Ranibala Goswami grasped the black iron bars with her shaking hands and peered through her bifocals at the young female clerk sitting at the computer behind the glass wall.
“Is there any money left Miss?” Ranibala asked in a soft tone, like the one she used when speaking to her eight year old granddaughter, Shreya.
“I can only offer you two thousand rupees Mrs. Goswami,” the clerk said looking at the old woman’s identification card.
“That will have to do,” Ranibala said with a sigh. She took out the small black coin purse from her sweater pocket, picked out four five hundred rupee notes and slid them through the circular opening of the glass wall. She went through the process of providing her fingerprints and registering her Aadhaar card as proof that she had exchanged her old notes for new ones. Just that morning her oldest son, Biju, had told her that the banks would only allow a person to exchange money once. “Whatever identification you provide will be registered in the bank’s computer system. The system is tracking every bank’s customers so that a person doesn’t exchange their old notes for new ones more than once. No one can cheat the system, not even people working at the bank.”
“Here you go,” the clerk said putting a new bill through the small hole. “Next!”
Ranibala quickly took the thin note with the number two thousand written in black and stepped aside to look at the piece of paper carefully. The fresh note was pink and shiny, reminding her of the money in the board game, Monopoly, which her younger son had sent for Shreya’s birthday last year. While Biju worked at the ticket counter of the Indian Railways, Rishi worked as a computer engineer in America, in a city called Chicago. He had married his co-worker, Linda, in a small church wedding two weeks ago as she was a devout Catholic. But Linda had studied Hinduism in college and had plenty of Indian friends.
“She wants to practice both religions Ma,” Rishi explained to her over the phone a few nights ago. “We’re coming to Kolkata to spend Thanksgiving.”
She wanted to ask Rishi what kind of holiday this was but the beep on the phone indicated there was only five seconds left on the calling card. “See you soon Rishi.”
The next morning Biju turned on the television and a message from the prime minister ignited hostility from most households in India.
“The prime minister’s demonetization plan will weed out black money from our country,” said the news reporter.
“They needed to give us more time. Think of all the chaos this is going to bring!” Biju’s wife, Aparna said.
“What’s black money?” Shreya asked reaching for the remote. She really wanted to watch Chota Bheem, her favorite cartoon.
“It’s money that isn’t original. It’s fake money, like in your Monopoly, except it looks real and lots of bad people use it to get what they want,” Biju said counting the bills in his wallet. “Most of what we have are five hundred and one thousand rupee notes at home.”
“I have almost nine hundred in one hundred and fifty rupee bills,” Aparna said sitting down on the sofa.
“There should be a magic potion you can use to pour over money so that you can tell if it’s real or not,” Shreya said. Fake money sounded serious and because she didn’t want to get yelled at for changing the channel, she dropped the remote on the sofa.
Ranibala remembered the events of that morning on the tenth of November. It was like a nightmare. Where would they get the money to pay their electricity, their cable, their internet and Thanksgiving? Whatever the holiday was, it sounded important and she didn’t want to disappoint her foreign daughter-in-law. What would Linda think of India?
Her throat felt dry and heat crawled up her back, settling down into her neck and shoulders. She felt heavy all of a sudden and she realized she was falling down very slowly.
“Hey somebody catch her!” Ranibala heard a woman’s voice cry out. When she opened her eyes she realized her head was resting on someone’s thigh. She looked up and saw that it was a security guard.
“Can you sit up?” He asked, holding her shoulders. Ranibala nodded, placed her hands on the tiled floor and slowly brought herself up. The guard held his purple water bottle to her mouth. She drank the whole bottle, feeling much better than before.
“It’s a good thing my wife always packs two water bottles for me,” the guard chuckled as he helped Ranibala stand on her feet. “Here, sit before you walk again. You shouldn’t have come alone,” he said looking at her. “Is there somebody I can call to come for you?” The guard asked while taking out his mobile from his front pocket.
“Aparna, my daughter-in-law,” Ranibala said, giving him Aparna’s mobile number.
“Ma, I’ll be there in fifteen minutes,” Aparna said over the phone.
Ranibala sat quietly and waited for Aparna. She watched countless lines of people take a simultaneous step forward, the movement of the lines resembling much like that of an octopus’s tentacles.
“Baba, I’ve decided to post my opinion about this demonetization on Facebook,” Jaya, Biju’s oldest daughter, announced sitting down next to Ranibala at the dining table.
“I want to hear it,” Ranibala said placing a hand on Jaya’s head.
Jaya cleared her throat, straightened her back and focused on the handwritten page in front of her.
“I, Jaya Goswami, am a class XII student aspiring to be a doctor because I want to help people overcome their physical suffering. I want to discover new medicine and conduct cutting-edge research to help make the world a better place. Yet sometime after midnight on 9 November 2016, all of that changed. I awoke to a different world: 500 and 1000 rupee notes were no longer an acceptable form of currency and every single person in India would need to exchange these old notes for new 500 and 2000 rupee notes at their bank.
People are standing at the bank in lines extending to the street. Men and women of all ages are getting sick. In the paper yesterday I read about a father who had gone to the bank to exchange money. After standing for nearly eight hours in the sun, he had a heart attack and died. Is death the only escape in this money crisis? If I was a doctor right now, what treatment would I prescribe? What medicine would alleviate the mental torture that every individual is facing now?
I have an answer but I doubt you will like it: First, stop worrying and second, start thinking. I’ll accept a sneer, the turn of your back as you ignore me and walk away and then as you take your place in one of the endless lines that resemble tentacles from an unheard of sea creature (which an octopus wouldn’t even confront if it were suddenly to surface on land), you’ll start breaking up my answer into something useful.
I know my answer is primitive, childish and not the answer to everyone’s misery. But maybe it can be for some, thus spreading some waves of peace among people, regardless of caste, religion, gender or economic background in the midst of this currency dilemma. My mom always taught me to look for the good no matter how bad the situation. However, it would be imprudent of me to think of the good in the various atrocities that happen in the world over.
Why don’t the banks have numbered colored chips that are handed out by bank employees at a makeshift counter at the entrance at the bank? This way people can camp out with chairs, small rugs and food. Free bio-toilets should be installed. Apart from the great currency exchange that is causing physical and mental torture (and even in some instances, death), the long waiting in line on your two feet is what is causing the problem.
My family and I’ve adjusted our habits as well. I’ve cut off cable TV and fancy packaged food for the cheaper atta. I’m also not going out with friends or riding my scooter. I’ve realized that the two thousand rupees my father came home with yesterday can buy a lot of food. Therefore, I’m doing my part by cutting out things I want but don’t need. I don’t want my parents to get sick or heed an early death. I’m changing my attitude towards this upheaval. My friend and I are taking turns standing in line.
Since there’s no cable TV, I have lots of free time that I’m using to study more. I’m also walking more to save on petrol. I think at the start of the New Year, I’ll be a better person because of it. I’m thinking of the great currency exchange as a chance for making resolutions before the start of the New Year. Of course I’m going to recharge my cable subscription and start riding my scooter again, but the ‘out with the black money and bring in the new money’ endeavor has made me look at every rupee I spent. A lesson learned: To not waste what you have just because you have it.” Jaya finished reading, folding her paper.
“It’s good of you to express your opinion Jaya, I don’t know if anyone will listen or take up your advice, but at least it will be something for people to read as they stand in line waiting their turn at the bank counter. It’ll keep them busy and take their mind off of their aching feet,” Aparna said, handing a bag of potatoes to Biju. “Right now the only vegetables we’re buying are cabbage, potatoes and onions. They’re the cheapest. Even though cauliflower is cheap, it needs a lot of oil, so no cauliflower until our economy regains normalcy.”
“Go ahead and post it. And see if your uncle has posted on Facebook about his arrival time at Kolkata's DumDum Airport tomorrow. They’ll come in a taxi but I want us to give him and your new auntie a warm welcome,” Biju said cutting the first potato.
Linda closed the taxi door and leaned her head back on the upholstered seat.
“I’m sorry Linda to bring you in the middle of this money crisis in India,” Rishi said placing a kiss on her cheek.
“It’s not your fault Rishi, I don’t think anyone speculated the huge impact demonetization would have on every individual.”
“Look, my niece posted on Facebook,” he said handing her his phone.
Linda took her time to read the post and decided she would get along with her new husband’s family.
“I hope your grandmother likes me, I’m very anxious to meet her.” She smiled and laid her head down on Rishi’s shoulder for a quick nap.
“Welcome Linda,” Aparna said spreading out her arms.
“Thank you, I’m so happy to meet you,” Linda said embracing her sister-in-law.
Behind Aparna sat an old woman in an off-white sari. She wore large black-framed glasses and had a large mole on her chin.
“Namaskar Thakuma,” Linda said, touching Ranibala’s feet. She had watched her Indian friends do this exact same gesture many times when their grandparents came to visit them in America.
“Linda is always surprising me with how much she knows our culture,” Rishi said, touching Ranibala’s feet. “How are you Thakuma?”
“Bhalo, bhalo, khuub bhalo. Oh, I mean good, good, very good,” Ranibala said, smiling at Linda.
“We’re all khuub bhalo Thakuma!” Linda said and enjoyed getting to know each member of Rishi’s family.
“Linda, what is this Thanksgiving?” Ranibala asked, now feeling comfortable with her new daughter-in-law.
“Thanksgiving is a holiday celebrated in America in remembrance of the Native Americans who helped the first voyagers who came from Europe in hopes of living a better life. When the Europeans arrived, they didn’t know how to survive in the new land and the Native Americans showed them how to build shelter and how to fetch food. The Europeans then organized a large feast with their new friends to show thanks for all they had done for them. The feast consisted of roasted turkey, mashed potatoes, gravy, cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie. We celebrate Thanksgiving on the last Thursday of November.”
The Goswami family listened and thought, and remained quiet until Shreya spoke up.
“But today is the last Thursday of November and we only have mashed potatoes!”
Ranibala felt embarrassed and didn’t know what to say.
“We have Indian food Linda, but nothing like what you are describing. I’m afraid you may not like our dinner,” Aparna said, looking at Biju.
“Currently the banks aren’t able to satisfy the needs of their customers. Most of us are just spending the amount that we can get on food,” Biju said after noticing his mother looking down at her feet. “It is temporary though, until the government can bring in more new notes.”
“I know what India is going through. I read Jaya’s Facebook post on my ride to your house. And that is why today is more special than all the Thanksgivings I’ve experienced so far. Today is a day for giving thanks for what you have, not for regretting what you could have had if you had more money.”
“Mama made rice, mashed potatoes, egg curry and lentil soup,” Shreya said with a frown. Linda kissed Shreya’s forehead and smiled. She rose from her seat beside Shreya and sat down next to Ranibala. “Please don’t be embarrassed Thakuma. Thanksgiving is about being with family and appreciating what you have.”
At the dining table, Ranibala poured the lentil soup into the mound of white rice on her plate, slowly mixing them with her fingers. She suddenly remembered the spoon sitting to the right of her plate. But it was too late. She had already raised the rice to her mouth. She looked up, her eyes locking with Linda’s eyes, and both let out a laugh. They were the only two at the table eating without their spoons.
Thanksgiving, Ranibala had decided, was a wonderful holiday after all.