Things have changed so much in the last ten years that I feel like a Neanderthal sometimes, explaining to wide-eyed young things about import restrictions and Permit Raj (R knows this at first hand, much more than I do, of course), and the politics of scarcity and such. The particular aspect of the past that popped into my head last night, as I waited for sleep, was this:

We have ATMs now – we didn’t when I arrived here – but when I need cash I call the bank and they send someone around with bundles of notes. I specify whether I need 500s, 100s, 50s. They used to provide 20s and 10s, but they don’t anymore. (One rupee notes don’t exist anymore, and fives are scarce – they’ve become coins. My mother-in-law kept a dish of coins to give to beggars outside the temple, and a lot were left after she died, including 1- 2- 5- 10- and 20- paise coins. None of them exist now. I liked the 2 paise coins especially – circles with scalloped edges. The 5 paise coins were square; all made of some dinky metal, very light… Just to get rid of them, I took most of them to a Barista one day and paid for my coffee with them, and everyone gathered round and oohed and aahed until I wondered if I had made a mistake. They gave me a free cup of cappuccino, too.)

Ahem. So when these notes would come, they would be held together on one side by a large, heavy staple, put there by the bank. The first thing you would have to do when you wanted to spend one, was to pry open the two ends of the staple and struggle to disengage the note(s) from the bundle without destroying them. If you looked at the side of an older note you could see a lacework of holes, as the notes repeatedly returned to banks and were sent out again. I developed a technique of prying open the staple with a metal letter opener, grasping two halves of the bundle in two hands and wrenching the whole thing apart, but stopped after the time I destroyed half a bundle of 50 rupee notes. The other way, if the notes were old and thin, and the staple was particularly cruel, was to open the staple but leave it in the bundle, carry the bundle in your purse, and pry the notes away one by one in the shop. And cut your finger on the staple ends in the bargain.

When you hand someone cash, especially if it’s at a small shop or stand, the shopkeeper will inspect the note carefully – if there is a slight tear or disfiguration, you will likely get it back. Though the same person will happily give you change in bills which consist of two halves taped together. Then you argue, and s/he shrugs, or grins sheepishly and takes it back…

Anyway, now the bundles of notes come wrapped neatly in paper, and there are no more staple holes. Things have become so easy now, mes enfants, that I thought I should tell you about the wild old days, when we were young.

(There's a picture of the Indian coins at Joel's Coins - page down to the last image.)


lekhni said...

Staples were not so long ago, weren't they? And the first note in the bundle would also have some numbers written on it (some count, I guess).

Having grown up in India, I always worry about using slightly torn notes in the US, even though everyone accepts them without batting an eyelid :)

Lucy said...

Funny how small inconveniences become picturesque and nostalgic when they disappear!