An accident victim leaves his bed on the last day of demonetization in India to deposit his cash. Does he make it?
December 30, 2016
The patient stirred for the first time. You would not have noticed it in the dim, frosted light of a winter morning, but the yellowed mass of gauze bandages moved on the yellowed sheet on the cot, revealing a moist, sweat-ironed crease.
The plastic chairs beside the cot gazed on. They had not been sat in for two days. The doctor had stopped coming. The attendants saw no reason to stay. The patient’s stash of money was small and of no use to them. It was better to spend their own money on him than to try changing his old rupee notes. But how could that be better? The last one had gone out without bolting the door behind him, and the patient was kept awake by the night breeze rocking its hinges.
But the patient was grateful for the breeze. It cooled his burning, unmoving body and dried the sweat on his brow.
The patient moved again, and this time you definitely would have noticed the two symmetrical brown circles at the top of the bandaged form turn white. And then the gap below them yawned into the shape of an open mouth and croaked, “Must!”
It was the first time the patient had opened his eyes and said a word in the 40 days since his accident. What was he thinking?
With great effort the patient dropped one leg off the cot, then the other, then with all his will he winched his head and torso upright, and finally heaved himself off the bed. Sweat grayed his bandages and he yearned for water, but there was none in the room. He flipped over his phone with one bandaged stump of a hand and stared at its smashed screen. It had not been charged for weeks. His table clock still ticked though, and one glance at it galvanized the patient. The bank opened in less than an hour and it was three blocks away. But first he had to find his money.
Those attendants of his, presumably family, had talked disdainfully about his money all the time. He knew since before his accident that it was of no use anymore and would need to be changed at the bank, but he had put off the visit thinking there was plenty of time.
Behind the closed eyes his mind had never stopped working. The accident had wiped away every last one of his memories but that he had old currency at home and a date to deposit it by.
From the conversations in the room the patient knew the date he was brought home, and kept track of passing days by the warming and dimming of his eyelids from the window across the room. If there was one thing he dreaded, it was that they might have left the curtains drawn on some days. Even one such day would be too many.
The patient stood on the kerb with his old notes pressed between bandaged hands. He had waddled up to the elevator with great difficulty on bandaged legs, and then out into the street. His heart raced as the minutes sped by. Was he too late already?
A small crowd gathered around him. Some auto taxis also stopped to stare at the bandaged apparition, but they sped away as soon as it moved towards them with the old notes between its outstretched hands. Maybe they were junk already, those notes.
More sweat, and the stench of wounds mingled with that of disinfectant and the medicines in his blood forced the crowd to pull back. The patient started hurrying towards the bank, telling himself, “All over,” over and over again. Nobody wanted his old money. Nobody. Junk.
Now there were tears in his eyes too. He had a card somewhere but did not remember its code. He had a wallet app, but did his phone even work? The notes in his hand, hard cash, were not money anymore.
The patient made it to the bank. Every bone in his frame was ready to leap out of socket, and his pounding heart was desperately seeking a way out of his mouth.
The bank guard did not like the look of the patient, nor the look in the patient’s eyes. Most of all he disliked the old currency between the patient’s hands. The guard would not have allowed the patient inside but he was powerless before the last-day crowd that carried the patient along.
From the door to the teller stretched a long, desperate queue, and when an hour later the patient strained his hands at the teller’s window, he was broken in every way but one — his money was not junk still.
One look at the patient, and the teller called his manager.
The patient stood inside the manager’s cabin, trying hard to remember his name. It had not occurred to him to look it up in the bank papers. He had remembered his old notes, the last date to deposit them, his bank branch and account number, but his name had gone away.
They found his name from the bank records, but the photograph did not match. “Surely, you don’t expect,” said the patient trying to point one hand at his bandaged face.
“We certainly do,” returned the manager curtly. “But as a special case, you may write out an application in triplicate explaining why your face does not look like your face, and sign and submit them to me. Then, I’ll see what I can do for you.”
“Surely…” the patient started, but then meekly raised his bandaged hands to show he could not write.
“Well then, that makes it very suspicious… Sinister,” said the manager. He picked up the phone, dialled a number, and then with one hand on the mouthpiece said, “Whose money are you laundering?”
The patient was trying to convince three investigators of his bona fides. But he wasn’t making any headway because he remembered nothing of his past.
“What are you hiding behind that cast,” one of them asked.
“There’s a strange pink tinge to some of his bandages,” another observed.
“We need to X-ray him,” they chorused.
The patient was hustled to a big hospital and scanned in every possible way. One report hinted at the presence of paper behind a pink patch. The sleuths nodded knowingly.
Two nurses unspooled the bandages rapidly. The patient shrieked in pain, but did not let go of the notes pressed between his bandaged hands. His bruised, broken, scarred and emaciated naked body slumped to the floor and, freed from the gauze, a pizzeria’s handbill floated to the ground and settled on him like a fig leaf. Whoever dressed him at the previous hospital had not been allowed to plan his lunch in peace.
The sleuths looked away. “Hurry him back to the bank,” one murmured, “leave the dressing for later.”
The ambulance screeched to a halt outside the bank. The patient asked a nurse what time it was. “Three,” she said, and the tension left him. “There’s time,” he thought.
But the bank guard blocked their way. “Bank’s closed,” he growled.
“How’s that?” cried the patient, “there’s an hour to go still.”
“New order,” said the guard, “rule’s changed.”