Sunday, November 24, 2019




In Kashmir I have heard people saying :

‘ Kya sa zsong ma hovnuss ’
‘ What happened ? Has he shown him the burning lamp ?’
“ Kya sa Koduva ?”
‘ Have you turned bankrupt? ’

Apart from the usual satire, the lines convey something serious. Showing a burning lamp meant a declaration of inability to repay. The burning lamp meant that the debtor had declared himself bankrupt and unable to repay his creditors. Where from did this strange practice of burning a lamp even during day time at the business premises originate? Prakash Tandon in his book ‘ Punjabi Century’ writes :

“In a shop, completely empty of goods, there sat a man in a rigid pose of silent meditation in front of a tall brass lamp with a single wick in a bowl of oil. The man was dressed in plain white clothes and the lamp cast his shadow on the bare wall behind.”

My friend Ravi Dhar informs :

“ My father was a dry and  fresh fruit contractor and used to supply dry fruits to Lala Bal Krishen and  fresh fruits to Amarnath Bros who had their establishments in and  around Maisuma area of Lal Chowk in Srinagar. In the late sixties of the last century, i  have heard my father informing the household elders that the Khatris (as he would call them) have shown the burning lamp.” 

This is how a businessman would declare himself bankrupt. My grandfather has told me that he had seen the burning lamp scene at a Maharaj Ganj shop in Srinagar city before 1947. There are many such references in storybooks that relate to traders of Lahore and Amritsar of 1947 period. Traders going bankrupt and then burning a big brass lamp at the business premises 24 by 7 till everyone more particularly the creditors knew what had happened.

 Only a panchayat type of gathering did some reasonable settlement as legal suits were not brought in by creditors after they saw the burning lamp. Sometimes a person who had to receive ten thousand got just two hundred rupees. The panchayat or trading committee members were considerate towards the bankrupt.

This practice was quite popular in colonial India. There was no need to run away or abscond. The trader needed to be present to show his shame. As per gazetteer of 1815 ( East India Company), the bankrupt would not wear the tail of his waistcloth hanging down but tucks it up. A bankrupt was supposed to act in time so that the business interests of his creditors were not jeopardized. The swift action of early declaration of his bankruptcy earned him sympathy.

Diwalia as it was known all over the country, had many social issues. A marriage proposal in a family where some person had declared himself Diwalia was not a normal affair. The family carried the stigma for some generations. A common refrain would be expressed like this :

‘ Are you marrying your son/daughter in that family? I am told that the bride’s / bridegroom’s great grandfather had kept the burning lamp outside their business premises and put many innocent traders to trouble. Take care .’ 

Romans were the first to bring a law for bankruptcies. Roman laws provided a fairly persuasive method for dealing with individuals who did not appear to be able to pay their debts when they fell due. First, the debtor was given 30 days time to pay or find someone else to pay for him. If payment was not made, the creditor could : 

"Fasten him in stocks or fetters. He shall fasten him with not less than fifteen pounds of weight or, if he chooses, with more. If the prisoner desires, he may furnish his own food. If he does not, the creditor must give him a pound of meal daily; if he choose he may give him more."

This practice has died down as the business creditors have shifted from individuals to banks and financial institutions. Business morality has also undergone a sea change.

( Avtar Mota )

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