servant usually if he was introduced by another known borrower who had not defaulted in his repayments. The Chettiar took down the required particulars and gave him the cash-not very large sums, after the borrower signed an I.O.U (short for I Owe You) chit on a stamp. (printed chit-forms were available at that time in many stationery shops).

Anyway, he took a month's interest up front, which is ten rupees a month interest for every hundred rupees lent. The borrower was expected to keep on paying this interest monthly until the whole loan was settled. If he defaulted, the Chettiar did not feel it awkward to go to the home of the debtor and demand payment to the discomfiture and embarrassment of those of the household including wife and children. The debtor usually paid up even by borrowing from some other source as he feared going to courts and be made a "judgement debtor" which was prohibited under the Public Service Regulations. If, however, he had paid much more by way of interest than the capital he could plead and get a waiver of one or two months arrears interest when he settled the loan in full.


The other source was from the 'Afghan', a misnomer for a Baluki from Balukistan. In contrast to the Chettiar, he was tall and well built, fair in complexion and wore a moustache. He was dressed in a baggy cotton pleated trousers and a long tunic over which he wore a black coat like a waistcoat and a broad white turban in white with one end jutting up and the other falling over a shoulder. He wore boots or shoes and always carried a short cane with a loop. His terms and conditions were like the Chettiars at the same exorbitant rate of interest. He had just one door open in front or at the back of his dwelling house. Those who went to him did not want outsiders to notice his mission. He could get in stealthily, sign the I.O.U. chit, collect the money and slip off without being seen by anybody. Even as a last resort the Afghan was averse to going to courts to collect his dues knowing well the judges, looked at them as they were like Shylock in his dealing and were hard on them. His usual manner of collection was to go to the workplace of the borrower on the payday and collect his dues. If, however, one happened to be a defaulter, who would not fork out even the interest, he would catch him by his necktie or coat sleeve and demanded payment while his colleagues and outsiders looked on helplessly. If the defaulter had no money to spare or wanted to avoid payment, he would take short leave and vanish from the office, and if that was also not possible, he would sign off minutes earlier before office closed, scale any boundary wall or fence and run for dear life, usually with the Afghan in hot pursuit, gesticulating.

This was about forty years ago when public servants did not have Trade Union Rights until after the three Municipal Unions - strike followed by the General Strike by the clerks of the G.C.S.U., and wartime prosperity. Thereafter, things changed rapidly and these moneylenders of old departed unheard and unsung. They lived frugal lives nothing is known of their private lives, as they were only bent on making money and taking it back to their countries. They left no tell-tale evidence of any misdemeanours. Those public servants and others of that time for some of whom these money lenders were like angels when in desperate need of cash and became devils when they came for collection, filled a gap that otherwise may have driven them to despair and eve suicide would perhaps now remember this tribe with gratitude