‘There is an Indian proverb that says that everyone is a house with four rooms, a physical, a mental, an emotional, and a spiritual. Most of us tend to live in one room most of the time but unless we go into every room every day, even if only to keep it aired, we are not a complete person.’ — Rumer Godden
Last week, on Tuesday evening, I had a barrage of messages from numerous friends informing me that, as of midnight – a mere few hours away – 1000 and 500 rupee bank notes were no longer going to be legal tender.
The next morning, as the world woke up to the news of a Trump presidency, we in India woke up to banks being closed for two days and the money in our wallets being just about useless.
The first few days it’s a curiosity, almost an amusement. ‘How many small notes do you have?’ we ask each other. I have enough to take taxis to work for two days so figure that by the time the banks and ATMs re-open on Friday, I’ll be able to get some of the new currency – 2000-rupee notes that are, apparently, encrypted so they can be detected even if stashed in some unsavoury underworld boss’s bunker deep below the earth.
This is a move to counteract the thriving parallel black money economy so all those undeclared wads of cash will, in an instant, be rendered null and void. And to avoid racketeering at upcoming local elections in a couple of states. Or something.
I hear of side businesses instantly mushrooming up to take all your old currency notes and exchange them for the new ones – at a premium. (Where there’s a will…) People with a lot of black money are apportioning their cash and asking their friends and family to deposit sums into their accounts for a bonus.
My hair salon calls, saying they’re accepting old notes if I want to partake in their pre-purchased points programme. My local booze shop calls to say they too are accepting old notes up to a certain day. Some shops post signs outside their windows saying they are not accepting old notes and to please not ask for change. A few shops remain shut completely.
The amusement gives way to anxiety on Friday early morning when I walk over to a local bank to withdraw money for my weekly groceries. There are staggeringly long queues in front of my bank. And every other one that I pass. Unless I miss work for the day (and my job is frantic and my days are packed), I can’t get cash. Or groceries.
ATMs remain closed for the most part – cash withdrawals have to be made at the bank counter. When ATMs do open, it’s only sporadically and for a few hours, until the cash runs out, then they shut again. There’s a low daily limit on how much can be withdrawn from an ATM in any case. Also, new 500 notes are not yet available, so even if you get your hands on 2000-rupee notes, chances are that small shops will not be able to give you change.
This nationwide decision was taken before sufficient replacement currency was available for a smooth transition. And even in the busiest city in the country, this is a largely cash-based economy. I am down to 100 rupees (about $1.50). I resort to trusty Uber for cabs and Zomato for meals, both cashless transactions.
By the weekend, it has become something of a nervous joke. I hear stories from friends of borrowing money from the milkman. I get a haircut and promise to double tip my hairdresser the next time I see her. Instead of taking taxi autos to zip around my neighbourhood, I now set out to walk from meeting to meeting. Sick of ordering from restaurants, I rummage through my fridge and find two tomatoes and a limp spring onion, and make myself a raw soup for dinner.
The banks stay open all weekend but the queues just get longer. Banks are closed on Monday (ATMs are still closed) and we sit around counting out our loose change. Sofas around the country, I suspect, are being probed and upended to find something, anything.
I go to photocopy some documents for my tax return and realise I can’t finish the task as I will need to wait until I get literally a few more rupees in my pocket. I run out of toothpaste and find two mini tubes in my travel bag – the kind given free on planes; they taste like glue. I exchange my old currency for a crate of beer an hour before the booze shop stops accepting the old notes. I finish all the crackers I stock at home for guests. I don’t even like crackers.
I had already experienced, earlier in the year, the aggravation of having money in my bank yet not being able to access it (thanks to faulty bank cards and pin numbers, and needing various government-issued identity cards I didn’t yet have to withdraw money via cheque). Then, I was alone in that frustrating situation. Now, the whole country is experiencing it.
I will, eventually, at some point, be able to withdraw money from my account. My money is still there; I just have to set aside at least half a day to join the queue in front of the bank and then I can fill my wallet again. But for all the small businesses, auto-wallahs, paan shop wallahs and everyone else running small cash transactions, this must be a severe blow. They must be losing a sizeable income that they rely on on a daily basis because people like me are just not able to use their services at the moment.
The surprise announcement (really, like we weren’t already having the shittiest week thanks to the ghastly news of Trump?) has made these times rather surreal. While there’s something unexpectedly bonding about the “we’re all in this together” moment, it’s also a scary demonstration of just how helpless we are in the face of government decisions.
(Despite being neither a citizen of the US or India, I am maddeningly affected by the decisions these countries make – India because I work here; the US because half my family lives there, and whatever the US does affects the planet any which way.)
We think we’re free but we’re not. We imagine we’re complicit in how our world operates but we aren’t. We want to believe that if we’re law-abiding citizens minding our own business, we shouldn’t face trouble. But, no. We are still being spied upon. We can have our cash rendered useless with a mere four-hour warning. We can still have laws upturned at the whim of a new leader. The structure of our lives is no stronger than a house of cards.
I could collapse in anger. But tears of impotent rage are only poetic in novels and funny in films. In real life it’s tedious and perhaps even self-indulgent. When the basic framework of my days is rattled, it’s a good time to remind myself that everything is ephemeral anyway. Everything passes. What I often think is important is so often not, while I frequently overlook the things I can enjoy when I choose to.
If I meditated, this would be a good time to meditate. But since I don’t – now is a good time to crank up my favourite music. Now is a great time to go for a run. Now is the best time to crack open a bottle of beer. I have a whole crate of it to get through. Please join me.
‘Always forgive your enemies; nothing annoys them so much.’ — Oscar Wilde
I have no idea why Robbie Williams beckons, but I’ve been listening to Feel on a loop. A veritable loop. ‘Scare myself to death / That’s why I keep on running / Before I’ve arrived / I can see myself coming.’
Dive into an idyllic family holiday in the 1970s where troubling undercurrents bubble up to the surface with devastating results. Watch Death in the Gunj, masterfully directed by Konkana Sen Sharma.
Though no longer following a raw diet, I’ve kept Saskia Fraser’s brilliant recipe book, Raw Freedom. That’s how I was able to make my scrumptious tomato soup in one minute (also needed alongside said tomatoes and limp spring onion: black olives, olive oil, salt and oregano – all of which I thankfully had).