In a red book, a tale of accounts

In a red book, a tale of accounts

In a red book, a tale of accounts

The  history of accounting can be traced back to the ancient civilisations of Mesopotamia, Egypt and Babylon. In fact, it corresponds to the very rise of empires, development of different forms of writing and even early inventions.

In India, the influential 2nd century BCE Sanskrit text of Arthashastra, authored by Chanakya, on aspects of statecraft, included not just treatises on economics, law and military strategies, but  also contained detailed notes on the importance of maintaining accounts for a sovereign state. The text included accounting principles, bookkeeping standards and methodology, the roles and responsibilities of accountants, auditors, and the detection of fraud.

States, merchants, traders, householders had long maintained accounting information, but it was in the late 15th century that the Venetian Luca Pacioli, regarded as the father of accounting and bookkeeping,  first enunciated the system of double-entry bookkeeping in his publication Summa de arithmetica, geometria, proportioni et proportionalita. With  adaptations, this system still continues to be in use even today. Simply put, the double-entry system of bookkeeping balances two corresponding and opposite entries, assets and credits with liabilities and debits.

In India, like elsewhere in the world, much has changed with handwritten accounts, moving on to typewritten methodology, and now on to modern professional accounting on computers. But one bookkeeping system continues to remain unaltered over the centuries and that is the use of the double-entry system maintained in the traditional bahi-khata, also called pothis and chopdis in Western India.

These accounting books are recognisable by their distinct dark-red cloth covers, a colour associated with Lakshmi, the Hindu goddess of wealth and prosperity. This cloth of auspiciousness and good luck is stitched on a soft cardboard, giving it strength and durability. The thick white cotton thread contrasts with the dark-red cloth giving the bahis their distinct identity. The threadwork, earlier hand-stitched and now executed on a sewing machine, is patterned in a continuous running stitch that turns onto itself in loops and straight lines without a stitch-break, thus ensuring that the bahi-khata remains hard-wearing to serve as a long-term record of money spent and received.

Used throughout the country and across communities, castes and religions, there are several variations of bahi-khata but what remains the same as with all matters of profit and loss is that good luck is invoked with messages that resonate with the user. For the Hindus, words like 'Shubh Laabh' (goodness & wealth) and 'Shri Pujanu Pano' (Goddess Lakshmi's prayer page) are printed on the flyleaf. Other pictures that are common features in these record-keepers are those of Lord Ganapati, the elephant-headed god of beginnings, Goddess Lakshmi, and even that of a swastika, the sacred symbol of auspiciousness and good luck.

A new bahi-khata is started on the first day of the new year, and in many parts of North India, Gujarat and Maharashtra, that falls  on the day after Diwali; in West Bengal, it falls on Poila Baisakh; while in the Islamic calendar, it falls on the Hijri Year or Misri year. In addition, the start of the khata is initiated with prayers and offerings to the deities who are being invoked for blessings and good fortune. These prayers may be privately held in home, offices, shops and karkhanas, or in the presence of priests. Some larger gatherings are publically held as is the Chopda Pujan in temples of Maharashtra and Gujarat.

As the khatas are foldable, their sizes can vary according to the needs of the user as can the paper lengths that sometimes extend up to a yard. The binding of the khata depends on the number of sheets it contains, so it is either held together by a central stitch or by several stitches that bind sections of sheets. The white inner pages are vertically creased into columns that are divided by the standards of precision, accuracy and intelligibility required for the double accounting system.

While these creased lines were done by hand using a metal template earlier, they are now machine-creased and often printed in a matrix-like format for the ease of entry. Likewise, in keeping with the times, the earlier hand-stitched cover is now sewed on by machine. These khatas are available in commercial markets across India from Delhi's Sadar Bazaar, Mumbai's Mangaldas Market to Kanpur's General Ganj, and now online.

Bahi-khata has been immortalised in art and cinema, where vivid pictures of the extortionist money-lender maintaining his accounts comes to life. It has even been seen in the courts of the country, where a landmark judgment of the Punjab and Haryana High Court prevented the exploitation of farmers by commission agents, asserting  that the entries in the "bahi-khata are not enough to prove that loan has been sanctioned to cultivators," further stating "that farmers cannot be convicted in cheque bounce cases for non-payment of loans entered in the bahi-khata."

Today, bahi-khata is being widely liked not just for account purposes, but also for its retro design and long-use sturdiness and toughness. Its contemporary appeal is finding new users in students, artists, writers and more.