Last week began on a reassuringly predictable note. We continued to be apoplectic over the killer smog that was choking the bejeesus out of the National Capital Region. We exchanged horrified notes on PM 2.5 levels that were skyrocketing away. We counted the metaphorical cigarettes we were supposed to be smoking just by breathing the foul air. “What was the government doing, dammit,” we fumed in unison, as we headed out to stock up on air purifiers and face masks.
While at it, most "look West" urban Indians got ready to follow the results of the US Presidential elections. Was it going to be Donald Trump, whose rhetoric of racism, misogyny and xenophobia was quite as toxic as Delhi’s air? Or, would it be the staid old Hillary Clinton who came with her monochrome pantsuits and her mystifying email scandal? We seemed as interested in the outcome of the contest as the average American.
Which, of course, was totally anti-national on our part.
So, anyway, there we were chinwagging about pollution (Delhi’s) and politics (America’s) on the evening of 8 November when Prime Minister Narendra Modi issued a sharp rap on our collective knuckles and swung our attention back to stuff that matters.
Forcing English news channels to ditch their wall-to-wall coverage of the US elections, the PM informed the nation that in just four hours, old notes of Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 would be rendered worthless. This was being done to put a spanner in the works of black money hoarders, we were told. And, we would be able to exchange our old, defunct currency for new notes when the banks open a day later.
It was a masterstroke — a surgical strike on black money — we, the tax-deducted-at-source people, trilled. Then we went rummaging in our wallets to see how much legit currency we had with us.
The outrage over untrammelled pollution vanished. Fickle as we are, the talk shifted at once from PM 2.5 to just PM, the slayer of the corrupt. Trump won, but we barely noticed. Were there soldiers dying in cross-border firing? Perhaps. But there were more pressing concerns now. You needed to pay the plumber who just fixed a blocked drain. And you were down to your last Rs 370 that would pass muster. Plus, you had to arrange cash for an elderly parent who refuses to use a credit or a debit card.
In the week since banks and ATMs reopened, the jury has been out on whether the demonetisation move is a financial masterstroke or a hasty, ill-thought political gambit. Small businesses have been cruelly squeezed, the cash-only rural economy shot. At last count, 47 people have collapsed and died while standing in interminable queues before banks and ATMs in the hope of withdrawing some money or getting some exchanged.
But, hey, I’m not complaining. Let the financial whizzes figure out how this will benefit — or bedevil — the Indian economy. I have to report that BJP spokesperson GVL Narasimha Rao was onto something when he said on a television show on Sunday, “This has brought the nation together.”
Indeed, it has. You thought death was a great leveller? Well, demonetisation comes pretty close. Standing in a serpentine queue at a bank or an ATM to pick up a bit of your own hard earned money, you’ve probably bonded with more strangers than you ever have in your life. It’s heartwarming to stand (for hours) in solidarity with this sudden, nationwide crisis, trying to clear each other’s befuddlement over government notifications that change quicker than mountain weather.
You can exchange Rs 4,000 in old Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 rupee notes. No, no, that’s been raised to Rs 4,500. Sure, but if you do that now, you’ll be inked! So you don’t come back and change money again — even if it is your own. And, wait, today’s bulletin is after 18 November, you can exchange only an amount of Rs 2,000 in those old notes.
Oh, and don’t forget, if you’re a farmer you can now withdraw Rs 25,000 per week against crop loan/Kisan Credit Card. And if you have a wedding in the family, the government, in its stunning munificence, will allow you to access Rs 2.5 lakh of your own money in cash.
Also, if that bright, new-minted Rs 2,000 note is running colour and you’ve been staring at it open-mouthed, pray close it forthwith. Economic affairs secretary Shaktikanta Das has averred, “It is supposed to bleed colour.” In fact, be very worried, if your brand new note is not bleeding like a stuck pig. It means it’s probably a fake.
Clearly, along with this hard lesson in making sacrifices for the good of the nation, we’re also learning to adapt quickly to this fast changing environment. Which is good news — because it means we aren’t endangered yet.
Besides, if the nation does go to war (as some nation lovers were vociferously advocating in the aftermath of the Uri attack), this experience of having to line up for rationed money would have been invaluable. After this, lining up for food rations during wartime would be a breeze.
Sceptics might be seeing red, but do consider the blessings of demonetisation. In the last one week, one has received the undivided attention of multiple sales people at a near-empty mall outlets. One has had the good fortune of being bumped up from a vanilla anti-national to a vile black money hoarder by Twitter trolls who will not brook the slightest criticism of the government. Last, but certainly not the least, one has finally discovered the joys of money laundering — the pure, unbounded joy of finding a scrunched but intact hundred rupee note in the pocket of a laundered shirt.
As the wise folks in the government keep telling us, there is no gain without a bit of pain.
The author tweets @ShumaRaha