An incident at a Bank Machine

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Other  |  House: Booksie Classic

A few years ago when the Government Of India announced demonetization of its currency it caused untold hardship to a large portion of the population. The elderly were the most severely impacted and many lost their lives standing for hours together to exchange their money. This is a story of one such senior citizen who was faced with this tumultuous decision.

That fateful day as he stood in the serpentine queue to withdraw money from the bank ATM Vinayak Dasgupta  looked at his Titan watch and realised that he would be late for lunch with his wife of 32 years!

As  per habit he had woken up at the crack of dawn , recited his “Gayatri Mantra”, freshened up and watered the plants his wife, Malati, had so painstakingly tended and grown. There were many types but his favourite was the “ bleeding heart”. Something about the colour combination of its leaves attracted him. “That’s how most of our hearts are  like” –he would point to the red veins spreading across the yellowish green background---“always weeping blood”! Later, he had walked to the local market. Panu the fish seller, who knew him for many years hollered out loud, “Dada ( older brother)—I got the best Shrimps for you! They are export quality! I saved them for you only”. Vinayak looked at the giant shrimps---they were “Tiger prawns”! Food , especially fish, was his weakness! As a quintessential Bengali his daily diet had more than a fair share of it.  They said if you want to punish a Bengali deprive him of this staple !

Though the price quoted was extremely steep  he decided to yield to the temptation. What was life if you did not indulge in your fancies once in a while? As he pulled out his worn black leather wallet the sudden realization hit him: the Government had in a bold and unexpected move demonetized five  hundred  and thousand rupee notes two days  ago in an unprecedented effort to curb “black money”! He had withdrawn his Government pension of twenty five thousand rupees a week back  and a bulk of it consisted of five hundred  and thousand rupee denominations.  He had very few  hundred  and fifty rupee notes  that was now the  legal tender. He had just about ninety days to exchange them with new ones. That meant going to the bank and standing and waiting in line for hours together.

As he looked into his purse he found that he had only about three hundred rupee notes and about five five hundred ones. About 2 kilogram of prawns would cost him about two thousand rupees.

“Panu, I don’t have much money with me though”, said the retired state government employee  in a apologetic tone.

“ Who is asking for money, Dada?”  replied the  striped” lungi “clad fish seller  who had been selling fish since he was nineteen! “ Just take it for my “Boudi” ( older brother’s wife)! She will love it! Ask her to make “ Chingri Maacher Malai Curry” ( A popular shrimp preparation) “ I know my money is not going anywhere!” added the pot bellied vendor.

“ I have three hundred rupee notes that I can pay now. I have five  fivehundred rupee ones  but I don’t think you will accept those !” said the sixty five year old slightly corpulent man.

“No ! Dada I have so many of those myself and I am not finding time to exchange them”, exclaimed the man who had two daughters who went to a government sponsored school in the town of Canning, about  ninety kilometres away from Kolkata.

“I am going to the bank today, Panu!. I have procrastinated a lot and now  I don’t have enough money ! Your boudi has to pay the maid , I have to pay the cooking gas people , the electric company and also have to pay Deba’s college fees!”,  remarked the man who believed in keeping no debts.

“I know  Dada! We all have to live our lives! So Deba is in college now? How time flies! I still remember when as a kid he would come with you to buy fish! And how excited he would be on seeing the live fish jump!”, replied the man who once believed in communism but now was slowly coming to terms with the realization that it was an archaic concept!

“Yeah he is in college now! He is in the second year! Two more years to go still! He is studying  computers ! Hope he gets a job ! It is so difficult to get a job these days!” observed the doting father of two kids. Deba or Debashish ( which meant blessings of God) was the younger of the two kids. The older was a girl, Deepu or Deepsikha, who after  completing her Bachelor of Arts in Psychology fell in love with Nirvan, a vagabond, who lived in the neighbourhood. For many years after her wedding  father and  daughter  had a strained relationship. It was only after the arrival of Paolomi, the first grandchild, a bubbly girl, that they met , cried for hours and buried their differences.

“ He will definitely make you proud  babu ( Sir)! You are a good man ! and Ma Kali’s ( the reigning deity of Kolkata) blessings are always with the pious!” said the simple man who years later still regretted the fact that he dropped out of school after grade six despite his fish seller father’s dream  that his son get a decent education and break free from the tradition of fish vending!

Vinayak  thanked Panu, handed over the three hundred rupee notes with the promise to pay the remaining  on Saturday, the day he would come to get medicines for his wife who suffered from Alzheimer’s. Collecting the fish he turned to go home. He had to buy vegetables but now with all the hundred rupee notes gone he could not buy anything now.

A emaciated cat arched his back and was eyeing the woman who sat besides Panu and helped  in cleaning and peeling  fish. There was a heap of scales and scraps of fish which he could feed on.

A gentleman was walking towards Panu. He had a plastic shopping bag  and was counting his money. Most probably , Vinayak thought, he must be checking how much legal money he had with him. This had become common practice with people. Every time you wanted to buy something you checked whether you had sufficient acceptable money with you.

Vinayak understood and supported the step the government had taken. He knew this way the dishonest people who had amassed a fortune without paying  taxes  would not be able to pump  illegal money into the economy. Also the terrorists and criminals who prospered by printing fake money and circulating them would no longer be able to do so.

“ It is like taking a bitter pill” he explained to Malati one day when they were watching news together. “ “You take the bitter pill in order to become better. So also we will have to bear with a little trouble and hardship in order that the country wins”, he added with a wave of his hand as the fifty five year old woman who had little exposure to worldly matters nodded thinking of what she would be cooking for dinner.

As he walked back home the city was already in full swing of things. He saw a  number 6 red government bus with people hanging from the doors slowly negotiate a difficult bend in the road. The streets of Kolkata are a perfect example of order in chaos. There are all kind of vehicles on the road. There are cycles, rickshaws, three wheelers, single and double-decker  buses, yellow taxis, vans and trucks of all kinds and make. You need to be an expert driver to be able to drive among all these kind of automobiles but the fact that men and animals also claimed the right to use the roadways at the same time—just being an ”expert”  would not suffice--you had to be a magician of sorts to drive here!

The sun was up. It was just about 9.15 am and already it was 30 degrees centigrade. He could feel the sweat build and stick to the collar of his linen shirt. A rickshaw passed by  with two school girls in their uniform of white saree with narrow orange border. A bus driver blew his horn with all his might in an attempt to make way as an old cow leisurely walked in front.

Vinayak decided to  give the shrimps to his wife and instruct her to prepare the” Chingri Macher Malai Curry”. It would take time to prepare the dish. He tried to recall whether they had enough coconuts. Milk from this fruit was used to make this entrée. He realized that there was a coconut which he had placed at the feet of Godess Lakshmi , the Godess of prosperity and wealth. In the worst case scenario  his wife  could use that one! He could go in the evening and beg forgiveness or better still on Thursday—the day designated for the Diety of Wealth ---read the Lakshmi  Panchali thoroughly and completely----his wife did not know it but usually he skipped pages and paragraphs when reading it!

At the corner of the road to the market there was an ATM belonging to the State Bank. There was an angry crowd milling around it. He could hear agitated voices. With curiosity aroused he inched forward . A lean security guard  stood outside the door on which a computer printed sheet proclaimed “No Cash Available”. Men from all walks of life and of all ages  expressed their resentment and displeasure in a vocal manner. Their outburst, illogically, was  directed at the poor young  man who was just doing his job. Vinayak saw the young man squirm and shift. Beads of sweat gathered on his forehead and his face was a web of lines of anxiety and stress.

“How are we supposed to live our lives if the government cannot provide us money?”, shouted a middle aged man at the black and white uniform clad man.

“Yes, how are we going to pay for things?” joined a young woman who had young boy of about six  holding on to her.

A wave of anxiety swept through Vinayak’s body. What  if really the government had no new money? What then?

Day after tomorrow was the last day to pay for Deba’s tuition. Also he wanted to buy a gold ring for Paolimi, his granddaughter. He had wanted to gift one during her “ Annaprason” ( the naming ceremony) that takes place about six months after a child’s birth but he could not because he had to pay huge medical bill for Malati’s treatment of Alzheimers. Now ,after about eight nine months of her birth, if he could not gift her the ring he would lose all respect as a father before his daughter. Also , Shanti, the maid, needed to be paid as well. They were poor people. How would they survive if they did not get paid?

If this episode of no money at ATM s continued he would be in a terrible situation.

 A dull nagging ache was beginning to build on the left side of his chest. It was acidity for sure. Have to stop taking two cups of tea in the morning, he told himself.

He trudged towards home. A young man crossed him talking loudly on his cell phone.  A young woman holding the hands of two little school kids  pushed through the crowded street.  A “Muchi” (cobbler) with his head bent was stitching the slipper of a labourer who was carrying a large heavy load when his  footwear  gave away. Street dogs growled and quarreled amongst themselves. Little street urchins bare bodied except for brief worn out trunks looked out for any opportunity of scavenging food. What was all the politicians doing? Even after  sixty years of Independence small children went to bed hungry, humble folks still needed to do heavy labour in order to make ends meet!

We should have someone of the caliber of” Feluda” holding the reins of our country he thought. Feluda, the master detective, of Satyajit Ray’s mystery novels was one of his heroes. He had read almost every novel of Ray and he could not but wonder at the sharp intellect, deep insight and analytical skills of Feluda. What endeared him most to this upright man who abided by philosophy of Swami Vivekananda was that the  master sleuth was incorruptible! Money, women or wine could not sway him and Vinayak believed that the day such a man came to lead the billion Indians the country would become great and not lag behind other nations!

Malati had just finished partaking her second cup of flavoured Darjeeling tea with the maid when he reached to hand over the shrimps. She was an expert cook and he relished food made by her. After 32 years of  marriage maybe he had got a bit tired of  her charms  but as regards her cooking he still continued to be bowled over  as always! She saw the sweat plastered to his white shirt and asked him to rest, drink tea and then go to the bank.

” You are no longer a young man, dear! What if you have to stand in queue for many hours! Yesterday, Mili’s ( the neighbour’s daughter) uncle stood in line for 6 hours and then only he was able to exchange money. And Mili’s uncle is a young man”!

“ I know Malati! But we need the money to pay Shanti and also pay for Deba’s’s college! If I see it is going to take a very long time I will come back. Make the malai curry and by the time it is ready I shall come back. Panu kept  these prawns especially for me!!” beamed the husband who loved his wife but was shy to display his affection openly.

Once during their office picnic they had gone to Baruipur, a little town, about four hours away from Kolkata. Mallick, the young stenographer, who always arranged funny games for picnics and parties had  arranged  one  which involved picking up your spouse and singing a romantic song. Akhilesh, his colleague, a few years younger than him lifted his wife casually and sang a romantic song---almost as if he did it everyday! Other men if not that good were still able to sing or utter a dialogue of love! He was the only one who turned away from his wife and did not say anything----stating this was a stupid game. Malati, who was much younger at that time was almost on the verge of tears!

Later, when he came back home he realised his mistake.  Sometimes in life if you love someone you got  to show that love. No matter how deep is your love women wanted you to exhibit it and make it a grand spectacle. Years later that incident still haunted him. Why had he not just gone, held her hand, looked into her eyes and said simply, “ I love you-----“ That’s was all a girl or a woman or a wife wants------. Women’s demands were far simpler than men’s!

“ If you see  the line is huge please come back! I will pay Shanti from my little money  that I saved from last month’s grocery! Deba’s college fees can be paid later as well I am quite sure! Wait I will ask him when he  comes back home! He has gone to Moloy’s place early in  the morning in his cycle!” said the woman who had stifled and killed all her personal  desires and dreams  in order to accommodate the needs of her family. She was not rare or unique. Every day, everywhere in the world, day in, day out women have been doing that selflessly without any expectation from time immemorial! They, truly, are the backbone of our society!

“Give me some water  and then I shall go”, requested the man who suffered from heart disease and hyper tension.

The woman of average height who was plagued by numerous ailments went in to the kitchen to fetch a glass of water. She came back and handed him the glass.

After drinking the cool water for an instant Vinayak was tempted to stay back and enjoy the lunch of shrimp and rice and relax a bit. The next moment, however, he reprimanded himself for his laziness: this was not the time to take it easy. Things needed to be done. If he did not as the head of the family ---who will?

“OK Malati, I am coming”, he said in true Bengali tradition. You never said while leaving  the house that were going . It was considered inauspicious. The belief was that  you were going away temporarily only to come back. You were not going away permanently. Never to return.

Decades later when Malati would think of this afternoon she would ask herself why did she not stop him from going even though she felt a kind of uneasiness within her. Asked to describe what was the feeling she  experienced she said  that in-spite of the bright sunny day she saw a dark cloud around her husband as if it was on the verge of devouring him. She  had suppressed her anxiety by attributing  this imagery to be a handiwork of Alzheimer’s that was slowly destroying her mind.

The bank ATM  was quite a distance away from their house. As the bespectacled man of average height clad in a dark trouser and a pink half sleeved linen shirt began to walk  a cloud of anxiety hung over his head. He had read somewhere that life consisted of two things: hope and fear! How true it was! Only thing they failed to mention was the proportion! While eighty percent was fear only about twenty percent was hope! Why couldn’t it be the other way around?

His Micromax cell phone rang. He had chosen the ring tone” whistling winds”. It was the least intrusive one.He did not like mobile phones to begin with but he knew he had to have it for his family to contact him. It was Deepsikha, his daughter.

“Baba, Ma told me that you are going to the bank  ATM to withdraw money! You go back baba! I am coming ! I will go and get the money! You cannot be standing there for so long there! As it is your health is frail!” cried the twenty four old mother!

“Deepu don’t worry I will be fine ! I told your mother  that if I see that there is a big line I will come back. But we need the money dear! I would not have gone otherwise”, explained the father trying to hold his umbrella with one hand while holding  his cell phone, a gift from his daughter, with the other.

The daughter would not relent. She implored with him to go back.

“You could have gone if we were not here. We are here for you Baba”, said the daughter whose favourite past time as a little girl was to climb on her father’s belly and play drum with her little fingers! That small girl had grown up and had her own kid now! How time flies! If someone asked him who is the fastest sprinter in the world—he would not have answered---Usain Bolt----because he was not---it was Time---nobody could keep pace with him! No one!

The sun had  moved up and  was now a blazing ball of fire. Though he had the little umbrella to protect him the intensity of its rays pierced through it . Added to the heat was the oppressive humidity.  The stray dogs with their tongues sticking out panted trying to find a shade. Girls wrapped dupatta( veils)  over their heads and faces hoping to avoid sunburn. In Eastern culture a very high premium is placed on light skin even today. Matrimonial ads usually read, “ wanted a tall, slim, fair and well educated girl for-------“  as such girls tried their level best to avoid the sun and if they could not they kept their faces protected like this.

It was almost about 11 o’ clock when he reached the bank.

His heart sank . A sea of people swarmed before it. He tried to make sense of the situation. A line which began from inside of the bank stretched almost about seven hundred metres and wound into a narrow alley. The cluster of men that gathered at different patches to the long queue were vendors and touts. Hawkers sold everything from bottled water to tea, cigarettes and snacks. The touts hissed their rates stealthily. For standing in line for you they could charge you anything from a thousand to two thousand rupees.

Without much ado Vinayak slowly went and stood at the end of the line. He knew if he thought and hesitated the task would not be done. No time for self pity. Granted he was not in the pink of health. And yes he was an old man. But he could still walk. And he could very much stand in line. So what if it took hours of standing!

The man before him was a middle aged man who  realising that youth was fast leaving him  was in no mood to bid adieu. Even though he did not have a young man’s body he was dressed like one. His belly  protruded from his tight jeans. His ankle boots were muddy  that had seen better days.

“Welcome Uncle!  Welcome! We were waiting only for you to give us company!” he said in a loud voice. Several people laughed.

Vinayak realised his wait would not be uninteresting!

There were men of all shapes , sizes and ages in the line. There were a few women too. Some in order to kill time were conversing among themselves. A few were engrossed in  their phones. A handful who were  too weak to stand sat down and as the line inched forward dragged themselves along.

Theories about where the country is headed was being discussed by a section of the crowd who looked like corporate executives.

“This will turn the economy around”  commented one person.

“ No ! I don’t believe so “ said another.

“Why?” asked  a third person.

“ Because our leaders  and  politicians can do so much. But so long  government officials are corrupt and are hand in glove with the criminals ---nothing is going to happen to our country” ,remarked the second person sadly.

A strong objection was raised. “ it is time we, the ordinary people, took things in our hands instead of looking to officials for everything”. The debate continued.

Vinayak closed his eyes and tried to tune out of the animated interaction. Everything would be right, if each of us realised one cardinal truth, people live in the shadow of each other. I am here because of you. Men derive strength and sustenance from each other. Why is it so difficult to understand this?

The rays of the sun became more intense. A hot southerly wind rose and  blew down from the bottom of the narrow lane chaffing the skin and stinging the eyes. Conversation which was flowing easily like a river running down a gentle slope suddenly stagnated as if it had reached a silt block. People of  Kolkata are no strangers to humid oppressive weather but even to them the heat and humidity was becoming unbearable. Was this the fall- out of global warming? Most probably it was. He had been born and raised here but could not remember such stifling weather in his recent memory.

Overcome with acute thirst, he looked around for a vendor. There was none. Most likely because of the intolerable heat they had gone home. Also it was noon time. They might have gone  for lunch and perhaps a quick siesta. He thought of Malati cooking his favourite dish. He wondered how long it would take him to reach inside of the bank. It was almost more than an hour he had been standing in line and it had barely moved even 15 metres.

People were still streaming in . There were about hundred people behind him now.

He realised that he would not be able to make it for lunch with his wife. Poor Malati! She would be so disappointed! Even after thirty two years she never ate without him!  She was not that educated or modern but she had a simple and loving heart. Sometimes a kind heart makes a huge difference in a man’s life.

He thought of calling her and telling her to eat but he knew from past experience she would not . He wanted to call her just like that and hear her voice. She had a lovely sweet voice. In the early years of their marriage she would sing old songs from the movies. Her favourite singer was Sandhya Mukherjee. He would love to listen to her, especially, when he came back from work and was having his steaming cup of tea.

As the years went by her singing became less frequent and now it was only once in a blue moon he could hear her humming when old movies of Uttam Kumar and Suchitra Sen  came on TV. He  blamed himself for this. He was not successful or rich as the husbands of her friends were. Her best friend ,Swati’s  husband was a Chartered Accountant with a multinational firm. They had their own flat on the twenty fifth floor on the Eastern Bypass. They  went for vacations almost every year!

Every girl wants her family to prosper and grow and not live under the horrible spectre of financial instability. With his meagre income as a Government Department clerk he could not achieve much. Malati  always  lived a life of “ quiet desperation”!

He did not care much for him. He had no big dreams or soaring expectations  from life. He only  wanted to see his wife happy!

After about three hours of standing  he began to feel unwell. Maybe it was his blood pressure. Maybe it was going up owing to the stress and physical exertion. Or it might be his blood sugar. It could be fluctuating . His heart that had Left Brunch Bundle Block maybe was  finding it difficult to pump blood.

He looked around for help. His head was spinning. He barely overcame a wave of nausea.

He appealed to the man in tight jeans and boots.

“ Sir, could you please help  me?”, he uttered.

The man looked at him with a quizzing look and asked in a curt tone, “ What ?”

“ I am not feeling well. Could you please take me home? . I don’t live far away, please”, implored Vinayak  who  was now sweating profusely and experiencing severe chest pain.

The bulky man looked at him incredulously .

“And what happens to my place in the line? I have been standing here for four hours!”, replied the man angrily.

Vinayak then turned to a young man standing a few paces behind him and with folded hands begged him,” “Sir, you are like my son---please help me ! I am not well---can you take me home please?”

The young man, dressed in a fake Calvin Klien T –shirt and narrow jeans said haughtily,” Uncle if you were not feeling well you should not have come yourself---you should have asked your son to come instead”

An unbearable pain gripped  Vinayak’s chest, his vision became blurry-----------

Just as he was about to fall down strong young hands held him. There was something familiar about them. He had felt the grip of those hands before. Then faintly he could hear  a girl’s voice somewhere. Again there was something familiar about the voice. Cool fingers caressed his face and with utmost care made him drink water .

 Darkness surrounded him  but he did not care anymore knowing  that whom-so-ever he was with would take good care of him.

And they did. When Deba got a call from his sister he knew something was the matter. Deepu, his sister was agitated and anxious.  When she told that their father had gone to the ATM to withdraw money he knew he could not sit still. He had to go.

His father was not a big or rich man. Nor was he successful. On the contrary, he was a failure in terms of accumulation of wealth or position. He had retired as a government clerk. But where he was a resounding success was that he had a heart that  brimmed with infinite love.

As a kid even though he was not old enough to understand economics he knew his dad sacrificed a great deal to put his and his sister’s interests first. As he grew up  he saw first hand how his dad gave up things he enjoyed and cherished so that they could afford to go to school. The sacrifices were immense but what really made his dad great was that he never made it appear that he had done a big thing. Great people are like that!

Both he and Deepu rushed to the ATM and just as Vinayak was about to fall  Deba  held and picked him up and brought him back in a cab. Deepu had taken with her sachets of “Electral” and slowly made him sip as she cradled his head in her arms. She also placed the life saving  tablet, “sorbitrate” under his tongue.

Late that evening when Vinayak regained consciousness he was in his bed surrounded by his family. He tried to get up. Deepu came and supported him to sit on his bed.

“Baba( father) how are you feeling?” she asked

Words would not come. He felt an overwhelming sense of gratitude and love.He held her and cried. Deba  who was standing nearby came and hugged him.

They all cried. For the first time in his insignificant life he understood what people meant by tears of joy!

It was Malati who stopped them.

“You have already done enough drama! Now please come and eat “, she said.

With great care and  love, she placed the steaming plate of rice and in a bowl his favourite, “ Chingri Macher Malai Curry” on the small table besides the bed!

What a woman! What a life!

 

 


Submitted: May 10, 2020

© Copyright 2021 suj. All rights reserved.

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