Each day, well before the Mumbai Local comes to a halt, passengers prepare to jump off the train, expertly dodging those on the platform waiting to get in. Physical contact is well neigh unavoidable as you negotiate your way with or against the stream of disembarking passengers. There’s rarely a glance exchanged unless the collusion smacks of a deliberateness that hurts the other, or brings them to the ground in an embarrassing thud, for such is the hurry to be among the first to get to the over-bridge and across it that all forms of communication are held back until one is safely across the bridge to the East or the West (Mumbai Suburban local trains ‘split’ much of the city into East and West portions).
Squeezed in by travelers hurrying down the stairs to the railway platform to the sound of the announcer announcing train arrivals, disembarking passengers quicken their steps up the stairs to the railway over-bridge, eyes scouring for space to negotiate through the ascending crowd, latching onto slender openings between cascading feet, all for the extra step that’ll take them a step past the wall of people packed in on either side by hawkers calling attention to their wares: cheap watches, cheap clothes, toys, dried grapes, wallets, perfumes, vegetables, pirated CDs, and flowers among other things.
On one such morning as I skirted the rush hour crowd, dodging past people to the far end of the over-bridge a hand struck out at me just as I was about to run down the steps to hail a taxi. Seeing it materialize out of nowhere I took evasive action, my hand involuntarily bracing for contact even as it instinctively reached out to the pamphlet he held out to me. His hands were moving quickly, surprising people as they prepared to take the steps down the bridge on their way out of the railway station.
I doubt if Ankush More, a Marathi youth, saw the faces of people he was passing out the HSBC Pragati Finance Personal Loans pamphlets to. His hands were moving far too quickly in holding out the single page pamphlet to people for him to filter recipients for potential customers. Moreover the crowd was moving quickly as well, mostly office-goers hurrying time, people who presumably had more urgent things on their mind than personal loans.
HSBC Pragati Finance offers Personal Loans up to Rs. 50,000, starting Rs. 10,000, while promising ‘Easy paper work’ and ‘No security or guarantee’, a message not very different from those I see in local trains, staring out from compartment walls. I imagine the country must be awash with money to loan out to people if the frequency and scale of coverage is anything to go by. It is common to see banks setting up ‘loan counters’ in reception areas of corporate offices that bank with them as corporate customers.
For sheer volume of people railway stations are hard to beat. Ankush More would have learnt from experience that he had a better chance at getting exiting passengers to accept the pamphlet if he stood at the top of the stairs at the exit than somewhere along the way where people are in a hurry to get past, rarely pausing or slowing down for doing so would mean being bumped against by those behind, possibly to a tune of a few choice words.
Ankush does not process loan applications. He is employed to pass out the pamphlets that carry the name and contact number of the loan agent at the back. I ask Ankush how many pamphlets he manages to pass out on an average day.
“1000 in two hours, and I’m done for the day,” he replies even as he returns to the bunch in his hand.
I do a quick calculation. In a radius of 2 – 2 ½ feet presented by his outstretched hand, excluding people who either ignore him or are in a terrible rush, or those to whom he cannot get the pamphlet out quickly enough to pass it out before they pass him, a minimum of 500 people an hour need to pass within two feet of him to meet his target. And those he ‘manages to miss out on’ must surely equal these numbers if not exceed them, all passing within two feet of him in the morning rush hour!
“I mostly pass these out at railway stations. Sometimes I’m here, other times at some other railway station,” he tells me above the din.
Ankush is paid Rs. 3000 each month for the 30,000 HSBC Pragati Finance Personal Loan pamphlets he gives out.
I point to the slew of pamphlets discarded on the steps where people dropped them on their way down the stairs leading out of the station, and say, “Do people read what you hand out?”
He looks at the mass of bright red and white flyers strewn on the steps before replying, “Many don’t, but some do.”
Volume improves probability. Apparently those who read the pamphlet and are in need of a loan call up on the number rubber stamped on page two of the pamphlet. “Yes, some do call up on the number for a loan, other times they pause to ask me details,” he continues.
‘Pragati’ is Sanskrit for ‘Progress’. The irony in this case does not escape me as I turn to read the hand-out. I begin to descend the steps, and watch my step to avoid stumbling over, for it is a fairly long way down the metal and cement stairs. The others are doing likewise, heads bent to the task at hand. Like everyone else I step on discarded loan flyers at each step even as its bright red colours leap at me from where they lie, ‘progress’ively gathering muddy footprints as more feet land on them.
As I progress down the stairs step by step, each landing on red and white flyers strewn all the way down, I wince at the irony on reading the flyer exhort the reader with the words ‘Kadam Kadam Badhaye Ja’ (Progress Step by Step), and how!!!