It’s 4.a.m when the iron shutters lining a dark alleyway are pulled up. The taxi driver and his associate usher me inside and pull the shutter down behind me. Inside, a black money market is operating, a few shady men lit up by the dim glow of computer screens where green letters and numbers fly up an appropriately black screen.
But ‘The Wolf of Wall Street’ this is not. It’s my first taste of Mumbai and the Indian cash crisis.
Instinct screams, “No, this is the wrong kind of trouble, leave,” but it’s the middle of the night in an unknown neighbourhood and I’ve come directly from the airport with all of my possessions – cards, passport, laptop, phone, both bags – on my person. I’m already in too deep, and the shutter is closed anyway, the air of the room loaded with something that wouldn’t admit to being threat but couldn’t deny it under oath.
You could count my options on your fingers if you didn’t have hands. Negotiations begin. Welcome to India.
An enigma, a mystery and a puzzle find themselves in a blender. The blades whirl to life. The elements erupt. The result is India. A contradiction clothed in a conundrum. Capricious, captivating. Bipolar, polarizing. Hugely frustrating, incredibly rewarding.
Love and hate, it’s been said, are just two sides of the same coin, a statement that’s never been more accurate than here, for a myriad of reasons.
It’s impossibly dynamic and diverse, as you’d expect of such land mass and approximately 1.3 billion people. To contextualise that, the population of India alone is a only few clicks below the whole of Europe, the USA and South America combined. As a result, stereotypes and generalisations simply can’t apply; you’d have a better chance covering the Taj Mahal with a pocket square. In the same way no-one would expect consistent comparisons between Arkansas and California or Ireland and Macedonia, or even between all four with Caracas and Montevideo thrown in for good measure, how could you possibly compare Goa with West Bengal?
I’ve written before about places coming alive in their contradictions, and it’s never been more relevant than to India.
Sacred spiritualism and modern materialism vie for attention. At the right time in the afternoon you’ll witness this literally, a billboard stemming from the contemporary streak of voyeuristic vanity, one of the infinite advertisements for phones that take ‘the perfect selfie’, will cast a shadow over a yoga retreat, a Hindi temple, an ashram, a colourfully robed pilgrim. And in this itself, more: many consider even Gandhi, who I thought to be bulletproof in his universal reverence, a traitor to the Hindu religion.
In Mumbai particularly, staggering, obscene wealth gushes mere metres away from awful poverty. It’s caused a growing division between the rich and poor, and they don’t appear to be doing anything about it. If anything it’s growing. The bridge the once crossed it, the middle class, was tenuous enough anyway, and with that class apparently crumbling the discord is rocketing skywards. Forget lines in the sand and the idea of washing it away with positive changes, this is a wall, another row of bricks on top each day.
A salient example? In 2002, Salman Khan, a Bollywood megastar (everpresent on the Top 10 Rich Lists of actors worldwide), ran over a bunch of people when driving home drunk, killing one. Despite indisputable evidence, we’re talking double, triple the O.J. Simpson case, a series of lengthy hold-ups while the actor remained in his prime meant the case wasn’t heard until 2015. Khan was initially found guilty. He immediately appealed and was exonerated of all charges within days, having remained out of prison on bail the whole time.
Why? Firstly, the people he hit were homeless. Secondly, and probably most importantly, according the trade analysts, it’s estimated Bollywood would have lost $30 million in Khan’s absence. The obscenely wealthy and famous here have absolute impunity. It’s a turn off to say the least.
Moreover, every single Bollywood song and film seems to revolve around a guy chasing a girl, complete with overtly sexual dance numbers, but the most you’ll see in terms of physical consummation is a holding of hands. If they lean in to kiss, the camera pans up before lips can meet, and despite the limerence, flirtation, the sheer soaring thrill and freedom of the chase depicted across all their entertainment, arranged marriage is still prevalent. It’s such an antiquated concept, yet while dwindling, it’s still more common than not, even for many of my friends who live otherwise very Westernized lives.
Everywhere you go, everything you hear and see, the contradictions mount.
Back to the cash crisis.
The official word is that Prime Minister Narenda Modi told five advisors of his plan in a room on November 8th. The five remained locked in that room while Modi sought permission from the President, Pranab Mukherjee. Permission was granted, and the media were immediately assembled to make the shock announcement that the 500 and 1000 rupee notes (the equivalent of £5 and £10) were cancelled, effective immediately. These notes make up 86% of the currency. People were given until December 30th to exchange the notes for the new 2000 rupee notes at a maximum of 4000 rupees a day (though on November 24th this was effectively cancelled), with the only other option to submit the cash into their bank accounts, where it would remain legitimate.
To understand this, you need to know this is a country where 90% of transactions occur in cash and the worth of the ‘black money’ economy is estimated to be greater than the actual economy. I’ve heard multiple estimates – between 1% and 50% (likely towards the top end) – of people who possess a bank account, and approximately 300 million people have no official identity with the government or elsewhere. Staggering statistics, the kind that means India loses billions yearly on unpaid income tax.
Those are the facts, so what’s the reality?
ATM queues snaking in and out of banks, hours long in time, most machines only distributing 100 rupee notes. Without the capacity for more, this meant (presuming they didn’t break mid-flow, weren’t already broken or were already empty with no indication of when they’d be refilled, which was usually the case) the scarcity of money barely covered a few percent of Indians and fellow backpackers alike. Having arrived and immediately headed down to Goa (after those few unsettling hours in Mumbai, more on this soon) on November 14th, the disarray took the paradoxical shape of a calm hysteria; you’d queue for three to four hours a day and be considered extremely lucky to access just 2000 rupees, the limit per card.
Some backpackers fled for calmer shores, yet generally, this sense of positivity. ATM queues became a bizarre social hub for travellers and interacting with locals. The locals, in the vast majority poor and beyond, displayed a truly inspiring sense of community. The patience, the resilience, falling back on one another for help, looking after friends’ kids when others were forced to miss work to queue, cooking for each other, sharing cash. There was frustration obviously, but though it’s incomparable to London in that we live our economic lives electronically, it never reached anywhere near the sheer outrage I’d expected had such a situation occurred in England.
Further to that, the reception for Modi’s overnight policy had been met with unanimous acclaim amongst these very people. Short-term strife, fine, the long-term gains of superseding the black economy far outweigh the temporary disorder.
One of the main issues created was the lack of small change, should you access one of the newly created 2000 rupee notes. The chasm between the 100 and 2000 rupee notes meant stalls and restaurants wouldn’t accept the new 2000 notes as they simply didn’t have enough 100s to give back to you. Funnily enough, most were more willing to accept the old notes than the new 2000s.
These complications were inevitable, I thought, but it was only when I reached Mumbai I learned they were unexpectedly bursting with irony.
In Mumbai, those in the know explained the elite criminals have Swiss bank accounts or their cash is all tied up in untouchable assets anyway, while those in the tier below were warned months in advance of the ‘sudden, secret announcement’. Not an exact date, just a simple “get your cash affairs in order, quickly.”
So how did all the big time criminals know about it in time to have any stray piles of 500 and 1000 notes laundered? The labyrinthine and comprehensive networks of corruption, insiders and pay-offs are just too substantial. Benevolence and legality is easily circumvented.
Sure, some mid-level criminals without the sufficient connections were caught out, leading to some amusing stories of people burning piles of cash, perhaps with a wry smile as they thought of the criminal deity Pablo Escobar doing exactly the same 25 or so years ago. Less romantic, mind, when unknown and insignificant as opposed to being highest on the podium most wanted lists worldwide, but beyond that, more successful and ethically questionable tales. The Bihar politician who spent the equivalent of millions of dollars of the imminently worthless cash on jewellery in one day. People purchasing multiple properties across India worth many more millions of dollars up front, in cash, across a week. Diamonds, property, technology, whatever – converting cash with a sell-by-date into assets is the priority of this wild game before the 500 and 1000 notes become extinct on December 30th, with those selling gambling on the prospect of being able to profit from converting the cash into legitimate tender before the deadline. Works if you’re rich, but if you’re poor?
Like every major political deviation, it’s the poor who get hit the hardest. They’re steadfast in backing the decision, saying it’s definitely for the best in the long run, but maybe that’s a naïve and idealistic view, a view that assumes every major criminal will be caught in its net, which any realist knows is extraordinarily optimistic.
It’s only the middle-class and rich who are sceptical. The economic experts, in India and overseas, meanwhile, are even more damning. The irony kills me.
Back on that first night at 4.a.m in Mumbai, negotiations begin with me taking out my phone and photographing everyone in sight followed by a panoramic video. Still very much on the back foot, just slightly less so.
The deal is for me to transfer them 23,000 rupees via debit card and receive 20,000 rupees in cash for it, at a loss of approaching £40. Having come from Azerbaijan, I hadn’t been focused on the news, but at this stage, as a man is counting out twenty 1000 notes for me, I remember glimpsing a headline about the cancellation of banknotes here. I’m in the process of illegally buying cash that was at that stage, as far as I knew, inoperative.
I know what I’m doing is wrong, but out of options, I carry on anyway, briefly thankful when one of the gentler looking criminals takes pity on me and exchanges one of my notes for ten legitimate 100 rupee notes. A minor consolation, but I’m more distracted by the fact I have a flight to catch, coupled with the burning desire to get as far away from here as possible. The transaction is completed, I make various hollow threats about sharing the photos and videos I’d taken with the police (should the notes be fake versions of soon-to-be obsolete notes, in a strange scenario) whilst standing tall and deliberately close over the ringleader. I grab my main bag, which I’d kept in my eyeline throughout, and leave with the taxi driver and his associate.
I was swerving down a road named ‘bad.’ Miraculously, I managed to perform a handbrake turn and veered off down a road marked ‘worse.’
Because what kind of taxi driver operates with a co-pilot?
Multiple stops follow, with both men on the phone, refusing to answer my questions, men who know I have a lot of cash and all of my possessions with me. Panic begins to curl inside me. Robbery, kidnapping, or something beyond my imagination are the only, screaming thoughts.
Swallowing down the trepidation with rationality, I explain they’ll both receive 1000 rupees if I’m at the domestic airport within fifteen minutes.
They oblige. At first. Another unexplained stop and more phone calls follow. The streets are barren, not another taxi or rickshaw in sight, just the unwelcoming amber glow of the street lights illuminating dirty streets and my own sense of peril.
And then, some luck. Glancing ahead, a sign indicates the domestic airport is only a kilometre away.
I grab both bags, open the door and start running.
A minute later, I slow to a fast walk down the left lane of the road when I have the welcoming lights of the airport terminal within sight. Then, the taxi pulls up beside me again.
“Sir, our health!” They beg. “We are very sick!”
Already shaking with anger, this is the point at which I run at the taxi (difficult and probably rather comedic to do/see with two rucksacks on) and kick the side of it, enough to leave a pleasing dent, before grabbing the nearest of the pair and letting them know, in a tone that gives no room for misinterpretation, that there is nothing wrong with their health but I’d be overjoyed at the prospect of helping them out on that front.
I walk on. They don’t follow, more on account of the increasing amount of people around as I near the airport than my threats, I suspect. I reach the airport and find a seat, trembling with a concoction of anger (mostly at myself, for being stupid enough to get in a taxi with two people in the first place) and relief.
I ended up telling most of the people I met that I’d acquired the old currency in Azerbaijan airport, mainly because I was embarrassed that I’d got myself into such a stupid situation, so I guess this is a confession of sorts. I also never paid the taxi drivers, though admittedly that’s more a celebration than a confession.
Thankfully, resisting the weak consideration of just leaving on the next flight further east, I fly to Goa and a truly wonderful month begins.
A few weeks later, having swirled through the Goa nightlife, more incongruities become apparent.
Kerala is easily one of the most educated states in India, the origin of many of the doctors and nurses you’ll find in Australia, New Zealand and the United Kingdom, and yet there’s a severe drinking problem, connected to a skyrocketing suicide rate including instances of mass suicides by farmers, that has led to semi-prohibition.
I didn’t understand how it could be that bad until I queued at one of the few remaining off licenses. People earning around 800 rupees a day, maximum, were blowing the vast majority of that on hooch. Why weren’t they at work anyway, you think, before you’re interrupted by another man begging you to buy him anything alcoholic. It’s necessitated the off license being a prison-like cage structure. You shuffle through an iron alley that isn’t wide enough for your shoulders then speak through a tiny square hole in a mesh fence to place your order. It’s the closest I’ve ever felt to being incarcerated.
If it’s not the alcohol cage, it’s the cage of pollution – the burning of crops and litter by the roadside spoiling such breathtakingly beautiful locations. Rivers of green. Train tracks streaking through jungles. Palm trees, beaches, the red cliffs of Varkala, the houseboats of Alleppey, the European backstreets of Kochi, just incredible scenery everywhere, until you’re slammed into the contrast of the alcohol cage, and that’s before you consider the perennial haze hanging above Mumbai, the constant fog of smoke in New Delhi.
This may appear to be a negative post, and maybe it is, to some extent, as it’s so exasperating to see a country unable to harness its limitless potential, but I’ve met some truly incredible people here, made some wonderful memories and just felt it so much more than you do in more tempered, sterile, diluted, consistent countries – the chaotic energy, the alacrity, this visceral, vivid vivacity.
It also comes with the disclaimer that this is an incredibly limited perspective given I was never more than about 20 miles from the west coast. Once you go north and understand the inherent racism, traditions and systems, things I haven’t even touched upon, the contradictions, contrasts and complexities will only grow.
You can’t help but being persistently suspicious of being scammed (my relationship with Mumbai taxi drivers didn’t improve upon my return), but the dodgiest looking folk reveal themselves to be the most gregarious, going out of their way to help you.
It often feels like running with your eyes closed, but the exhilaration aspect of the analogy rises above the fear of impact. Challenges and complications, trials and tribulations, they only added an energetic edge to an otherwise hugely hospitable and compassionate place.
A couple of weeks have passed since I left the chaos behind me. With the space for reason that time and distance offers, thoughts are gathered, a better-rounded view forms.
The more I toss that two-sided coin, the more it lands ‘love’.
Photo Credits (Other Than My Own): Pranshu Rathi, Mehedi Hossain Onik, Ganesh Dhamodkar, Stock News USA, the abominable Jonty Lovell and the wonderful Julie Healy