Exactly a year ago, on the night of 8th November 2016, I got a call from a friend, asking agitatedly, “Are you watching television?”
“Yes,” I replied, “A movie.”
“Movie?” My friend screamed, “Watch the news, you fool, the world is coming to an end!”
“What happened? Earthquake?” I saw visions of massive eruptions from Hollywood disaster movies! (But why do they all happen only in America?)
“No. Watch the news!” He cut the call hurriedly.
I switched to news – something I rarely do to preserve my sanity – and heard the Prime Minister announcing the details of demonetisation.
I interrupted the Wife, who was – and had been since long – gossiping on the phone with her friend. “How much cash do we have at home?” I asked her.
“Why? What do you plan to buy at this time of the night? And what happened to the movie?” She shot back and continued with her call without waiting for my answer.
“Please answer me. It’s extremely important!” I pleaded like only a long term husband can.
“One or two thousand rupees.”
“Sure? Nothing more hidden somewhere?” I asked.
“I don’t have enough to spend, how can I spare anything to hide?” She hit me an upper cut.
“Please confirm the exact amount, will you?” I persisted.
“Oh ok. I might have some five or six thousand. But I need them tomorrow.” She replied.
“They’ll be useless tomorrow!” I answered, but, taking it as yet another of my meaningless statements, she ignored me and continued with her chat and I switched back to the movie.
After some time, I got a call from a classmate who was in property business. Although I was surprised that he was calling me so late in the night, I didn’t say so, for he owed me some money and it’s never a good idea to offend one’s borrowers!
“Hi!” He said, rather chirpily. So, there hadn’t been a death in his family, I thought, relieved.
“Hello!” I replied, stifling a yawn.
“Are you home?” He asked.
“Yes,” I said, “Watching a movie.”
“Oh movie! Haha!” He seemed very pleased, as if it was going to benefit me like exercise or meditation. Before I could respond, he continued, “Interesting movie, I hope? But can I come over and interrupt you?”
“Now?” I asked, unable to hide my surprise.
“Yes. I have a little gift for you. And I also wanted to return your money – with interest.”
Then the penny dropped.
I am not usually good at clever replies, but somehow, I managed.
“Cheque or online transfer?” I enquired.
“What?” He asked.
“By cheque or by online transfer?” I repeated.
“Hello! Hello!!” He shouted. Suddenly he couldn’t hear me anymore and the call got cut and I silently thanked my friend for the warning.
In my lifetime, demonetisation has happened twice and on both occasions, it left me unaffected and bemused. In 2016, because I had no unaccounted money and in 1978, because I had absolutely no money!
At the time of first demonetisation, I was a student. When I read the news in the papers with photographs of the banned notes, I realised that it was the first time I had seen what a thousand rupee note looked like! Worse, I didn’t even know that five thousand and ten thousand rupee notes existed. The biggest note I had ever used was ten rupees and the largest I had seen was a hundred. To me, the hundred rupee note had seemed as delightful and beautiful as a butterfly and I remember being afraid to even touch it.
There was no concept of ‘pocket money’ in middle class households those days. Once in a while, if you did something special, your parents would give you a grand sum of ten rupees.
A ten rupee note could buy much joy though. As someone has said, “He who said ‘Money can’t buy happiness’, didn’t know where to shop.”
A movie ticket cost one rupee sixty five paise, which was one fifty for the ticket and fifteen paise as entertainment tax. Another rupee or two could get you a meal, a few rupees were kept aside and the remaining amount would go towards repaying old dues to various shopkeepers and more affluent friends. That repayment was my only form of investment – for the next loan!
In the tightly controlled, socialist economy of those days, there was nothing much to buy and no money to buy it with. Four wheelers were beyond the dreams of the middle class; it took years to get a two wheeler, and the only government owned telephone company took decades to provide a connection.
There was a craze for foreign made goods, which of course, were hard to find and terribly expensive, unless they were ‘Made in USA’.
If you are wondering which philanthropic manufacturer from the US was making huge sacrifices – like a tearful mother from Hindi films – to export inexpensive stuff to the shopping-starved buyers of India, this USA was Ulhasnagar Sindhi Association near Mumbai, as far away from North America as Mars is from the Moon.
There was no television, so the only means of entertainment, apart from the radio, was cinema.
So my only contact with the rich and riches was through films, and that too Hindi films. I didn’t understand English films (and I still don’t, without the aid of sub-titles); and Marathi films had no riches, neither in their stories, nor in their business. In fact – you are not going to believe it – in 1952, when the film ‘Lakhachi Goshta’ (The Story of A Lakh) was running at a cinema hall in Pune, the film’s hero, Raja Gosavi, was selling tickets at that very hall! It was only after the film became a success that he could afford to leave the job and pursue acting full time.
Salaries were so low those days that matrimonial advertisements would proudly proclaim in bold, that the groom had a ‘Four Figure Income’.
Even the dreaded dacoit Gabbar Singh in the movie ‘Sholay’ was rather proud that he had a reward of fifty thousand rupees on his head! Today’s criminal would probably hang his head in shame over such a paltry bounty.
Coming back to 2016, initially there was no cash and later there were only the two thousand rupee notes. So, once again I had to resort to borrowing and deferred payments, with some interesting experiences.
We were travelling out of town with a known cab driver on a regular route. There’s a little shack en-route, run by a matriarch with her son and daughter-in-law. We usually have lunch there, but since there was no cash, I asked only for tea. Surprised, she said, “Why only tea? No money? Don’t worry. That’s not important. Pay next time, but don’t go hungry.”
After we left, the cab driver said, “I have forty notes of hundred rupees from my Wife’s hidden treasure. You can take thirty of them. I don’t need so many. Return them when you can, no hurry.”
Contrast that with my regular fruit vendor who wears two gold chains and four rings.
I stood in front of him and asked, “Do you remember me?”
“Yes, of course!” He flashed his gold tooth.
“I don’t have cash. Can I pay you next time?” I asked.
He looked shocked and pained, as if I, then in my mid fifties, had asked for his teenage daughter’s hand in marriage.
“How’s that possible? How will a poor man run his business if…” I walked away mid sentence.
But the ultimate shocker came from a beggar kid on the street.
My car tyre punctured at a traffic signal, which that kid pointed out to me. He then helped me find a parking spot and assisted, unasked, in changing the tyre.
At the end of it, I wanted to tip him a little something, but all I had was a two thousand rupee note.
“I’m sorry, kid, I don’t have any change to pay you today. Next time, I promise.”
To my surprise, he wasn’t disappointed at all. “No problem Sir, give me the big note and I’ll get you change.” He said.
No matter what my Wife thinks of me, I wasn’t about to hand over two thousand rupees to a street kid, but couldn’t tell him so.
Sensing that, he said, “Otherwise you can transfer money to my mobile. I have all the apps. Which one do you have?”
I was ashamed to admit that I didn’t have any payment app on my mobile phone.
Luckily I found a crumpled fifty rupee note in my bag and was glad to pay him. Owing money to him would have really hurt – me more than him.
So, while the jury is still out, I personally haven’t yet been able to decide whether demonetisation was right or wrong.
© Avinash Chikte