I dimly remember the days when my money was mine.
(Published on November 26, 2016 in Business Standard)
I have trouble flying—hate it, avoid it. But if your country is going through demonetisation hell, and you’re among the privileged, it’s your duty to not clog up ATM lines unnecessarily. It’s your duty not to stress small businesses by buying on credit (except cigarettes, because, hello). It’s your duty to damn well get on a plane and visit family in a foreign country that feels like home in that there, too, your money is useless.
It’s been 16 years since I was last in Hong Kong, and I’d forgotten how awesome it is. Mountains and sea! Public transport! Dumplings, beef, sesame oil! Gorgeous skyline! Roadworks with no dust or rubble! (This is how you know you’re from Delhi.) But what really blew my mind was the overwhelming banality of cash.
Strike me dead if I’m making this up: Everywhere I looked, people were just whipping money out of their pockets and spending it, as if they had some kind of reliable supply. They behaved as if their government couldn’t possibly say, “We take back the promise printed on the money, it’s all junk except for petrol stati—hospi—seeds for farmers, until November 24—29—December 31—oops, November 24, okay just watch this space and see if you can keep up, because we can’t, terrorism national interest surgical strike masterstroke.” Seeing cash brought up chaotic, disjointed memories of a previous life, and made me anxious and sweaty.
The Peak and harbour are beautiful, but the most spellbinding thing is that when Hong Kongers say, “I’m going to the bank/ATM, back in five”, they mean five minutes, not hours. They just leave home, without even packing water, biscuits, books and a tent. My sister told me that she enters her bank without queuing, wrestling an armed guard, and shouting at the manager while waving a fake wedding invitation card. She said to please not let my mouth hang open like that. Most amazingly, you can withdraw as much of your own money as you like. I’m told the government and reserve bank don’t impose an arbitrary, changeable withdrawal cap based on their favourite sun sign that day. People’s blithe, free access to their own money brought tears to my eyes, and gave me restless dreams.
Back in Delhi after these confusing few days, the PM was crying and laughing, not in a good way. He conducted a poll on public sentiment that made the public laugh and cry, also not in a good way. The Finance minister said both that a) demonetisation is going brilliantly, and b) it’s the Opposition’s fault. The changing rules no longer matter, because nobody can keep them straight, and discretion has taken over. Nobody can find the RBI governor, though my cousin spotted a haunted-looking man bearing an uncanny resemblance to him, dressed as wait staff in a restaurant.
Trauma shrinks expectations. I pack my water, biscuits, books and tent, and take my place in the queues. Every time I get close, cash runs out. But deserted shops, the unnatural abundance of parking spots, my dry bank, the empty ATMs—this entire gigantic shitstorm is now more real and easier to process than Hong Kong’s rash trust in stability.
It’s important, when dealing with trauma, to come to terms with what happened to you, instead of repressing it. To relax, creep under the bed next to where everyone now keeps legal currency, take out your plastic, and stroke it by the light of your smartphone while gibbering openly.
Meanwhile, I now owe the cigarette guy and the kathi rolls guy. But I’m sure that, as patriots, they don’t care, and ticked ‘Brilliant’ on the PM’s poll.