In Catastrophe by Munshi Premchand, a woman owned a parching oven. Apparently, business was quite good: "The village folk have one meal a day of parched grain, so there was always a crowd around Bhungi's oven." However, it also says that "she didn't own either a scrap of land or a house to live in. Her only source of livelihood was a parching oven." It further says that "she lived in Pandit's village" and that Pandit had the ability to compel her to parch grain for him for free, in which case she would go to bed hungry that day (because her paying customers would normally give her part of the parched grain as part of the fee for parching their grain, which she would then eat - the implication being that, without that source of food, she wouldn't have any food).

That being said, given the fact that she was the village's sole provider of an in-demand good, why was she apparently so poor?

  • 1
    Minor point, she’s the supplier of a service rather than a good.
    – Spagirl
    Commented Sep 22, 2021 at 14:31

1 Answer 1


You've pretty much explained this.

The key point is that while she has a business that is in demand, all her customers are also poor. This is shown by the fact that they pay partly for her services in grain, presumably because they don't have much money and she wants grain. On days when the village owner makes her work for free, she doesn't have any income, not even the grain. Note that her business is unskilled work. Anybody with a parching oven could set up in competition with her if they wanted.

Since she doesn't own a house she presumably has to pay rent. This is likely to the village owner, who has the power to set whatever rent they want, since they own all the property in the village. Her customers are probably also paying rent to the village owner, at whatever levels he chooses to set, which explains why they are also poor.

A village owner with the power to compel her to work for free probably also has power to compel her to do other things if he wants, that would increase his wealth and keep her (and the rest of the village) poor.

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    That's a good point - I was assuming that they were giving her grain and money, but if all they gave her was a portion of the grain she parched for them then that would make a lot of sense. Commented Sep 21, 2021 at 15:12
  • Looking again, they may be giving her grain only as part of the fee. But that still speaks to the poverty of both the parcher and customer. Commented Sep 21, 2021 at 15:15

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