I gave him a comparably crisp note, a flawless one this time; and suppressed the urgent question I often feel like asking and sometimes have: Why will a note with blemishes not do? People’s responses are varied: some grin, as if, like a child, I’ve gone straight to the heart of the matter without any understanding of what it is that makes our lives what they are: complex and sometimes opaque. Others, with downcast eyes, pretend not to hear; they are helpless – silent adherents to a law that only a fool or a saint or a foreigner would have no inkling of.
What was the next sensible step, though? Would I have to go to a bank, in the near-forty-degree-Celsius brunt of the morning, and return this note for another one? Instead, I had a cappuccino at one of those coffee shop chains, where the note changed hands without comment or scrutiny or judgement. Maybe the thin, placatory young man (little more than a teenager) hadn’t seen the tear, which was almost invisible unless you shook the note. On the other hand, he’d noticed it, but both he and the chain he worked for and for that matter the coffee he served represented a new order, to which the physical state of the bank note had suddenly become irrelevant. This development had occurred belatedly, unevenly, but it’s possible to hazard a guess and say it has occurred, at least in some enclaves of the rapidly changing metropolis we now inhabit. The only other party in Calcutta that will accept a damaged-looking note occupies an axis opposite to the one the coffee chain represents: I mean the much-resented parking attendant. This ghost of the license raj, darkened and attenuated by exposure to the elements, but impelled by a sudden breathless energy that can make him cover half the length of a street in seconds, knows the money he collects from the car isn’t seen as a legitimate fee at all, but as gratuitous commission. Though he’s seldom tested – because the imprimatur of the state clings to him like a faint film – he’s aware he has little authority. He will accept any kind of note at all, new or aged or tattered. He represents the rarely but oddly accommodating nature of the old order; of how it’s based on a mixture of complicity, mistrust, and mutual understanding – a DNA of co-operation that’s changing, but hasn’t gone away.
The realisation that the physical condition of a bank note is unimportant came to me in my years in England – not in a flash of light, but over time, semi-conscious, semi-attentive, as ragged five- or ten-pound notes, a few even rescued by a simple and firm band of Sellotape, changed hands without a word. At some point, nations made the transition from coins – which, in their weight, their detailed, minted appearance, the longevity for which they’d been designed, seemed to contain the value they represented – to notes, which no one could confuse for having any value at all. There lay the paradox of money as we’ve understood it – why the world abounds in it, and why so little of it’s available. To ascribe value to a piece of paper is, of course, to be part of a contract, as well as to be involved in a willing suspension of disbelief. The sheer literal worthlessness of the frayed note makes its symbolic value transcendental and near-indestructible. In India, though, this isn’t the case. The symbolic worth of the note is almost overwhelmed by its physical, worldly incarnation, and by the loose but inescapable aesthetic guidelines that inform our scrutiny. As the torn, perishable note threatens to fall apart, so does the value it represents; in this, it almost becomes indistinguishable from the commodities in the market it was assigned to purchase. Only yesterday, I heard my mother, taking out a fatigued-looking twenty-rupee note from her purse, complain, ‘Where does he get them from?’, referring to the driver of her car. She was speaking of the note as it were a vegetable or a fruit the driver had brought back home; it had begun to wither; it lacked freshness.
This leads me to the other mystery in our daily lives related to the monetary: the curiously perennial shortage of change. Give a five-hundred rupee note to a shopkeeper (it used to be a hundred-rupee one) and he will close ranks, his expression give away nothing and everything. Then there’s the inscrutable, sly, adamant refusal to part with coins, leading to the swift, across-the-counter, yogic calculations peculiar to Indians; for instance, if, on being presented with a bill for sixty two rupees, you were to give the shopkeeper a hundred rupees, he will say, ‘Do you have two rupees?’ This is the default query; if you don’t have two rupees, it results in a mixture of accusatory silence and introspection. And who can forget those pregnant moments in taxis our lives expand to make room for, when the driver, having been handed a large note, first rummages tiredly in one pocket, then another, then takes out a carefully folded wad and looks at it in the half-light? Then the coins appear in one palm; money is broken into smaller and smaller units because you had no change; almost a minute passes in the heat, and nothing happens. This is when you might wonder where all the change goes; what causes this constant paucity; why we all hoard coins and notes of smaller denominations, and lie about not possessing change even when we have it in our wallets; that the paucity doesn’t even necessarily have anything to do with the general or literal or metaphorical lack of wealth in circulation.
The poet C P Surendran once gave me an insight, in Delhi, into why the situation as we know it exists. We’d arrived in Khan Market late in the morning; we had to pay the fare; not a single auto driver, though, among the line of autos parked in the front, could give us change for a hundred rupees. My old puzzlement came back: ‘How can not one of them have the money?’ C P said: ‘These people don’t bring the last day’s earnings when they return to work. They begin each day afresh.’ And this was the first time someone had said something illuminating to me on the subject, and opened my eyes to the most common sort of employee around us: the daily wage-earner. This person goes back home at night, possibly having spent part of his money on beedis, gutka, or drink, possibly giving some of it to the family, or part to an employer to whom he owes a species of mortgage. The next day he’s back, like a migrant, to whom the business of livelihood is old and inevitable, but to whom money is always new. He could be anywhere. Having money doesn’t mean owning it; it means to relentlessly make or break the makeshift rules of exchange. Change isn’t hoarded for the purposes of saving or spending, but because it constantly needs to be earned. Others, in the salaried middle classes, or in trade or business, have to deal with this person in their own manner: by outwitting or outwaiting him, or – what’s more common – by mimicking him.