Saris on Scooters: How Microcredit is Transforming Village India

Saris on Scooters

By Sarah Fletcher

A review of Saris On Scooters by Sheila Mcleod Arnopoulos

Published on October 3, 2010

Saris On Scooters
Sheila Mcleod Arnopoulos

Dundurn Press
$29.99
paper
342pp
978-1-55488-7224

As an eyewitness account of microcredit at work in rural India, Saris on Scooters is unabashedly personal in tone, though
it provides its fair share of sobering statistics as well. Montreal author and journalist Sheila McLeod Arnopoulos retells her experiences
over a span of twenty-one months as she travels off the beaten path into the deepest poverty of Indian villages. But far from pessimistic,
Arnopoulos hits an insistently hopeful note with each new story.

Microcredit was developed to give the poor in developing countries a financial foothold by providing them with the resources to launch small businesses.
Initiatives target women, who repay loans more reliably than men and tend to invest in the welfare of their families. Since Muhammed Yunus won the Nobel Peace
Prize in 2006 for supplying microcredit to poor women in Bangladesh, estimates have placed the impact of microcredit as reaching 20% of the 600 million working
poor in India.

Arnopoulos observes the effects of microcredit up close. Sleeping on hut floors and traveling on rickety buses and dusty rickshaws, she writes of her intimate interactions with the women of India with warmth and optimism – so much so that Saris on Scooters is as much a travel journal as an account of the
effects of microcredit. Many of the women she encounters live day-to-day, earning less than C$1 a day. Lacemakers near the village of Rustum bada work every day of the year, many at a wage of C$0.60 a day.

In Tirupati, Arnopoulos teaches a journalism workshop to Indian women with elementary school education. Her account of the experience many years later rings with admirationand humility: “In fact, they had a lot to teach me, not only about village life, but also about the value of immersion in a community,” she
writes. In Manek chowk, she commiserates with Shantaben, who has sold produce from the same market spot for thirty years. Countless other women – farmers, vendors, housewives – cross paths with Arnopoulos, always extending a warm welcome in spite of their often crippling poverty.

In contrast to the open respect Arnopoulos expresses for the female entrepreneurs who turn their lives around with microcredit, she occasionally expresses rage as well: “We were only a few blocks away from Wall Street, where reckless and greedy financiers and their international colleagues had caused such world-wide financial havoc, yet were still looking for big bonuses.” Thus Arnopoulos describes a Women’s World Banking meeting in New York. Mostly, however, Arnopoulos’s approach is to retell stories of women empowered against formidable odds.

After 300 pages, the unapologetically sympathetic overtones and heart-warming stories of Saris on Scooters begin to wear thin, but
there is an honesty in Arnopoulos’s tone that makes that, somehow, okay. All minor caveats about microcredit aside (there have been reservations about some microcredit organizations, which are briefly covered in the concluding pages), the book familiarizes readers with the reality of a movement occurring
over 10,000 km away. Saris on Scooters is a noble endeavour to inject a little humanity into otherwise abstract economical concepts – and perhaps this is indeed what is missing in many a boardroom meeting. mRb

Sarah Fletcher is a writer in Montreal.

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