When I was last in India, Modi had surgically struck the nation with his demonetisation policy. In one cool sweep he effectively side-tracked Indians from monitoring the US elections to monitoring their spending. Since then demonetisation has taken a life of its own with supporters on either side; The for sena and The against brigade.
NRI’s in the US were also worried about the rupees they had brought back with them. They wondered what to do with the now defunct currency. The lucky few who made it back to India before December celebrated but there are many who have kissed their notesgoodbye. Stories abound on just how difficult this entire scheme has been. A friend of mine came to India in mid-January and tried to return his money at the customs counter on arrival. He was given a form where he had to painstakingly write down the serial number of each of the old Rs 500 and Rs 1000 notes he planned to return. After he went through the homework, the customs officer did not bother checking whether he had noted it correctly claiming it was not his issue.
If my friend cared to exchange his money, it was his call to make sure he made the right entries. The officer simply stamped the form. However, when my friend tried to take the form and reclaim his rupees at the bank the following day, he was informed there are only four banks in India that accept the old currency. He had to make tracks to Mumbai and exchange it at the Reserve Bank. Luckily a business trip to Mumbai meant he got a chance to finally redeem his currency. Much to his chagrin, the RBI refused his request. They said they would willingly accept the old notes but were no longer refunding the value with current notes.
Effectively, his notes were now monopoly money: valueless. His amount did not break the bank, but many others had much larger sums of money they had to forfeit. The lines of NRI’s trying to change money was quite long and each of them was turned away completely disheartened and disappointed.
Meanwhile, daily life has been dramatically altered. Under my watch I have come across a few instances. A friend who runs a retail clothing store, was upset because her tailor has decided to shut shop. He could no longer work with her because she could not pay him cash. He preferred to take his business elsewhere than to take a cheque payment from her.
Recently I had to order flowers but the credit card machine was out of order. Lucky for me, I still have enough creditworthiness that the order was accepted in lieu of me returning the next day with a cheque. Generally, without change, no one seems willing to accept cash payment. I happen to have been stuck a few times without a car and had to depend on rickshaws. That meant I needed enough small currency notes. The hunt for change has almost become farcical. In fact, while visiting the Biennale at Empress Garden, the parking attendant refused to break a Rs 100 note. My driver was categorically told to go find change. Luckily he had some small change and so we got by. Prices of things seem to have gone up too and where I paid with small notes previously, I seem to be paying in multiples of 100 now.
Talking about the Biennale, I am impressed at how Pune is coming into the big league. We have the film festival, dance festivals, a Lit-fest and now this Art festival. In between work and shopping, I decided to check out the exhibits closest to me. Having been to Kochi, I was expecting something similar but was disappointed. I guess it is unfair to compare Pune with Kochi but my disappointment was less about the caliber of the exhibits and more from an organisational viewpoint. Many exhibits did not have information about them. Much of the English is grammatically incorrect and a number of the information blurbs were handwritten and not printed. At Empress Garden many of the descriptions had just flown off the panels. Some were lying on the ground and had not even been put back. Others were missing entirely. All of them were muddy and dusty. A simple laminate or plastic folder would have protected the paper and they needed to be clipped on rather than stuck with two-way tape.
The place seemed desolate. It would have been nice to have some volunteer who could have explained the exhibits. At both places, there were people sitting at tables who were totally disinterested in my presence. One of them wanted me to fill a feedback form and the other did not even look up as I walked past. If there were printed maps on the exhibition space, I was unaware because none were offered. I guess it is the end of the Biennale but if it began with a bang, it seems to be ending with a whimper. Maybe I chose to go to the wrong centres, but regardless of whether they were big or small centres, popular or not, each of them needed to be given their own importance. Having said that, some of the art work was incredibly innovative. Interesting how so many themes revolved around demonetisation. It surprised me many people I spoke to in Pune had not even bothered attending or even heard of it.
Makes me wonder how the Biennale was publicized. Even people who attended Kochi, did not attend Pune. There is a lot of planning that goes into making such a show viable and while I was impressed at the effort taken, it seems they stumbled at the finish line. Since these are early days the teething problems should be sorted. My hope is the organizers take the next Biennale a few notches higher.
My week rounded up with a fun morning spent at Art Mandai where a number of senior Pune artists mingled with the bhaaji sellers and displayed as well as sold their art work for Rs 1000 and under. The proceeds will help improve the iconic heritage building of the Mandai. However, the best part of the event was the artists had change to give purchasers. Demonetization did not deter these creative minds.