India: the impossibility of change

It sounds like pessimistic conclusion. It is. But it’s born of bitter experience. Every day I spend in India teaches me afresh how difficult – and often impossible – it is to achieve change here.

It’s not because of a lack of desire for change. Perversely, it’s because everyone wants it, that it’s so hard to get. Because no-one’s willing to reach into their pockets and hand it over.

Oh yeah, sorry, I’m not talking about enacting major social and political change. Forget that! I’m just talking about trying to squeeze a few 100 rupee notes out of a goddam shopkeeper.

The problem is, everybody demands exact change, and no-one’s willing to give change, so how are you ever supposed to get it? The ATMs dish out 500s and 1000s which you just can’t use anywhere, as no-one has – or will admit to having – enough change to accept them.

At first I thought it was reasonable. As of today, the exchange rate between the Indian rupee and pound sterling is, very roughly, 100:1. Therefore, a Rs500 note is worth, in currency exchange terms, about £5. But to understand real values here, you have to apply a 10:1 rule. A cup of tea, for example, costs about Rs10, which is worth 10p, but in the UK would cost about £1. A night in a reasonable mid-range hotel costs about Rs1000, which is £10 but in equivalent real value would be about £100. So when I was on a bus, trying to pay for a Rs30 journey with a Rs500 note, I thought I could understand the drama it was causing: forget the fact my note was only a fiver; to Indians it was as if I were waving £50 around, expecting £47 in change. (Even when a Rs500 is accepted, it’s held up to the light and eyed suspiciously, just like a £50, but not a £5, would be in the UK.)

However, since then I’ve noticed that Indians pay with 500s and 1000s all the time. And usually whomever they’re paying can give change; they just don’t want to. It’s why Indians tend to keep their money spread across several pockets: not to mitigate the risk of theft, but so they can pull out one wad of 100s, to show “no change”, while hoarding 10s and 20s somewhere else.

Usually it’s a case of playing the waiting game. You show the shopkeeper your 500s (keeping any change you do have hidden, since you’re forced to play the same game), and eventually he’ll give in, and reveal the wad in his change pocket, or start searching through drawers to scratch together enough notes to meet the total. And sometimes it can work to your advantage: I’ve often got significant discounts on items, because the shopkeeper, driver, even official ticket booth attendant, would rather take a hit to his balance sheet than go through the hassle of providing change.

It’s led to a number of frustrating moments though. In Ajmer, I took an autorickshaw out of town to catch an overnight coach from a bypass junction. The price of the auto journey was Rs200, I had a Rs500 note, and the driver genuinely had nothing but a few 10s. You’d think that, whatever price you’re charging for a service, you should make sure you’re in a position to give change from the next denomination up from that price. But the problem is, Rs300 is a significant amount of money for a poor autorickshaw driver. If work is slow, he might not make that in a day, and even if he does, he won’t want to take the risk of carrying it around. What annoyed me more was that all the stalls around the bypass junction refused to swap the 500 for 5 x 100s, so that I could pay the guy. I had to buy a mango drink I didn’t want just to get one of them to crack a wallet open.

That was in a remote spot, but you can be in the middle of a metropolis and face the same problem. After visiting the Mani Bhavan in Bombay, I wanted to get a taxi back to my CS host’s flat in the suburbs. It was likely to cost about Rs200 as well, and again, I only had 500s – since all my change had been eaten up by other transactions. I was wandering around, on busy city streets – with plenty of cash on me – for about twenty minutes, unable to get any taxi to take me. The shops wouldn’t even accept the money to buy anything, let alone a free exchange of notes. I was starting to get worried, when I eventually found a restaurant which grudgingly helped me out.

My frustration reached boiling point at Ajanta Caves, trying to get on the shuttle bus. You had to get a ticket from the conductor and pay him for it before getting on. The cost was Rs15, and I only had 100s, mainly because I’d already had all my change taken by the bus there, and the rip-off visitor centre. The conductor stood right in front of me, holding a massive wad of change in his hands, looked at my 100 and said, “you have change?” NO! I DON’T HAVE CHANGE. EVERYBODY WANTS CHANGE. NOBODY GIVES CHANGE. SO I HAVE NO CHANGE. “OK,” he relented, counting out Rs85 from his ample supply of change, as if it was an enormous burden on him to have to do so.

I’ve also tried, with the change problem, to Encourage Best Practice – as I try too with auto and taxi drivers, shopkeepers, and so on, by rewarding the good guys with my custom, with tips, etc, and making the reason for my choice obvious. In Aurangabad, I used an internet shop, and afterwards owed the proprietor some money, which as usual I didn’t have in exact change. The waiting game didn’t work, so I went outside to ask the next door cafe if they could change a 500. They actually laughed at the idea – it’s not an uncommon reaction – then suggested I might want to buy something from their sweets counter. “I see what you’re saying. I buy sweets, I get change. No thanks, I’ll try somewhere else.” I went to a juice bar, on the other side of the internet shop, and the proprietor there happily swapped the 500 for 100s. The guys from the cafe were watching this, so I looked at them, pointed at the juice bar guy, shouted, “GOOD MAN!”, pointed at them, shouted, “NOT GOOD MEN!”, paid the internet guy, then immediately sat down at the juice bar and ordered a mango shake. Followed by a papaya shake. And gave him a 50% tip.

Karma: it’s your concept, motherfuckers. Try it.

8 thoughts on “India: the impossibility of change

  1. Ah, CHANGE….you confounded my expectations and thus the humour arose. How are the guts holding up? I notice there’s been very little evidence of the linen suit in your photos so far: surely no coincidence? Also, why have you not gone on a fact-finding mission to a domestic cricket match yet? I hear the sport is starting to catch on over there. Apparently they even have an international side nowadays? BTW, thanks for the postcard: in answer to your question, the figure depicted on it is clearly male. The clue is the penis.

    • I don’t think it’s clear that it’s a penis. The shaft-like shape could be an illusion caused by the carving of the hands parting the clothing. There’s a full-length slit, not just a hole. And the figure has breasts.

  2. Another classic example. Shortly before I left Agra for the second time, I was down to just 500 notes and desperately needed to break one of them. The stall outside the hotel couldn’t help; the hotel couldn’t either, though they tried: they sent a boy out with it to find change, but he came back (presumably having tried the same stall) still with the 500.

    I went down the road to a relatively large sweet and snack shop and got two samosas. To pay the Rs12 bill, I gave the manager a 500 and showed him my wallet with no smaller notes in it. He looked at me like I’d asked if I could fuck his grandmother.

    He then put on an almost theatrical performance of annoyance and persecution as he reluctantly started pulling out notes from a drawer, even though he found 4 x 100s and a handful of small notes without any apparent difficulty. The histrionics were so absurd I couldn’t help laughing in his face and saying, “You have lots of change!” [pointing at him] “Lots of change! Why do you make it such a big deal? It’s ridiculous. You’re ridiculous,” and left, leaving him to recover from the ordeal of counting to 488.

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