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Game On

Dealing with the new normal in India.

Being in India is never easy, it’s never calm, it’s never boring and it’s never without small and large daily frustrations, but this time India has almost defeated us. Almost. The rules of the game keep shifting.

We arrived in Mumbai on October 30 and parked our bags at a recently renovated small hotel in Marol. Our room had black mould growing on the walls. In the room across the hall, employees, standing on the bed, slapped a few gallons of oil paint over the creeping mould above the headboard and the eye-watering fumes leaked into our room via the ill-fitting door. Our expectations aren’t high when choosing a hotel in Mumbai. The moist, hot, sweaty climate, the price we pay for a room, and the area we choose to stay in are never a recipe for hotel nirvana. We dropped our bags, splashed water on our faces and dashed out of the hotel to hail a rickshaw, excited to meet Indu, her husband Akhilesh and their three-year-old daughter Aagya, at Chakra, our favourite restaurant; an outing arranged a few weeks ago through our many emails and WhatsApp chats. After months away, we were anxious to see them again in person, eat Chakra’s spicy, delicious, paneer tikka masala and find out what needs were the most pressing in the slum. Early the next morning we had an emotional reunion in the community and then got to work. Throughout the first week we wandered the streets of Saki Naka with Indu and some of the kids in tow, paying school fees and and taking breaks to rehydrate with sugar cane juice. We bought coloured paper, glue sticks and pencils to stock the tuition centre cupboard. We took Shushila, who had a whole body rash brought on by how she makes her living, (picking through heaping mounds of roadside trash searching for recyclables to feed her family) to a sweet doctor who refused to let us pay his consultation fee and wrote out a prescription for the medicine that would eventually heal her skin. We blithely walked up to ATM machines and entered our cards, listened to the familiar whir of the bank machine dispensing soiled rupee notes into our waiting hands and walked away content with the sum of money dispensed. A few days later we would look back on those carefree moments of taking money out of a bank machine, of actual cash in our hands, the relative ease of getting things done, as a fond memory of simpler times. Around 8 o’clock on November 8, Prime Minister Narendra Modi made a shocking, quite unbelievable announcement to the public. As of midnight that night all 500 ($10 CDN) and 1000 ($20 CDN) rupee notes would be demonitised making them worthless scraps of paper. Our phones rang, our WhatsApp chats with Mumbai friends intensified with gossip, guessing, and fear-mongering late into the night.

Karan holds the new 2000 rupee note.

Frustrations in the bank line-up.

There was a plan, the Prime Minister calmly and firmly told the public in a televised speech. We, and a billion shocked Indians sat in front of tv screens or gaped at our smart phone, mouths open in disbelief, as the government pulled 86% of available cash out of circulation, and then we scrambled to count our worthless rupees. We’d spent most of our recently withdrawn DWP cash on school fees and medicine so were relieved to have only 7000 rupees ($140 CDN) left. We were allowed to exchange up to 4000 rupees in old notes into new currency at a bank. Optimistic friends who have Indian bank accounts helped us change the remainder. The government had a plan to print new currency to replace the now defunct notes with a transition time to trade old notes at a bank. Everyone tried to grasp the meaning of such a shocking, provoking action and in the hours and days ahead tried to come to terms with constantly changing announcements regarding how to manage daily money needs. India is a cash-based society and now it was cash-less. Depending on the source of information, or the statistics thrown around, up to 98% of Indians use cash for everything they buy and consume. Only half of Indians have bank accounts and many workers (especially the poor who work as maids, drivers, garbage pickers) are paid in cash. Few of the poor in India have bank accounts; they have hiding spots for small amounts of cash doled out to them by the people they cook and clean for. There is chaos across the country and black humour has almost replaced black money. We line up at banks, as do millions of others, in haphazard lines that bulge out into traffic; bodies pushed together so tightly no one can slip between them, while anxiety, sweat and the fear of the bank or the ATM running out money fuels tension. It’s routine to see a piece of paper with “out of cash” scrawled in black ink taped to ATM machines all over the city. Many 24 hour ATM machines are never open. ATMs are configured to dispense only 2000 rupees ($20) per debit card, up to 4000 ($40) rupees a week. We wait patiently while the machine makes ticking noises, the screen changes colour, and we hope to hear the now coveted noise of one crisp 2000 rupee note slide out of the slot; a denomination no one can make change for because there isn’t enough money in circulation.

Todd, Ritesh and his grandmother at Seven Hills Hospital.

There is a promise that by December 30 the banks will be full of new notes, that life will return to normal, that we can all access our money whether from ATM’s or walking into a bank and withdrawing cash. For the poor who don’t have bank accounts, their employers will be able to once again pay them in cash. Locals are anxious, somewhat hopeful, begrudgingly tolerant of their government and resigned to Modi’s bold decision; part of his plan for a better India. While we wait for ATM machines to start dispensing money again, we must search for businesses that take foreign credit cards (many don’t) for our food and small daily purchases. When we run out of small bills for rickshaw rides we manage with Uber or walking, sadly passing by vendors with fruit and vegetable stalls and small shops where we used to make our purchases. Only four hours before Modi’s surprise, we paid a personal cash deposit on a rental apartment as well as the first month’s rent in cash as we have done every year . It was very lucky timing, as this deal depleted our stash of rupees that would no longer be legal tender only a few hours later. In the slum, bartering, goodwill and credit has taken the place of cash at the tiny shops that dot the laneways. The shop owners are starting to run out of product to fill their small shops because they don’t have cash to replenish stock. Every family in every slum home has had problems such as medical tests on hold, medicine unable to be purchased, rations denied because they don’t have cash or they only have a 2000 rupee bill that the vendor can’t change, and frustrations quickly turn into tension. These families live hand-to-mouth, few have savings and most rely on loans from relatives or slumlords to get their daily needs. Everyone’s supply of cash has dried up to a few rupees here and there but making-do is something this community manages every day. Life is absurdly difficult in slum communities and the current cash crunch has added a new frustration for the poor.

Noorsaba and Shailesh celebrate their birthdays.

The tuition centre (now located in Indu’s on-room home in the slum) is still filled with children and we have paper and crayon supplies to last for some time. We’ve managed to use our personal credit card at the fancy Seven Hills Hospital to pay for Krishna’s dental work, and an x-ray, a sonograph, blood tests and doctor’s fees for Ritesh who had a raging infection. We’ve celebrated the birthdays of Noorsaba, Shailesh, Nikita, Karan and Mohan with cake, chips and small gifts, and played intense, exiting games of Housie with small prizes for the winners. Rations have been doled out to a few desperate families. We’re having a Christmas party with the children at our apartment in a few days in lieu of taking them on an outing. The excitement is building, there will be cake and games and shouting. They are looking forward to Todd Sir’s toasted cheese and tomato sandwiches, fizzy drinks and chocolate candies. The thirty minute walk together from the community to our apartment building will require a lot of kid wrangling to keep them out of harm’s way on streets filled broken cement, large holes and chai wallahs while watching for speeding motorcycles going the wrong way and cars, buses and rickshaws swirling in and out of side streets. It will be happy mayhem and just what we all need. Using our credit card we’ll manage to buy supplies, a cake and small treats at a small supermarket nearby.

Playing Housie.

Despite the current currency debacle, it’s good, even exciting, to be back, to be part of this community, to visit with families every day and see the changes both good, bad, happy and sad that have taken place while we were away. Ranjana’s chai is still the best, the children we pay school fees for are doing well, there has been a bit of a building boom in one part of the community with all the gossip, strife and excitement that brings (slum lords, overflowing toilet blocks, neighbours fighting over space). There are new babies born in slum homes to strong women who face adversity with stoic resolve and courage in the face of dismal living conditions. I am always in awe of the women in Saki Naka. Some families have moved on, children have died, some families have prospered a little, and some have fallen into even more despair.

Shushila getting a blood test at a small clinic.

We’re amazed by the tolerance of the Indian public and their resigned willingness to accept or tolerate this outrageous move by Modi’s government, ostensibly waged to battle black money, corruption and terrorism funding while simultaneously encouraging the public to embrace e-commerce, a head-shaking proposal when millions of Indians don’t have bank accounts, smart phones, computers, or identification papers. Our fingers are crossed for the unrelenting currency chaos to end. The elephant god Ganesh (the remover of obstacles and God of luck), is our current hero while we wait for the day the ATM spits out enough money to resume paying school fees. Until then, we’ll colour, play games with the kids, continue to learn ABCs, make-do with what we have, drink a lot of chai with harried mothers sitting cross-legged in one-room homes, and use our credit card for emergency medical problems. In India anything is possible, almost.

Krishna’s Medical Bill:

(two teeth pulled/meds/x-rays/doctor fees) 7435 rupees ($148.70 Cdn)

Ritesh’s Medical Bill:

(sonogram/x-ray/meds/doctor fees) 2670 rupees ($53.40 Cdn)

Sushila’s Medical Bill:

(meds/blood test/ 1277 rupees ($25.54 Cdn)

Taskin’s Medical Bill:

(doctor’s fee) 500 rupees ($10.00 Cdn)

Rations (Reeta/Nirmala): 1200 rupees ($24.00 Cdn)

Sister Adorers’ Girls Home:

(tuitions donation) 6000 rupees ($120.00 Cdn)

Tuition Supplies: 1670 rupees ($33.40 Cdn)

Birthday Parties per child:

(up to 40 kids in attendance)

(cake/gift/chips/candy) 500 rupees ($10.00 Cdn)

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