At the end of my Wednesday afternoon yoga lesson, I presented a blue 500-rupee note to Masterji as usual. He took out a tan-colored 100 from his desk drawer, and paused.
“Have you got change for the autorickshaw?” he asked, eyebrows lifting in an expression of grandfatherly concern. “You should not be paying those rascals any more than 30 rupees – 40 only if they take the ring road!”
I knew Masterji was probably right, but 30 rupees still felt like an impossibly small amount of money to pay for the half-hour ride in the little three-wheeled tuk-tuk, or autorickshaw, from my neighbourhood in Bangalore to Masterji‘s place. After all, 50 rupees was only the equivalent of a dollar. That was one reason I had such a hard time bargaining with the drivers. Whether they detected my own vague guilt at „exploiting“ them or simply my lack of familiarity with the system, they were usually the ones to make a final offer in our transactions.
But I was too embarrassed to tell Masterji I had never paid less than 60 rupees one way. Instead, I showed him I had no change in my wallet, only a few other large notes.
“Come,” he said, unfolding his legs from a lotus position and rising fluidly from the chair, very much in the mode of a yoga guru.
Exhorting his other students to keep up their efforts in his absence – the asthmatic boy doing knee-bends, the overweight housewives rolling back and forth on their bellies – Masterji led me out of his rooftop yoga studio and down a steep set of winding metal stairs into the interior of his home. In a spare bedroom, next to a computer reposing under a dust cover, he took out a metal box. When he opened the lid, I had to stifle a gasp at the contents. It was full of change. From peach-colored tens and red twenties to the less commonly encountered, violet-tinted 50, Masterji had such a large hoard of small bills that I wondered briefly whether he alone might be responsible for the shortage of change I had been experiencing on a daily basis since coming to Bangalore.
Six months into my stay, I experienced nearly every variation of the change problem. No matter if I was trying to buy a cup of tea from a roadside chaiwallah or a bar of soap from an air-conditioned „departmental store“ at the mall, big bills had proven to be chronic deal breakers. The mere sight of them struck even the most loquacious and head-bobbling “Yes, yes, no problem, madam!” sort of merchant into a dull, aphasic stare. Cashiers tended to freeze in apprehension, shake their heads and sigh before opening a register drawer that was already full of other large notes. The clerks at my local grocery store had sometimes resorted to giving me change out of their own pockets. At the ubiquitous little stalls that sold a bit of everything – mini-sachets of shampoo, single cigarettes, cookies from a glass jar – I had, on occasion, been given my change in candy or even cough drops.
All the tongue-clucking and other sounds of exasperation that were triggered by holding out a one- or five-hundred rupee note made me feel as though I had transgressed against an unspoken local custom. But until I saw Masterji‘s stash of small bills, I didn‘t understand that it was because you could not just expect that more change would be available in the world “out there.” Instead, you were supposed to hold on to what you had.
Previously, I’d assumed that the Indian economy in general and money in particular worked the same way as in the West: one of those public utilities, like water, power, or the sewage system, that are as available and reliable as the air we breathe, and just as invisible in its workings. The analogy was unexpectedly apt. In the same way that the electricity went out during the hottest part of the day and the water tap sometimes produced only dry hissing, the supply of rupees was also a shared resource prone to sudden shortfalls.
In a country of one-billion-plus, there wasn’t enough of anything to go around, and that distorted the way economics was supposed to work. Whereas in the States, money was the soil upon which intangible ideas, dreams and desires took root and blossomed into material objects or experiences such as movie tickets, cell phones or a meal at a fashionable restaurant, this process seemed to turn back in on itself in India. During my stay in Bangalore and New Delhi in the mid-2000s, for example, there were a number of stories in the local media about criminal coin-melting operations in the eastern part of the country. The modus operandi of these gangs was to melt down huge quantities of steel 1-rupee coins, recast them as razor blades, and sell them over the border in Bangladesh for several times their original value.
Economies where coins have a greater value as metal than as money would be considered pre-modern by definition, and almost certainly unable to participate in the global economy of the 21st century as we know it, where most commerce is conducted on the basis of data or other digital equivalents rather than in specie. Yet India enjoyed a prominent role among other “emerging economies” in global trade while I was there from 2005-2007, and throughout the rest of the decade. Middle-class Indians were investing en masse in the stock market, real estate and other things whose worth relied on an abstract consensus of value. However, those same people were, like Masterji, simultaneously building up stockpiles of cash in their own homes the same way they filled up their own private water tanks from the municipal water line.
Masterji was a skilful hoarder, and I now appreciated his resourcefulness in that regard. Like one of the big software companies I had followed in my previous life as an IT industry analyst – software companies being the great Indian success story of the time — Masterji‘s relentless acquisition strategy had given him a competitive position in the market.
He fanned out an array of crisp tens and twenties.
„Where did you get these?“ I couldn‘t help asking.
The normal condition of most ten and twenty-rupee bills was less like paper than soiled, over-rubbed velvet. As the smallest banknotes that could buy something reasonably substantial, on the order of a newspaper, a pack of gum, or a cold drink, they were handled so frequently and so thoroughly (often emerging from people‘s clothing or shoes at the time of payment) that they also degraded fast. Despite the change shortage, some bills were even rejected outright by merchants. Yet it was rarely the notes I would have guessed might be refused, such as bills that had been taped together or had a lacy pattern of holes in the middle. For me this was confusing enough in itself, and it compounded the overall currency supply problem further. What was “good” small change? And how did people get a reliable supply of it?
Masterji chuckled. “I sent my wife to the bank yesterday.”
I found this hard to believe.
“Madam, hello, please come!”
Standing in front of his shop in the main market, Rehman called out to me. He was wearing his usual outfit (in fact, the only pair of clothes I had ever seen him in): a blue polo shirt, a pair of grey trousers and black sandals he would step out of when he came to my apartment to drop off a new 10-liter jug of bottled water. I walked over to his little shop: called „Dew Drops,“ it sold cold drinks, ice cream, long-distance phone calls, time on the internet and a variety of desktop publishing services. Its crammed interior felt cozy to me. Often when Rehman saw me walk past, he would beckon me over with an invitation to drink tea. I was only too glad to accept. The moment I slipped inside the dim shop, I escaped the spotlight of stares and giggling that followed me everywhere, and could become a spectator instead, watching the housewives, hawkers, school kids, delivery vans, motorcycles and cows all going about their ambling business in the market. Usually tea with Rehman didn’t involve conversation. I just took my place on the bench alongside the men in untucked shirts and loose trousers who seemed to be as much permanent fixtures of Dew Drops as the phone booth, ice cream freezer, and copy machines, and we all sat in silence, sipping our hot chai. Today, however, Rehman had a question.
“Madam, you are from America, isn’t it?”
“I want to know what is your largest currency note.”
Rehman was a youthful guy, with an open, affable face and a high giggle that punctuated his conversation, but this didn’t feel like the set-up to a joke. Nor was it like the questions I had gotten about the United States from other people. On previous occasions, Indians had asked me whether there were monkeys in America, if everyone owned a car, and why people had voted for George Bush. I could answer most of those questions. But this one had me stumped. Our largest currency note? I had no idea. My official reason for leaving the States was framed as an escape from the rat race, though for me this had been less a struggle to escape the stresses of working and spending than to understand the purpose of „paying my dues“ in the system. But still, money is the one thing we Americans are supposed to have factual knowledge about, especially our own money — so I decided to bluff.
“A $500 bill,” I ventured.
“Not one million?”
“Oh no!“ I laughed with relief. “Definitely not a million.”
Rehman looked puzzled. “But my friend, he was gifted a one million dollar note, from America!”
“That’s not possible,” I said.
“Madam, I have seen it!”
Rehman fixed his gaze on me. Indicted by my own ignorance, I tried to think of other possibilities, however improbable. “Was it small and green, or very large – like a poster?” I held my arms open wide. (Could his friend have won a lottery of the sort that involves a giant mock-up check?)
“There is a certificate. I will get copies,“ he said. He turned to move off, and then turned back. „Like to have tea?“ he asked belatedly.
I went to my accustomed spot on the bench. The men already sitting there shifted to make room for me.
A barefoot little boy appeared, carrying a tray of plastic cups of tea. I reached out for one, pondering Rehman‘s question. Was there any way this could be real? I wondered. A million-dollar bill seemed a very unlikely proposition. But then he seemed so sure of himself.
“Can I see the photocopies?” I asked.
Rehman waggled his head. “I am just bringing them.”
Edging past the row of tea-drinkers on the bench, Rehman made his way over to his sole employee, a guy in tight trousers and slicked-back hair, who seemed to spend all his time chatting on Instant Messenger. Rehman leaned in to his employee’s ear, and the guy got up from his station, taking a set of keys from the desk. Dragging out a dented grey scooter from the forest of other scooters, motorbikes and bicycles that grew up in front of the shops in the market every afternoon, he kicked it into life and sped off.
When he returned a short time later, he gave Rehman a large plastic envelope.
Smiling, Rehman took out a sheaf of papers. “There, madam, you see?” he said, handing them to me.
The first sheet was a stamped and sealed attestation which stated that his friend, the proprietor of a Muslim charity near Mysore, had not stolen, coerced or obtained by any other fraudulent means the donation in question. Then came a series of documents setting out the organization’s legal basis as a charity. Finally there was a photocopy, a certificate of authenticity, and the name and address of the donor in Florida.
The photocopy showed an engraved typeface reading ONE MILLION US DOLLARS along the bottom edge. A large image of the Statue of Liberty on the front occupied the center position of the note, where a President normally presided. And on the back was a statement saying: “This certificate is backed and secured only by confidence in the American dream.” The accompanying certificate announced, “This document confers membership in the Millionaire’s Club.”
When I read that, my stomach did a sick flip-flop. I kept looking at the certificate so I didn‘t have to meet Rehman’s eyes. What kind of person would send a fake million-dollar bill to a charity in India? Was this Florida resident the sort of bitter old man who might hand wads of Monopoly money to homeless people just so he could rasp, “Go get yourself a nice place on Boardwalk”? Had he searched out a Muslim charity to send his little Trojan horse on purpose?
Or was it possible to attribute a less mean-spirited motive to my fellow American, a kind of lazy charity? Maybe for him, a millionaire’s club membership was like a bag of old clothing he thought he could donate to people in the Third World, the joke-money equivalent of t-shirts and track pants.
Suddenly Rehman blurted out his real concern. “What I am thinking is how to deposit so much of money without government taking a tax. It would be a very high rate – at least 30 percent! And my friend says if I can find a way of doing without tax he will give me 20 lakhs as reward. I am hardly sleeping the last two nights, thinking what I will do with 20 lakhs!” he grinned.
Twenty lakhs was two million rupees (about forty thousand dollars at the time). In Rehman‘s mind, he had already joined the millionaire‘s club. And although I didn’t know him well, I could imagine the kinds of windfall fantasies that were keeping him up at night: some of the money would go to pay off the loan he’d taken to buy a color copier for his shop in hopes it would increase business; some would be added as a supplement to the remittances he already sent to his family in Bangladesh; while the largest portion would probably be set aside for the many-many things, from bangles and sari fabric to the security deposit on a larger apartment, needed to entice the pretty girl he’d met online (whose laminated picture he showed everyone) into becoming his fiancée.
I handed him back the papers. There was no good way to break the news. “Rehman, this is not real,” I said.
“What?” his brow furrowed.
“It’s just for fun – see here,“ I said, pointing to the line about the American dream. “Not backed by the American government.”
He said nothing for a moment as his millionaire dreams changed back into the more familiar shape of his everyday worries. Then his grin returned. “Oho, wait until I tell my friend!” he giggled. “I will tell him he must wash your feet and then drink the water!”
I bit my lip, unable to smile back. I hoped it really wasn’t a big deal for Rehman. As for me, I felt personally implicated by the fake note – maybe even exposed. If the bill was counterfeit, then so, by extension, was the American dream that backed it.
And wasn’t that the real reason I was in India?