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Photo: Indranil Bhoumik/Mint
Photo: Indranil Bhoumik/Mint

Letter from... a line

Currency woes, human kindness and conversations at banks

One of the early lessons you get from being a journalist in India is to survive with little or no money. Things may have changed a bit these days but over a decade ago, it was not unusual for those starting on in the profession to be struggling constantly to make ends meet. Some waited through this process of “building character", others just quit and got an MBA.

This skill, though, comes in useful after the government’s so-called demonetization—replacing currency notes—made cash scarce or difficult to access. You also notice then what’s unique to this country—generosity, empathy and trust.

People buy and sell things on credit, based on the faith of familiarity. A bank down the road puts out plastic chairs for waiting people to sit on, offering them tea. Vendors agree easily to take money “later". A taxi driver recounts how on the first night after, a customer gave him Rs500 for a trip costing Rs312 because she didn’t want him to use his precious change.

But you manage to stretch your existing currency only up to a point and then you need some. The lines outside banks during the day worry you, so you trawl the streets at night like Batman, looking for an empty, functioning ATM. Obviously, you are not the only one with the idea. 

Last weekend, while walking past an ATM well past bedtime, you become suspicious. Post 9 November 2016, an empty ATM usually means it’s “out of order" or “sookha (dry)" as a guard once tells you. This ATM looks empty, has lights on, shutters up and no guard. As you walk in guardedly, three people in a queue stare back at you. 

“This ATM is working?" you ask.

“Yes," says one.

“As in it’s giving out currency?"


“Are you sure?"


That stroke of luck gives you fuel for another five days, before an impending outstation trip requires another visit to a place most of the country is beginning to dread—the bank. A “contact" in the bank suggests you go early, before they open at 9.30am. Being Indian, you are half an hour late, but by 10am there are already about 15 people waiting outside—which under the circumstances, you are told, is not much.

But soon after, the branch manager comes out to announce that there would be no cash exchange because there is no cash. Only deposits and withdrawals are allowed here. Over 85% of the people waiting leave, grumbling, cursing, despondent, frustrated. Some plead with the manager, who remains firm.

“Are you open for withdrawals and deposits?" a woman asks in English. Yes, she is let in. 

A few ask which other bank they could go to. Some just walk a few metres away under the tree and wait, hopeful of a sudden influx of cash that would lead to the bank welcoming them with pink notes.

You are prepared for the worst, thanks to your pessimism in dealing with agencies that require things in triplicate. You carry all possible forms and cards of identification and address proofs, including your mother’s birth certificate, the neighbour’s electricity bill and the parking ticket from last week. 

The manager patiently answers questions, which are repeated by almost every customer—on documentation, on amounts they could withdraw, on which counter to wait in.

“I need to stand in a line?" asks one.

“Who qualifies as a senior citizen?" questions another.

“Do you have a copying machine?" inquires one.

“Can you make this coffee Irish?" you want to ask.

One gentleman tries to hold a place in two queues—he will finish work at one counter and then join the other in the middle. You wonder if he has someone holding a place for him in another bank as well.

Queues are an alien concept to your countrymen—why stand behind another when you can stand next to them? People bunch up near the counter, each pushing a hand in, spying into the other’s transaction, invading privacy and space.

Those who wait retain their sense of humour—aided by the comfort of the air-conditioning and the relatively small numbers. I have lost weight walking from one bank to the other, jokes one. Another mentions how some schoolboys photocopied a Rs2,000 note and used it in a shop. Another calls up his employer, for whom he has been holding a place in the line.

The shopkeeper next door with the photocopying machine points out the irony of the situation. A week ago, his shop was empty of customers, who had no cash to spend. Now, he does great business.

The initial euphoria, among those who have nothing to hide, is beginning to fade a bit, worn out by the waiting, the uncertainty and, perhaps, by the colour of the new Rs2,000 note—reminding of how your money used to look after playing Holi.

And you hope, in the future, that it was all worth the pain.

Letter From... is Mint on Sunday’s antidote to boring editor’s columns. Each week, one of our editors—Sidin Vadukut in London and Arun Janardhan in Mumbai—will send dispatches on places, people and institutions that are worth ruminating about on the weekend. 

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