On the night of November 8, we were at my grandparents’ house in Delhi and Hoshner was packing to leave for the Pushkar camel fair at 5am the next morning. Suddenly my grandfather, who watches DD News in Hindi, jumped up and made us all listen to Modi, not something we were necessarily excited about doing. As the implications of the PM’s words sunk in, we realised that Hoshner would be travelling without any money; the Rs. 6,000 he had in Rs. 500 notes were now rendered useless. As Rs. 100 rupee notes were collected from around the house, we went to the closest ATM. Only a few people were there, all feeling the same sense of bewilderment. When we left, we noticed the line outside had grown to about 20 people; the news had spread, Whatsapp messages started pouring in, InShorts was having a field day with headlines, and rumours began flying about.
With Rs. 2,000 collected from the house and Rs. 7,000 from the ATM, Hoshner left for Pushkar with his wallet stuffed. Four days later, he returned with stories of how people were trying to cheat others while exchanging old notes and how vendors were losing business. But despite that the mood in those initial days was positive, he said, people were open to this new idea and tried to stay upbeat in the face of crisis. Anything to root out the evil of black money seemed like a good idea to them. Foreign tourists, however, were plunged into a crisis without adequate means or information to deal with it.
Next, we set off to explore Punjab, the next state on our list. We had Rs. 9,000 in cash, all in Rs. 100 notes, and we were going to try and make it work. Our daily budget is Rs. 2,500 all inclusive, which we were going to cut down as much as possible and use a credit card wherever we could. This worked fine for hotels and trains, but not when buying street food or commuting via a bus or shared taxi. We managed about a week, staying with friends, booking hotels online, eating frugally and skipping a few sights. By week two, we were in Amritsar, the land of the stunning Golden Temple and amazing street food. There were lassi and kulchas and chole and kebabs to be had, all of which meant using cash. When we were down to Rs. 3,000, it was time to go to the bank or stand in line outside an ATM. With both of us being able to withdraw Rs. 2,000 each, we needed to do this only once every two to three days. We were in Amritsar, a big city with plenty of banks and ATMs.
But it turned out that almost all the ATMs were shut and banks were running out of cash within a few hours. We learned that some banks were keeping their ATMs shut and serving only their own customers inside the branch because money was scarce. For two days we stood in long queues for the ATMs that were open (mostly those of Punjab National Bank) and had the same intensely frustrating experience as others. Either the ATM ran out of money before we got to it, or it shut down in protest to being pawed too much. (On one occasion, we left the line to make it in time for the Wagah border ceremony.) We, along with countless others, couldn’t access our own money, all due to poor planning and bad execution by a government that didn’t seem to understand the realities on the ground. We were forced to forgo a couple of local meals and ate at the hotel (which we never like doing) and at the Golden Temple (which is free and wholesome, so we had no complaints there).
Out next stop was Nawapind Sardaran, a tiny village that’s a three-hour commute from Amritsar. A pedigreed Punjabi family was hosting us so we knew we’d not incur any major expenses except for the bus journey, which was Rs. 140 for a one-way ticket. After that we were going to pack our bags and head back to Delhi. With less than Rs. 2,000, it was too risky to get stuck in the middle of a small town with limited options. We would have to suspend the mission, the rediscovery of Punjab.
At the family’s sprawling 200-year-old mansion, we shared our troubles with the matriarch of the house. She was kind enough to let us use her car and take along the manager of the estate to go ATM hopping at the nearest town and to try and visit a bank where we had an account to withdraw money, without a cheque book. After a short drive through the town of Gurdaspur, we let go of the ATM plan because the lines outside were too long and went to the bank instead. Mercifully, the queue inside was comparatively short. It was here, based on the word of the estate manager and the fact that we were guests of the family, that the bank manager allowed us to withdraw our money using just a withdrawal slip with the relevant account details and ID proof. It took about an hour of waiting but we managed to get enough to keep travelling. We had it relatively easy, given the stories we’d heard, and we were grateful.
Perhaps this whole demonetisation exercise will be worth it one day, but we are yet to know the point of it all. The government seems to be grappling with it, the end game keeps changing, and we know that the average citizen on the road, despite the media accounts, has lost patience and is fed up. Times like these bring out the best and worst in people and we saw this every day. We saw people resorting to the barter system and heard stories of kindness among strangers. On the other hand, our hotel in Amritsar charged us a 17 per cent ‘fee’ for paying by card, not any legal government charge as they admitted. But we were forced to pay it, and it rankled. We haggled a little less with the auto drivers because as much as they are crooks even they were suffering with a decrease in customers. We managed to finish our Punjab adventure, by keeping a careful eye on our expenses, seeing fewer monuments, and living at more homestays than hotels. It was not the trip we would have liked but it was the best we got in these cashless times.