Festooned with a dazzling array of technological gadgetry including precision photometers, meticulous mass analyzers, thermal imaging devices, multi-spectral cameras and glitzy gas sensors, a shiny new spacecraft elegantly entered Martian orbit in late September 2014. Intended as a tiny baby step in planning for future interplanetary travel, the first attempt for this rapidly developing democracy is a ship that would likely enthuse my demanding satellite specialist friend, Kevin Ginley, if indeed it is possible to excite him with anything not involving Fairport Convention (the auld English folk band). By most standards, the astronomical mission execution was flawless and it cost less than a run-of-the-mill Adam Sandler B Movie, such as 50 First Dates.
Launched by the Indian Space Research Organization the spacecraft is named Mangalyaan, from the Sanskrit combination of “Mars” and “craft.” So proud is the hopeful Indian nation that, among other things, they commemorated this memorable celestial event by featuring the launch on the new 2,000 Rupee note. Probably, much of the Indian population is not familiar with their country’s new spaceship, and likewise the 2,000 Rupee bill, which at $35, is twice the average daily wage: Comparable to a hypothetical $200 bill in the States. However, since November 8th, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi suddenly banned the 500 and 1,000 Rupee denominations, many Indians and others have had to become very familiar with their purple-hued, two-large Mangalyaan. So too have the tourists.
Now, the very popular President Modi was merely following up on one of his tough election promises to carve out a huge black chunk out of India’s economy, which is estimated to be over 20% of GDP (Gross Domestic Product). He did this by suddenly delegitimizing the very popular 500 and 1,000 Rupee bills, and on Wednesday November 9th, these were all but worthless: No longer legal tender—as useful as a Zimbabwean Two Billion Dollar note. So that certainly made some inroads into the ill-gotten, under-the-counter, black marketeering crowd. All the Samosa-stained black money stashed away in tatty suitcases inside and outside of the country no longer had value. Brilliant said the pundits; he sure stopped the criminals in their stride.
However, for the rest of us it was a real pain in the arse. Firstly, any 500 and 1,000 bills in our possession were instantaneously worthless, and secondly, legal tender now consisted of scarce 100 Rupee bills and plentiful purple 2,000 Mangalyaans. Certainly it was not Modi’s intention to make everyone go broke, so his plan allowed for folks to go to banks retroactively to deposit or exchange the newly illegalized currency, up to a certain, extremely modest daily stipend. This, in theory, would allow authorities to give traceable credit back to legitimate hard working citizens, and disenfranchise the criminal with ill-gotten dough-filled portmanteaus. Furthermore, folks were allowed to withdraw modest daily amounts of 100 Rupee paper, for which demand now vastly exceeded supply—much like Superbowl tickets.
At this juncture I’d like to point out there are over one billion citizens in India, many of whom now had to go urgently to the banks and ATMs every single day to surrender, exchange or get their hard working hands on cash. For those living in highly organized countries, like Denmark, India may seem disorganized at the best of times: But now there were Justin Bieber lines around hot and sweaty, dusty, dingy blocks for every ATM and Bank of Maharaja. I think lines formed on an inkling that there might be an cash machine around the corner.
For touristy types, like moi, it was a novel challenge worthy of a one-season over-hyped reality TV show featuring William Shatner and Henry Winkler. I am somewhat tempted make a poor taste joke about begging in India, but I shall refrain and just say that I had to work really hard to get a few hundred Rups out of the hotel cashier’s tight little mitts. Even then, as a cashed-up, pumped-up traveler I was walking around with a handful of hundreds and two-grand Mangalyaans. That’s like walking around in the States with only quarters and Benjamin Franklins. Try getting an ice cream or a taxi with that and NO ONE has change, so don’t even ask. Perhaps, and only perhaps, if you spend 1900 you can break a Mangalyaan. Also, NO ONE has change. NO. ONE.
Now having observed this firsthand, the Indian people were very gracious with an amazingly patient and understanding populous waiting in lines for hours each day for days and days and weeks to come. I can’t image that discipline in the USA—I just read an article about some guy losing it big-time back in the States because his Latte took too long at Starbucks.
So that was how I finished writing up this little adventure on my laptop on an airplane, ending with an ode to overpopulated humanity based on my experiences in Mumbai. Unfortunately, when I next logged on the Internet the story in the Times was all about chaos and near riots in New Delhi. Oh dear.