Dussera is a big holiday here in this part of India when people travel home to see family. In that way a bit like Thanksgiving is in the USA. People also buy new clothes at this time. The clothes shops give extra discounts to entice you to part with your money in the period between Dussera and Diwali holidays. Everyone spends and everyone moves. Consequently the trains are full, the roads are crowded, and the ATMs are empty. I completely misjudged it this year and was left without money for 6 whole days!
Ok I slightly exaggerate, slightly. I got down as far as having 60 Rupees in my hand! That’s less than £1 GBP. Remember that here no one uses plastic. I’ve not seen a credit card, or a shop with a EFTPOS swipe facility in all the time I have been here. Cash is king!
My little experience of surviving without cash for 6 days shows just how great people are in rallying round. First it should be said that I always had a back up. My neighbourhood grocer has in the past stood me my shopping when the local ATM has been out of action when the electricity supply has been off, so I always had a fall back position of a quiet word in the friendly ears with Kieran Kumar!
The first nice reaction from people happened mid holiday period. Mr P volunteered to lend me some cash to tie me over. Considering we have a “Don’t ask, don’t be refused” sign in the office regarding salary advances, I thought this was really nice personal gesture. So that got me restocked up with a few item like eggs, cooking oil, milk, cereal, etc That was on Wednesday 5th. I raided my store cupboard, cooked up eggs, tomato khadjura, lentils and beans and kept my last tin of tuna for a treat.
The holiday started on Sunday 2nd and continued through Friday 7th. On Saturday morning my sabzi walla re appeared and I sent her away saying come back on Monday. She came on Sunday! I had been hopeful of the ATMs being restocked on the Saturday or Sunday, but alas no such joy . I had to explain to her that I had no money ‘gote såptahå sabu dina rupee kichi nahi’ seemed to work, when I tried to explain that was why I sent her away the previous day, she got a fit of the giggles and started jabbering away in her mix of Telugu and Oriya, the jist of which I understood to be I should take my vegetables and pay her later! Amazing! In the end I raided the pennies jar and counted out the 1 and 2 rupee coins that collect there and paid her 3 Rupees short!
Onto Monday afternoon and my office colleague, who had also been doing the rounds of the ATMs looking for money, said he saw a queue at one on his way into the office. Later that evening, Sanjay and I set of on the office motor cycle to see if we can find a working ATM. 3 ATMs later, we found a queue of 6 people waiting at the railway station ATM. An optimistic sign I reckon! By the time I had my turn, the queue behind me had grown to another 8-10 people: clearly word of a working, stocked ATM travels fast!
Those 6 transactions in front of me took about 30 minutes. The first 2 passed of without hitch and I didn’t really notice the time ticking by, it was a really nice cool evening to be outside. Then it was the turn of a tall man in a yellow Tshirt . It was clearly not at his usual ATM, he was reading every instruction closely and was having a problem with his card. Now let me explain how ATM booths work in India. Everyone crowds into the booth - there’s no standing waiting respectfully outside when you conduct your financial transactions in private. No, this is India, everyone gets inside! But in such circumstances as this, folks are even keener to see what is going on and why this man’s transaction is taking so long. No one complains, indeed lots of advice is offered – ‘pull the card out more quickly’, ‘give it a wipe clean’ etc But this time it is all to no avail.
The next guy tries his card just to prove the machine is still functioning. It takes forever to print out his receipt but he gets his money, a few hundred rupees. It is now my turn. I tell yellow Tshirt to try again. Still no luck and he gives up. I step up the the ochy! Everything goes smoothly until I tell it how much I want. It sits there processing my request for what seems like an eternity. Again the advice comes from the folks at my rear. ‘Cancel it’, ‘it's got stuck’, ‘Try again’. I hear sounds of “card problem” further behind me from way outside the booth. More advice form inside the booth. ‘No don’t cancel, wait, the light’s on, its going to print’. The bleeping starts. Finally an ‘Unable to proceed’ with my request message appears !!! Ah Ha I think, I asked for too much money. I half what I initially asked for and me and my entourage wait again. Money arrives, then the long wait on the receipt again. Everyone is amazingly patient.
Sanjay and I start to head back to the office. We are about half way when we run out of petrol! Luckily we are fairly near the petrol pump. Again as we are determining exactly what is wrong with the bike several people collect to see what is going on, and to offer advice on the clutch, on how to wiggle the bike to get the last drop out of the tank! After getting us moving again we just stall a little further on. We give up. I walk and Sanjay pushes the motor bike the last 5 minutes to the refill point. We joke about how funny it would be if their was no petrol! In a town used to having no power, and no good road, it takes having no money in its strides, but no petrol would be a joke too far!
Eventually around 9PM I got back home. The whole house was already locked down for the night. Just as I was locking up my own door, out comes my landlady’s daughter carry shopping bags. They had been to market. Realising I had no money they had bought me some fruits and some mushrooms with the expectation of me paying for them when the ATMs had cash.
Aren’t people just great! Thank you everyone!