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  • Writer's pictureSeema Banerjee

What goes around, Comes around

“It’s a Jaali note” he announced, as he handed the 500 Rupee note back to me. ‘Sorry Madam, but I can’t accept this’ A minute ago, the note in question had been under watchful scrutiny, being held up against the light, twisted, turned, inspected and now the verdict was out. Mortified, I fumbled around in my bag, feeling almost guilty for a sin that I had unwittingly committed. Beads of perspiration dotted my forehead as I began to feel acutely self-conscious under the intrusive stares of other nosy shoppers. I pulled out another note and as a quick after thought, put it back in – unsure of it’s validity either. To be spared any further embarrassment, I hurriedly handed him a credit card instead. 

Previously,  I had noticed the shopkeepers in Delhi would occasionally check the 500 and 1000 Rupee notes that were handed to them in a transaction. Sometimes, not just probing the notes but the bearer of the notes as well! I remember feeling more offended than irritated as it felt as though my personal integrity was being questioned. It was speculated that many ‘Jaali’ or counterfeit notes were in circulation in India at the time, which explained the vigilant behaviour. On this occasion, I kicked myself for not being prudent enough by learning how to distinguish a Jaali note from a real one and for casually shoving the unexamined notes into my purse. After all, I had been warned just a few days ago.

Ironically, my first warning about a Jaali note had come a few days earlier, whilst discussing with an expat auctioneer about selling some of my goods before we moved out of India. As part of his impeccable service, he boasted that he thoroughly checked and verified every single currency note that he received from the buyer. I was taken aback as this was not something I had ever worried about. In fact the thought of counterfeit currency had never even crossed my mind. To dramatise his claims, he recounted the recent tale of woe of an unlucky, unsuspecting German expat who had fallen prey to this Jaali note scam. He of course emphasised that the poor woman had suffered the ill fate as a consequence of choosing another ‘lesser’ auctioneer over him! Turns out that the other chap had sold all her 5 air conditioners and even fetched her a decent price. However, a couple of hours before she was due to fly back to Germany for good, she was in for a rude shock. To her utter horror the bank informed her that they couldn’t exchange her Rupees for Euros as 70% of the notes were Jaali!  The bank confiscated the fake notes, the police yawned, the auctioneer shrugged, the fraudster buyer disappeared from the face of this earth and the duped woman left India, a couple of euros poorer! 

As usual, I didn’t pay much heed to the story. I had learnt to discount the bogus claims from extremely pushy salespeople and was often sceptical about the stories they  invented. Wish I had seen the red flags!

There is another term for these fake currency notes – ‘nakli’, a hindi word for fake, although Jaali is the more frequently used word. This was my first and thankfully my only humiliating experience with the Jaali note saga. How did this dreaded cash come into my possession? I retraced my steps looking for answers. Was it the salon, the coffee shop, the bookstore or the museum? Which of these monetary exchanges had resulted in the offensive Jaali  in my wallet? I could not recall the exact denomination of the notes I had handed in or the change that I had received.  Or was the deed done the day before?  It was a minefield trying to pinpoint a culprit. I carefully removed the ostracised note from the remaining notes, praying that the others were ‘real’, untainted by their proximity to this phony note. I crumpled the counterfeit note in my hand, which was now worth nothing more than a useless scrap of paper.

I grumbled to my driver Uttam about my Jaali note episode and went into a tirade about the corruption, the governance, public policy and the law and order situation in the country. Everything needed to be fixed. Uttam was a good sounding board for me. Always the patient listener, he’d often add his own perspective to my frustrations. Unintentionally he could reignite my anger with stories of his own helplessness and suffering at the hands of the same establishment that I wished would change and improve. After listening to my story, he nonchalantly narrated his own unfortunate experience with the  Jaali notes. A few months earlier, he had gone to the bank to deposit his cash, only to be informed that 2000 Rupees of his 5000 Rupees deposit were Jaali notes. The teller confiscated the notes, which meant that he lost out on nearly half of his money! Bearing in mind, that Uttam had a limited income, I could imagine what that  loss must’ve meant to him. His reaction to the situation surprised me even more. Rather than being outraged, he approached it with sadness and mere resignation. He simply wished that he hadn’t gone to the bank in the first place, as he could have then used the same money that they had confiscated. His reasoning was clear.  Either he had been cheated or perhaps someone had unknowingly passed him the Jaali notes. His solution was simple. He would have much rather used them, passed them back into circulation, after all he had not created the problem in the first place. He was not at fault so why should he have to bear the loss? Poor Uttam was trapped in the vicious cycle of the Jaali note. Although, I felt deep sympathy for his plight as he had lost a big chunk of his hard-earned money, for no fault of his, yet his simple solution to the problem didn’t convince me either.  He then muttered something about Karma –  his firm belief that whoever does wrong and profits from other’s miseries, eventually pays a price.

The more I mentioned about my Jaali note fiasco, the more stories surfaced. It became a hot topic at numerous parties. Jokes were made, anecdotes shared, eyes rolled and sometimes heated political debates ensued as a result of it. There was a story of a friend who once withdrew cash from an ATM machine and one of the notes turned out to be Jaali, which of course he was not aware of at the time. His gardener was subsequently paid his monthly salary from that same pile of notes. The gardener later alerted my friend that one of the notes was a dreaded Jaali.  My worried friend realised that if he took the note back to the bank it would be confiscated and my friend would lose out. There was no way of proving that he had collected that note from the same bank’s ATM machine!  However my friend’s troubles were short-lived as the savvy gardener had successfully managed to palm off the Jaali note to his unsuspecting fruit seller! He wished and prayed that the poor fruit seller would likewise be able to pass off the wretched Jaali note to someone else! The Gardener too relied on the good karma philosophy. After all, both he and my friend and hopefully the fruit seller too would be releived from the misfortune of the cursed Jaali note…

At our farewell dinner party, I was recounting my bittersweet India repatriation experiences and the Jaali note topic surfaced once again. A very well-connected and influential friend gave his side of the story. Similar to Uttam’s story, this friend too discovered that he had been fleeced by 3000 Rupees when he went to deposit his cash in the bank. This time the story took a different turn. He used his clout to stop the bank from confiscating his Jaali notes. He in turn, handed the Jaali notes over to his loyal driver who was happy to have them and assured him that they would come in handy one day.

A few days later, the driver was pulled over by the traffic policeman and was unfairly issued a ‘challan‘-  a fine,  for a traffic violation that he did not commit. It was the driver’s word against the policeman’s. The corrupt policeman hinted that he could let the driver off the hook if he were appeased with some ‘chai- pani ka paisa‘ ( literally meaning money for tea or water, in other words bribe money). The quick-witted  driver handed him the  3000 rupees Jaali notes under the table, the Policeman hurriedly pocketed the cash without any careful examination, whilst the driver sped off laughing. Was this the Karma that boomerangs?

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