Saturday, November 12, 2016

The end of ‘Anjarai petti’ economy

'That is a pretty ear-stud that you are wearing' … remarked Jo who was sitting opposite to me at the dinner table.  We were at a business dinner with Joanne who had come down from New york on a Business trip to India. 

'Thank you Jo, it is very old, my grandmother gifted it to me when I came of age', I said. 

Ah... and then that wave of nostalgia hit me.  My memory drifted to those carefree days when I was a child. Of those childhood days and the summer vacations at the Mylapore house.   Every year after the annual exams, Appa would see us off at the railway station and we would set forth on a twenty four hour train journey down south to Madras.

A post card addressed to one of our uncles would have reached the Mylapore house a fortnight earlier confirming the train, date and coach number in which we would arrive. One of our uncles would be there at the platform waiting to receive us for our  summer vacation.  An  hour long journey  on the Pista green Pallavan transport corporation buses of the Madras of yesteryears was never very tiresome.  Yes it was hot, humid and sultry, but never really tiresome.

With no schools and no homework there was a lot of time to while away.  

Playing ‘house – house’ with cousins and a combined collection of all our dolls in the store room, watching the queue at the ‘aavin milk booth’ opposite to the house,  helping grandpa with the hand pump to fill the cement tanks and iron buckets with ground water,  dodging the house maid kamala when she would come around to apply sesame oil on our heads and then give us an oil bath with that coarse shikkakai powder, watering the terrace upstairs after sunset  so that we could all sleep out in the open terrace when  the cool sea breeze blew over in the  night giving us joyous respite from the hot, humid and  sweltering Chennai .. oops Madras  heat  were what memories were made of.  It was  an yearly routine all through our school years.    

We would plead with grandpa and uncles to take us to the Santhome Beach. The Santhome beach was a  15 minute  walk through alley ways from the Mylapore house. But it was a distance we were prohibited to navigate without Adult company.      

Sometimes grandpa would oblige and take us to the Santhome beach.  But we preferred when  Sekhar Chittappa ( younger uncle) who after coming back from work would take us to the Santhome beach where we would play in the sand and wet our feet  as the waves lashed the sea-shore.  The salty air and the cool breeze that filled the air when we walked back in the orange and blue dusky sky  soon after sunset are etched in my  memories even after so many years. 

Going to the Beach with Sekhar Chittappa was a pleasure, he would treat us with the thenga- manga sundal.  If this were a recipe in today’s fine dining restaurant, it would read as spicy-lentils- slow-cooked- in- brine-water-with-a- sprinkling- of- tropical- coconut- and-slices-of-tangy- raw- Indian-mango.

A paper cone filled with Thenga-mangaa  sundal would cost 50 paisa.  50 paisa for four people was a princely two rupees which the generous Chittappa would gladly spend. It was an investment he made to ensure the memories of a carefree and happy summer vacations of our childhood were etched deeply in our memories.  I am not sure if he ever thought about it that way.  But I am ever so grateful for his generosity.

Grandpa was not as generous as Sekhar Chittappa. If anything he was known for his stinginess and Grandma would forever chide him for that. In the afternoons, when the Rita Ice-cream push cart would pass through the Mylapore house, we would salivate and watch him pass by. The push cart fellow would try hard to see if our pester power would lead to a sales conversion. But then grandpa was made of sterner stuff.  He said he had no money and could not buy us the kuchchi ice cream.  ( a wooden stick covered with pure white milky Rita Icecream)

It was one of those days that we were trying our luck with grandpa to coax him into buying us Kuchchi ice cream and he was not budging.  Grandma had just entered the house , after  buying vegetables from the market as she watched us pleading with grandpa, who was sitting on his rocking arm chair, unperturbed by our pleading.

She went inside and called out my name.   I was irritated, because I was hoping that if we pestered Grandpa for a few more minutes he would yield.  And Grandma shouting out my name summoning me into the kitchen was irritating to say the least. I must have mumbled something and went to her. She was in the kitchen opening the Anjarai petti - spice box that she had pulled out from the top most shelf  just below the attic.  On a normal day it was camouflaged by two jars.  One that contained pickles and the other one that contained rock salt.

And from there came tumbling  round aluminium ten paisa coins enough to buy an ice cream each for the three of us.

I was delighted , I went out screaming, showing a stinky-eye and making faces at the stubborn grandpa on the way and down the street to the Rita Ice-cream push cart vendor and handed over to him the round aluminium coins , he counted  them and handed me over three kuchchi ice creams.

I ran back into the house, afraid the ice cream would soon melt and handed them over to my sister and brother, and the three of us sat down and licked the delicious kuchchi ice cream right under grandpa’s nose.

He mumbled something incoherent. Perhaps because we were intoxicated at the delight of eating our ice creams he sounded incoherent . He was perhaps mumbling that his wife was pampering the brats and he had lost his ground as the man of the house because she sponsored  our ice creams. 

Out from the kitchen… pat came the reply.
She said she did not regret sparing some petti ( pun intended) cash for her  grandchildren who visited her once a year. Who knows next year she might be dead, or she would perhaps never get the chance,  she said in an emotionally choked but loud pitched voice that shot all the way across to the front verandah from the kitchen. That instantly shut up grandpa’s grumbling.  

Grandma … she was a kickass woman.  She did not just buy us our ice creams, she took us to movies, took us along when she visited relatives, she brought those atrociously colourful  silk pavadais ( full length frocks) and  most importantly she had brought me that nice star shaped ear stud  with a shining  blue stone in the middle that I was wearing at the dinner party that night.

Grandma  was a housewife.   In her days women worked but never earned any money for the work that they did.  She worked at home and raised her children, of whom there were many.  She would say she bore nine in all, out of which six survived adulthood.  Thanks to Grandma and Grandpa we  were fortunate to be surrounded   with uncles and aunts and had a lot of people to visit when we went ‘home’ for summer vacations.

One day I went with Grandma went to visit ‘Korattur Periamma’.  She was Grandma’s elder sister. Grandma and her extended family consisted of many cousins .  They would meet up once a month at her maternal home.  This time around she took me along with her to show off her adolescent  granddaughter  to her sisters , her sister-in-law, their daughters, daughters-in-law  and their sisters, and their mothers, neighbours and who ever else came invited and uninvited  to that house.  

It was a big gathering of more than a dozen women.  They took one look at me appraising me from head to toe.  An awkward adolescent, wearing a silk pavadai – sattai in the sweltering summer heat , I was getting very irritable perhaps with all that attention. The humidity made me sweat and I was feeling sticky and uneasy. 

A matronly aunt double the size of a bison walked in with a loud boisterous gait about her. When Grandma introduced me to her, she pinched my pimple laden cheeks loudly claiming that I looked an exact copy of my father.  That flattered Grandma to no end. She then sat down in the heavy cushioned mattress, put on her reading glasses and opened up a note book. One by one all the women came to her and handed over wads of five rupee and ten rupee notes from underneath their  blouses .  Korattur Periamma’s  newly- wed dainty daughter in law brought in a tray filled with tumblers of filter coffee and behind her came trailing the elder  daughter-in-law  with plates full of  Kaththirikkai Bajji ( thinly- sliced-brinjal- fritters-fried-in-oil). 

We all ate merrily while the women exchanged gossip and news about other people.  I gathered some breaking news on contemporary matters. I learned facts like Dharmambal ’s  daughter was pregnant and that Kamalam mami’s  daughter –in –law was a complete dud.  Poor Girija’s  second son had a third daughter in a row.  Someone remarked that it served her well and this would tone down her haughtiness in the year’s to come.   Rajalakshmi was complaining  how her daughter-in-law had the audacity to suggest moving out of the joint family and how she had managed to get her son to shut her up by refusing that promotion which his bank has offered him on the condition that he accept a transfer to a different city.

 A general consensus  was passed about the daughter’s-in-law of their  generation and their utter lack of adjustment into living in joint families. They compared the treatment they were meted out by their husband’s and mother-in-law’s   and how they had still survived it all.   They unanimously agreed that the girls of the future generation would have it much better than their’s and yet they were all so obnoxious and  self centered.  

They discussed about the latest MGR- Jayalalitha blockbuster .  Of particular mention was Jayalalitha’s audaciously scandalous outfits that she wears in the dream song  and dance sequence in that movie.  By the end of the day I knew the entire story of how the rich hero (MGR) in search of that perfect homely wife manages to tone down the completely spoilt and haughty heroine   ( Jayalalitha) who at the end of the movie falls at his feet  draped in a silk saree,with lush long  hair with jasmine flowers, and  begs him to forgive her and marry her.         
Grandma  alone had not yet caught up on that movie. She instantly planned to take us all the next Friday to watch that movie at the Kamadhenu theatre in Mylapore.  

The matronly woman now calls for attention and all the commotion and chit-chat comes to a close. The two  daughter-in-laws emerge from the kitchen and collect the empty tiffin plates and coffee tumblers and disappear back into the kitchen.

 A copper vessel is brought along and chits with names of all the women who had paid up their monthly ‘Cheettu money’  is put into the copper vessel. They look out for a neutral party with no skin in the game to pick up a chit from the copper vessel. 

The previous month it was Kamala Mami’s grandson who had picked up the chit.  This time around I was the obvious choice. I was summoned to pick up the chit from the copper vessel in which all the chits were mixed up.  

I felt uneasy and was beginning to have stomach cramps. I was feeling  bored, irritated,  clammed up and completely out of place in that claustrophobic environment of elderly  women. I was angry with grandma to have got me there in the first place.  I grudgingly got up, picked up the chit and gave it to the matronly woman in orange and green nine-yard silk saree and walked out of the room to the backyard to use the wash room.     

When I came back the entire room was jubilant.  Grandma hugged me and kissed both my cheeks.  Apparently I had picked up her name from the copper vessel.  Today she would get a princely sum of three hundred rupees. 

Grandma was part of the ‘Cheettu’ group.  Every month they all collected the savings from their ‘Anjaraipetti’  - the five spice box and their version of of the modern day kitty party which assembled at somebody's house every month. The one whose name was  picked up from the copper vessel got instant credit  which she could use it at her will. Of-course they would all continue to remit the small savings every month when they gathered,  but this was like an advance for all the savings they remit in the next few months. 

This month Grandma got lucky and she attributed her luck to me, her favorite granddaughter.

I was not  in any mood to share her jubilation. I wanted to weep and cry aloud.  But I did not want to make a big show in front of the women.  I waited patiently till the party was over. Grandma took leave and we once again boarded the Pista Green Pallavan transport corporation bus to Mylapore.

I sat at the window seat and started silently weeping.  Grandma asked me if anything was wrong.  I refused to talk to her and kept weeping.  We reached the Luz corner where we had to get down to walk another 10 minutes to reach home. 

It was then that Grandma noticed and asked me . I was confused, ashamed and shocked.  I then burst into tears and admitted to confirm her  doubt.    Much to my surprise, she hugged me tight and shed happy tears right there at the bus stop.  

We did not go home from there.  She took me straight to the jeweller’s shop .
Grandma pulled out the wads of five and ten rupee notes from her bosom, beneath her blouse and brought me those pretty gold ear studs. The star shaped ones with a blue stone fitted at the center.        


Millions of women across India save up small change that they manage to salvage after buying  groceries  vegetables, school uniforms  and other day to day shopping from the money that their husbands , fathers or brothers give them from time to time.  

In their Anjarai petti, in the fading old wedding trousseau , inside the Tamarind jars, inside shoe boxes, tucked inside the  inner lining of their old blouses, wrapped around  empty plastic packets that once contained sanitary napkins and many other such inconspicuous nooks and corners lie saved up a lot of cash and kind that may not necessarily  be branded as ‘black money’ .

 It is the hard gained earnings of thrifty women who due to social constraints cannot  go out and earn their own money.  It is their small way of feeling economically independent and empowered by spending the money in the way they want, without feeling constrained by whether their men  would approve or not.
‘It is a woman thing in India’, I tell Jo.

I then go on and  tell her about this bold  move that our Prime minister  had announced the day before by declaring 500 and 1000 rupee notes as invalid in a drive  to eradicate black money.

She was worried because she had exchanged her dollars for Rupees of 500 and 1000 rupee notes just a few days earlier when she landed in India.   She wanted to shop not in the malls but in the local city market , buying trinkets and bric-a-brac for her family and friends as Christmas  presents.  
All in cash.
She did not want to spend it on the over- priced shops in the five star hotel or out there in the shopping malls, when she very well knew she could get a good bargain in commercial street for much the same quality.

‘All women like a good bargain she said.  We all like to save up and then go on a guilt-free spending spree. It is a woman thing, not just in India, but  the world over', Jo says.

I reflect and I agree with her.

And here I must confess:

I have three piggy banks at home. 

Number One – is a green- goal piggy bank.  Everytime I take a public transport, sell off old plastic and newspapers, I put in the money saved into that piggy bank. That one is safe because it contains lots of coins and 50 and 100 rupee notes. Oh well .. not so safe in these days. 

The second one is for guilt free shopping.  Everytime I withdraw cash, about 10-20%  goes into this piggy bank. The second  one is tucked deep inside my wardrobe in a plastic purse amidst winter clothes which I seldom use.  

 In a patriarchial society like ours  women have some little advantages.  Every year brothers gift their sisters some money during  festivals. Fathers also give their daughters money during Diwali and Pongal. 

In Grandma’s days everytime a brother or father or any male member  came visiting from her maternal home, they would  surreptiously gift  the woman of the house some money  before leaving.  All this money found its way under the ‘anjarai petti’ - the spice box or the tamarind jars and then moved up the investment  value chain by way of ‘cheettu’ schemes.  
When I grew up, went abroad and was gainfully employed, I would give grandma a wadful of notes freshly drawn from the nearest ATM whenever I  went to visit her.  Perhaps this was the pay back for the ‘kuchchi ice creams’ and the  pretty gold ear studs with blue stones that she impulsively brought for me at the jeweller’s at the Luz coner in Mylapore all those years ago.


I guess you do not know much about women. Not that other men do, so I cannot not blame you  J  .
It is a learned behaviour from centuries of social conditioning in a patriarchal setup . 
Let me explain this to you.    
Many middle class women of my generation have by and large attained economic independence.  They can afford to take charge of their own finances if they wish to.
 And yet many women like me, continue to hoard piggy banks full of cash under various guises to indulge in  charity, guilt-free-shopping  and other unmentionable  reasons.

Modi-ji, you and your men are now asking us all to come out of our socially learned habits and declare our piggy banks. We are not real estate dealers, bookies betting on Clinton Vs Trump election results or politicians fighting elections.  

We are women hard wired with habits of thrift who seek delayed gratification of our petty finances .  
Mine alone amounts to 18,500 at this point in time. They are all in denominations of 500 and 1000.

Is this the end of ‘Anjarai petti economy ?  

Aiyo, ( no more in Italics)  Aiyoh ... how I secretly enjoyed counting those  500 and 1000 rupee notes over and over again in the pretext of cleaning my wardrobe …      pchch… L  


This post was  Inspired by Sivakami Patti who literally came out of the closet today and declared ...

that she had 40,000 tucked in her  closet and needed help ... 

‘This post is a part of Write Over the Weekend, an initiative for Indian Bloggers by BlogAdda.’


  1. Trupti5:02 AM

    Awesome J Go...loved ur style of writing!

  2. Thanks Trupti ... we must catch up sometime...

  3. Thank you for this glimpse into your life. Lots of detail. And, now you have me craving ice cream.

  4. enjoyed your sharing. easy flowing style. it rekindled my memories too. tks.

  5. You totally rekindled my Madras days.. they are etched forever and what a child hold it indeed was.. lovely render jayanthi..

  6. You totally rekindled my Madras days.. they are etched forever and what a child hold it indeed was.. lovely render jayanthi..

  7. Enjoyed this post. I still have a few little jars with coins and a purse with notes. Luckily my govt hasn't demonitised. Feel for those who stand to lose their hard earned piggy bank savings.

  8. Love it..the pickle jars and 10-paise coins bring my childhood back!

  9. A warm feeling after reading ur write up☺️thanks


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