“Are you going to the bank today?” Ira asked my husband. She knew that he had been queuing up outside different banks almost every other day to withdraw the princely sums that were being doled out so that we had food on the table, and on some days, a little jam too. We were learning new lessons in frugal living. I had read about the Amish, who are said to have weathered recession far better than most Americans. The time had come to find, like the Amish, true abundance in simplicity, sharing and saving, the last of which was impossible given that we had barely enough to sustain us on some days. Cash was the new cow, sacred and protected.
I have, for a long time, harboured intentions of leading a more minimalist and spartan life, but nothing had prepared me for the monastic existence, which we were forced to lead overnight, when demonetisation carpet bombed us. But, I was told, it was a small price to pay (by credit card) to fight corruption and get back all the black money stashed away in alien lands. Despite the nobility of the cause, our large family quarrelled daily over who would stand in the queue with the sun blazing overhead (what with reports of deaths due to sunstroke and dehydration) and who would have the privilege of carrying change in the wallet. Nobody wanted to be strapped with a Rs 2000 note and bereft of purchasing power. Small change was rare and cherished. Every coin added up. We were cash-strapped and we wore our status on our sleeve and had a good self-deprecating laugh over it. Little were we aware then of the deep effect of the PM’s mission or its overpowering reach. If he knew, he would be chuffed. Lessons learnt early in life spread deep roots.
So, on that day, our concerned five-year-old, who had witnessed the after-effects of the economic challenge, asked once again, “Are you going to the bank?” I asked her, “Why do you ask?” “Because I want my money.” she replied. “What money?” I questioned. “My many money,” she said earnestly, her hands spread wide to indicate the amount. “Where is it? In the bank?” I asked, wondering how the little one had acquired a loot in these times of scarcity. “In my piggy bank. I want it. Now,” she said, stamping her feet, and looking at me and my husband suspiciously. There was fear in her eyes. It was obvious that our credentials were now being questioned. After all, she had seen our eyes light up at the sight of small change and it had occurred to her that her savings might be in danger.
Horrified at the prospect of being perceived as a potential piggy-bank robber, I raised both my hands and splayed my fingers wide to prove my innocence. My husband gulped. We had, for months, filled the child’s piggy bank with coins of all denominations, till its rotund belly had bloated.”Your money is safe in your piggy bank,” we assured her. She was not convinced. “What do you need the money for?” I ventured. “To give it to everyone.” “Oh, really?” I remarked, moved by the generosity of the kindergarten kid. Our tales of paucity had transformed her into a junior philanthropic. “That’s wonderful. But, if you give it all away, you’ll be left with no savings,” I warned. She waved her hand and said with a casual air, “If it gets over, I’ll make some on my computer.” Horrified at the thought of fake currency infiltrating the market, I shouted, “You can’t do that. That’s not allowed.”
Taken aback by my strong reaction, she paused and closed her eyes. “Okay, I’ll give away only some money. I’ll keep some for myself,” she said. Just as I marvelled at her new-found wisdom and went down on my knees to hug her, she wailed, “Give me my money now!” “What will you do with it?” we asked. “Count it,” she said quietly, and with a solemn face, emptied the contents of the piggy bank on the bed and counted the coins, one by one, never mind that she missed, skipped and jumped numbers and that there were far too many for her to count. The counting done, she gathered them and elicited our help to put them back into the piggy bank. Tucking the piggy bank under her arm, she marched to her room to hide it in a secret corner, away from our prying eyes. The innate tendency of human beings to hoard moolah at undisclosed locations amused me to no end. Age was no barrier. Returning to our room, Ira declared, “I will need money when I grow up.” We couldn’t agree more.
Later that day, the little one made a phone call on her toy phone. On her lap was a diary, in which she had scribbled something. “I want to buy a house,” she said into the mouthpiece. “What is the cost?” She listened intently to the non-existent voice at the other end. “Twelve hundred rupees?” she exclaimed. “I’ll buy two. I want balconies too,” she informed, again enquiring, “What is the cost?” Pause. “Four hundred rupees,” she screeched. “Okay, I’ll buy two.” She hung up, looked at us, and in an important voice, announced, “I have bought two houses and two balconies. One for you and one for me.” “How will you pay for them?” I asked. “With my many money,” she answered. “Thank you,” I replied, my heart filled with gratitude on being gifted a house in times when real estate tycoons were in mourning. “And where are these houses?” I enquired. “In the Himalayas,” she said breezily. “How wonderful!” I said, remembering the book by my bedside, Himalaya: Adventures. Meditations. Life, edited by Ruskin Bond and Namita Gokhale, whose cover had a picture of the Himalayas, and about which we’d spoken earlier. We had also been on a house hunt before the cash crunch hit us, leading to discussions on real estate prices. All through this, the little one had been unwittingly initiated into the world of economic jugglery and investments.
At five, she had stashed away her cash and bought two houses at the most exotic location in the world. Who needs notes? Small change goes a long way. And, all I need to tide over demonetisation is a fertile imagination and the eyes and ears of a five-year-old.