The image of Nirmala Sitharaman carrying Budget documents in a red silk folder, embossed with the golden State emblem, has been one of the takeaways of Friday’s Budget presentation. Sitharaman, who ditched the leather briefcase for a traditional “bahi khaata” — or red, handmade ledger — said it was “high time we move on from the British hangover, to do something on our own”. And, she told the media, it was easier for her to carry as well. While this move has been hailed by many as an attempt to break free from a colonial hangover, historically, the bahi khaata has been a symbol of social oppression, if pop culture is anything to go by.
“Popular culture has always reflected the widespread practice, where the bahi khaata was the repository of all debts unfairly accumulated by money lenders and feudal lords through exploitative means. These debts kept the peasants enslaved,” screenwriter Anjum Rajabali, who has films such as Pukar and The Legend of Bhagat Singh to his credit, said.
“The bahi khaata is a commonly identified symbol, and any Hindi film-goer will identify it with a tool of oppression and exploitation. It’s ironic that the Budget, which is meant to help the economically underprivileged and is supposed to bring them into the economic mainstream, is now using it,” he said.
Rajabali gave examples of films such as Mother India, Do Beegha Zameen, Ganga Jamuna and Gopi as instances where the baahi khaata has been shown as an instrument of exploitation.
Bahi khaata is a traditional Indian method of bookkeeping which employed double entry. It is said to have predated ‘The Pacioli’s Summar’ — written in 1494 and seen as the world’s oldest audit book — and even Greek and Roman systems.
In J P Dutta-directed Ghulami (1985), rebel protagonist Dharamendra is shown setting fire to a pyre of bahi khaatas as an assertion against the dominant feudal and privileged caste in Rajasthan. In Mother India, Sukhilal Lala (played by Kanhaiya Lal), the evil moneylender, keeps Radha’s (played by Nargis) family deeply in debt, the details in his bahi khaata.
Dutta said: “Setting the pyre of ledgers ablaze was a moment of revolution. In the film, (character played by) Dharmendra was deeply impressed by Maxim Gorky’s Mother and he wanted to break free from chains of debt. The ledgers were an account of the entire life of a peasant and would even hold future generations accountable, almost making uneducated farmers bonded slaves.”