MALAYAMMA Malayamma Savings Mama

Malayamma, a savings collector with the Mahila Milan poor women's network, begins each day walking house-to-house collecting the daily savings of members residing in Bangalore's Vinobha Nagar settlement. It is the very settlement in which she grew up and where her family has lived for generations. Malayamma's grandparents moved into the settlement some 60 years ago when they emigrated from Pondicherry in search of work. Her father was born and raised in Vinobha Nagar and Malayamma was the second of eleven children born in a small house with a blue door by the Hindu temple that marks the entrance to the settlement. Clad in a turquoise and white sari, with her trusty calculator tucked into the side (see photo above), she carries an oversized handbag full of savings books and sets off for a long day of collections. I also notice a decent sized tattoo on her right forearm. She later tells me she was tricked into getting it at the age of 10. The tattoo artist told her it was temporary and that it would come off with a little turmeric powder. After some panicked scrubbing of the rangoli-style design with turmeric it became clear the tattoo wasn't going anywhere. "I was seriously beaten by my father for that" she chuckles.

The house where Malayamma was born

Nowadays Malayamma, aged 48, storms through the lanes of the settlement with great confidence, calling out to savers from the street to have them come out and make their deposits and withdrawals. As a child things were very different. She recalls being confined to the house when young by parents fearful to let her move even to the next street. She was married at 15 years and had three children: one daughter and two sons. She raised the children in a one room house that she bought for 10,000 rupees (today about $140) which used to flood regularly. "I would use the door to push out as much water as I could and then I would raise the door up as a bed to put the kids on until the water went down" she tells us. Sadly, the task of raising the children fell on Malayamma alone, since her husband passed away when they were very young. "He didn't pass away!" John interjects, "She poisoned him!" Malayamma and her peers laugh and she shakes her head at me imploring me not to believe the jokester. The homescreen of her phone proudly displays a picture of her young granddaughter - Malayamma's daughter's baby and clearly her pride and joy.

Malayamma, whose name means "mountain mother", starts her collections at 8am in order to catch as many people as possible before they go to work. In the afternoon she is responsible for collections in another settlement and her day won't end until about 7pm after all the day's transactions have been recorded at the federation office. Each day she rushes back home before traveling to the next settlement to make lunch for her sons and her sister's young kids. This is her routine six days a week. She takes Sunday off to go to church in the morning and in the afternoon she cleans the house and does laundry. On Sunday evenings she visits her sister and they make dinner and watch their favorite soap opera on TV.

As we accompany Malayamma through Vinobha Nagar the washing machines lining the lane-ways hum and chug and vibrant fresh-smelling laundry adorns the brightly painted homes in a way that seems totally festive. We meet a few of her family members along the way, clearly proud of Malayamma and her work. We are introduced to many savers who share fond memories and inspiring tales of how their savings allowed them to take loans and build houses, improve businesses, support marriages, and slowly upgrade the settlement.

Washing machines line the lane-ways

We are shown houses constructed by the members from salvaged bricks retrieved from demolition sites. "It was too expensive for many to buy the building materials," she explains, "so we would wait for a demolition and then we would all go and help fetch bricks for them to build." Most of the houses, the drainage projects and pathways were built about 20 years ago.

Over many doorways we see pictures of Ganesha - the beloved elephant-headed God. Other homes place Christian crosses above the doors, while others display Islamic ornaments. "Here, we all live together side-by-side. It's only the politicians that make an issue of religion" one of the Bangalore team comments.

The lane-ways where Mahila Milan members built homes, paths, and drainage

On one lane, just after a beautiful small temple wrapped around a sacred People Tree, we meet Vinobha Nagar's very first saver, Satya. She is washing clothes out the front of a house she built with a loan from Mahila Milan. She recalls starting saving with a mere 2 rupees per day. We also meet her teenage grandson who lives with her and promises charmingly - if unconvincingly - that he will also start savings soon.

People Tree
Satya's grandson

Malayamma has been collecting savings in Vinobha Nagar for 23 years. She recalls a Mahila Milan leader called Mary persuading her to come and work with them in 1996. "I told her that I was illiterate and had no schooling. I didn't know what I could I do for them. But, she told me not to worry, that I would start with collections and all the writing and counting could be done in the office until I learned." We are told about the many innovations Jockin Arputham (the late President of the Indian federation and SDI) came up with for illiterate women to take charge of managing savings collections -- most notably the ripped up cigarette packages with three different colors used to signify the amount each household contributed.

Mahila Milan savings book

Malayamma went on to explain the system for recording deposits and loan repayments she uses now and it is clear she has become an expert in such matters. Malayamma still doesn't know how to read words, but she is adept with numbers and her peers say she makes very few mistakes these days. She explains how important it is not to be disturbed when she is making her recordings back in office. John quips that she looks like Indira Gandhi (former Prime Minister of India) when concentrating on her records and looking out over her glasses. Malayamma knows each house and saver by number -- a system passed from peer-to-peer by Mahila Milan members. She is now even proficient using the savings app developed by the federation in India to digitize the savings records. This system is now being rolled out to other federations in the SDI network and Malayamma was recently part of a team to host a Kenyan federation delegation which came to learn about this system. We're also told that most of the names she calls out to members are nicknames describing the look or characteristic of the members. So, if you give her the number of a house she will tell you the nickname of the saver and the amount they save and the loan repayments they are making. Each of the savers express gratitude that the process is so easy for them -- instead of going to the bank, Malayamma comes right to their front door on a daily basis. Of course this is a core element of the federation saving ritual. "Collecting people and savings" is the expression and indeed Malayamma humbly shares tales of the people she has collected and supported over the years.

Malayamma now an expert at recording the daily savings and loans
Using the savings app developed by the federation

Like so many federation women throughout the SDI network, Malayamma is animated when speaking about the sanitation challenges that plague her community. She takes us to the public toilet constructed by the federation about 20 years ago. Today the sanitation unit serves 320 households -- approximately 1,500 people. She says it's totally embarrassing that so many people should use one toilet and have to pay for it. She points at a very old woman approaching. "It's not okay for this woman to have to crawl into this toilet and to pay 5 rupees for each visit." The old woman takes a rest on a little stump, no doubt gathering her strength for the final leg of her trip to the toilet.

Public toilet in Vinobha Nagar

Malayamma points out another, less obvious, challenge presented by the lack of sanitation facilities in the settlement. "It is very difficult for women from here to get married. When there is no toilet at home and the bridegroomʼs family comes to visit they will refuse!" In the case of her own daughter, the introductions were made at the Mahila Milan office and later the bridegroom's family were invited to her sister's place. In both cases the locations were chosen to avoid the shame of bringing the husband-to-be to a home with no toilet.

Malayamma hoped the sanitation challenges of Vinobha Nagar would be rectified by a housing project the federation was planning in partnership with government. Malayamma was part of the team who surveyed the whole settlement, numbering and registering each household. "During surveying, so many people were excited for the development to come." she explains. The project would have seen all residents receive new houses with toilets inside, but the demands of a handful of leaders for multiple houses and houses in alternate locations made the project in-viable and the money for the project was returned to government. Malayamma and her peers explain that too many people want to be leaders and that Jockin used to make jokes about settlements with 400 residents and 420 leaders! "I was dreaming about my new home. Some of these leaders just think about themselves."

We visit the former site of the Mahila Milan office. From 1994 until 1998 the office operated here, right beside Malayamma's mother's house, where her sister and brother now live. We are greeted warmly by members and, seemingly apropos of nothing, are quickly shown a large photo printed on board of a famous South Indian actor called Kamal Hassan standing together with the husband and son of one of the members. We're told later it's very common for families to seek these photos when celebrities are in town promoting their films.

Kamal Hassan with the member's husband and son

Next we meet Shanti, a beautiful, soft-spoken woman and fellow member who started collecting for the federation at the same time as Malayamma. Since the passing of her husband and the moving of the Mahila Milan office from Vinobha Nagar, she has been less active, but she is very eager to sit with us in Malayamma's mother's house and reminisce about the good old days working together with Malayamma. The two ladies have so many stories - the details of which were surely mostly lost in translation for me, but it was a joy to witness these two strong ladies laughing and sharing their tales.

Site of the Mahila Milan office 1994-1998 (Shanti pictured in top photo)

"Our whole lives were Mahila Milan" they explain. "We would eat together, work together, and talk together every day." We were told Malayamma used to be so shy around Jockin. She said she would shake and wouldn't say much. Shanti, on the other hand, was more confident and Malayamma says she would try to just jump in with a little word here and there in between Shanti. "Then I would feel good" she chuckles and one can only imagine the images flashing before her mind's eye.

Various memories come back to the ladies and they share tales of the time Malayamma was asked by the family of a drunkard to take her children somewhere safe where they would be supported to go to school. Malayamma managed to get the children into a convent boarding school and they have all since traveled abroad. The eldest daughter came back to Bangalore recently to get married. "She came back to find us and tell us how well she is now doing. She still remembers this is her home" Malayamma says with pride.

"There was another lady" Malayamma explains, "of about 35, who had a very badly injured leg and she used to drag herself along the ground to eat from the trash. People used to abuse her and she would try to bite them. She was in such a bad state. I convinced her to let me bathe her and shave her head because her hair had become so tangled and dirty. I got her some clothes and then took her to an afflicted persons home where she was given medical treatment and responded very well. They cleaned up the wound on the leg and treated it. With time she could walk again and was given skills training to work in a plant nursery.

Malayamma's brother and another famous South Indian actor on the wall of her mother's home -- where she and Shanti sat to share their stories

Shanti and Malayamma explain why it's important for children to save and tell us that parents use their savings for school fees, while the kids use their savings for school supplies and sandals etc. They laugh as they tell us that with all the children and parents each having separate books, sometimes they used to carry hundreds of books in big bundles in their arms when they would go for savings collections. They lament the fact that savings and solidarity is not what it once was. Though conditions have improved much in the settlement over the past few decades, Malayamma insists the attitude of people in the settlement has worsened. "Back then, even though the place was very bad, we all used to help each other." She says that over the years about half the families moved out and this shifted the dynamic in Vinobha Nagar. "People stopped helping each other in the same ways" she insists. She understands people need to move - she herself hopes to move out one day and get a home with a toilet inside -- but she misses the solidarity she remembers in the 1980s and 1990s. Shanti and Malayamma also note there are more options for people to save with banks these days, so saving with Mahila Milan has dropped off, especially for the younger ones.

Children of Vinobha Nagar

Malayamma recalls the first time she met Jockin. She went to Hyderabad to participate in the federation's low cost housing exhibition. The exhibition attracted members of the federation and Mahila Milan from across the country and, as is custom for such exchanges, the Bangalore team traveled there with their commissioner and were able to secure a number of agreements from him for projects during the trip. For Malayamma, this was her first time out of Bangalore and first time on a train. She recalls being quite scared by the moving and shaking of the train at first, but Thomas showed her how long the train was and that it was safely moving on the tracks. Once she felt calm, she enjoyed being together with her peers and eating nice food and chatting on the train. She says it was hard for her to leave her children and go on this trip, but her parents were alive at this time and were able to mind them while she was gone.

When she first saw Jockin he asked her where she was from. When she told him she came from Vinobha Nagar he said, "Ahhhh, one of the dirtiest places in Bangalore!" She said he spoke to her in Tamil and asked her what was needed in her settlement. She quickly responded that they urgently needed a toilet. Jockin told her they needed to go back and do a survey (profiling) to clearly make a case for a sanitation project in Vinobha Nagar. This Malayamma and her peers did and it was how they managed to secure the settlement's only sanitation unit.

Since that very first train ride, Malayamma has ventured even further afield to Mumbai, Pune, Orissa, and even Nepal with the federation. The trip to Nepal, to attend the South Asian Hub of federations meeting, required she take a flight for the very first time. Just like the train, she was afraid of the shaking and the noise. She looked around and copied others putting on their seat belts and tried to listen hard to all the instructions that were given. Someone showed her how to use the TV and she was delighted to discover it had Tamil movies to watch.

Some pictures of Malayamma from the old days that we managed to find in a pile of snaps in the office

When asked whether she ever thought about quitting the federation she chuckles heartily and shakes her head. "Some neighbors tell me I'm getting paid less than a street sweeper and ask why I don't do some other work." Tears well up in her eyes as she tells us, "But I tell them that when I was in deep struggle after my father died, no one helped me except Mahila Milan. My marriage, my house and my daughter's marriage were all possible because of Mahila Milan. It's not about what I get paid." she says and looks fondly at Thomas whom she calls anna (brother).

Mahila Milan collectors walk to Flower Garden

After a bite to eat and organizing of the books and paperwork, Malayamma and a group of other Mahila Milan savings collectors walk from the office to Flower Garden. The settlement is so large, the women split it into three parts, with Malayamma taking "Flower Garden Top" where she will visit almost 500 houses. The houses are much bigger here than in Vinobha Nagar and many of the residents are tenants of structures with absentee landlords. The streets are much wider and there are a plethora of commercial enterprises interwoven among the residential spaces. During her collections, Malayamma seems to visit an equal number of homes and businesses - with a significant number of home-based enterprises in the mix.

We see some members with livestock projects in the home, one thriving paper plate business, a bidi (natural cigarette) making business, and more conventional businesses like a pharmacy, a photo studio, and fruit and vegetable stands. Though the settlement is much bigger, more formal, and not her home settlement the vibe is just as intimate, with Malayamma calling out to people by name and women appearing promptly at windows and doors with big smiles and their savings books to meet her. Much is said about Malayamma bringing visitors along for the collections and she explains and jokes about us -- teasing one man that we're very big people who have come to arrest him for stealing money. They all laugh heartily. It's very clear she has their trust and so we outsiders are greeted with great warmth and welcome.

Business of Flower Garden

On one street Malayamma calls out to a woman on the third floor of a bright yellow building. She promptly throws a bag attached to a rope off the balcony and lowers it down to Malayamma. The money inside is retrieved and Malayamma signs off on the deposit made before signaling for the bag to be hauled up. Malayamma explains the woman has five daughters and saves 10 rupees (about 14 cents) per day.

Savings travel by rope and bag from the 3rd floor
Children of Flower Garden

When back at the office fact-checking the details of her story I ask Malayamma whether there is anything else that should be added. She launches into a tale about her son falling desperately ill about five years ago. She was in Mumbai with Mahila Milan when she got a call that her son was very sick and she made her way back to Bangalore immediately. When she arrived she found him behaving very strangely -- as if he had lost his mind. His speech was different and even his mouth didn't seem to work properly. She tried to give him food, but he began vomiting blood and she knew she had to get him to a doctor quickly. Her sister's husband drove them to the doctor, but the doctor told them to get to a hospital and see a neurologist as quickly as they could. They went to St John's and he was transferred to ICU where he needed two injections that would cost a lot more than Malayamma had access to. Again she was able to call on Mahila Milan for support at a most desperate time.

To wrap up I ask her a lame question about her hopes for the next 5-10 years. She says she wants to move into a house with a toilet and that she needs her two sons to get married. "Even this morning my neighbor was asking me when he is getting married!"

Then I think of a slightly more interesting question: "Malayamma, if you could have a picture with any celebrity up on the wall of your new house, who would it be?" She doesn't pause: "Rajini Kanth." Others in the office proceed to explain to me who Rajini Kanth is. I'm told he is one of India's most beloved actors and that he is even worshiped as a God in Tamil Nadu (one of India's southern states). He has starred in countless blockbusters and is known for his unique sense of style. He is now a director and producer, but started out as a bus conductor in Bangalore. "Wow" I say, "You're going to have to work hard to get a picture with that guy."

Malayamma shakes her head. "No, I already met him once." The whole office stops what they're doing to hear this story. "When I was about 12 years old I saw him coming out of a very expensive hotel in town [Bangalore]. I waited out the front and when he came out I ran up to him and told him that my brother and I loved him so much. I told him to wait and I would bring my brother to meet him. He is so humble and he agreed to wait. I ran so fast to get my brother. I came back with a cigarette and a match for him and I shook his hand. Of course we had no camera or phone back then so we didn't get any picture."

The whole office is in awe. The courage the young Malayamma demonstrated to approach a superstar out the front of one of Bangalore's fanciest hotels was quite remarkable.

Well Malayamma, it might not quite be the picture you had in mind, but here is the best I can do to make your wish come true for now.

Two superstars

Written by Skye Dobson

Photography by Kartik Manish

Created By
Skye Dobson


Kartik Manish