Remonetization, or, Life in the Flash Queue

It wasn’t long ago that lack of cash marked people in India as poor or even backward in the eyes of government planners. To be cashless in the old days was to inhabit some isolated island, mountainous enclave, or urban wasteland, as though locked into a past that market relations had yet to alter. Demonetization was supposed to change all that. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government worked hard to transform a day without currency into a marker of national progress, the bold digital sequel to any number of postindependence modernization projects.

It soon became evident, however, that currency—the old god of commodities—was not gone, but had instead gone into hiding. As the worth of the old ₹500 notes dissolved into paper, people still had to seek this god out, even as they downloaded digital wallets onto their smartphones or registered for their very first bank accounts. The intricate, intimate, cross-class relations required to run a household depended on it.

In India, households across the class spectrum engage in multiple small-scale transactions on a daily basis. What sort of market efficiency calls for creating an electronic transaction for every ₹4 that changes hands with a newly ironed kameez, while requiring the so-called seller of this service to pay a fee for each transaction? The same kind, apparently, that had wealthy employers scrambling to borrow cash from servants after the ATMs went dry and promising to pay salaries to household staff in dribs and drabs, like people in penury. Housewives who had managed to squirrel away a bit of cash in a tin—as insurance against profligate husbands, seed money for an entrepreneurial venture, or a promissory note for a better future—now had to turn that cash in. Notebandi, or demonetization, might have fomented a state-sponsored run on the Shadow Bank of Ma, but those same housewives were determined to recapitalize. Having managed to get their old notes into the banks, as long as those notes were not immediately cashiered by surprised husbands, they immediately set about withdrawing their cash.

This desperate search for currency in its new incarnations spawned a novel social form, complete with its own emergent intimacies: the flash queue. Guards became floating signifiers of currency deliveries, once daily, now sporadic and never enough. The rumble of a steel shutter outside an ATM or the unexpected sighting of a man in uniform, toting a gun in the vicinity of a bank entrance, was enough to draw a crowd that sorted itself into a line. Or lines, in the case of one ATM queue where we took up residence for two and a half hours at Connaught Place in New Delhi. On that bright December day, the guard decreed that women were to line up on the right and men on the left, with each woman waiting for six men to take their turn before being advanced into the inner sanctum. No accommodation was made for hijras.

It used to be said that Indians don’t queue. Clerks despaired of organizing the crowds that clamored for attention at service counters, and paying one’s electric bill in northern cities required a set of sharp elbows for jostling. In this context, postdemonetization bank and ATM queues were remarkable—not only for the very orderliness of their existence, but also for the intimacies they fostered and ways in which they rearticulated class and kinship. 

Tales of birth and death in the queues commanded melodramatic headlines. Strangers by morning turned into neighbors by afternoon, prepared to rally to the side of a queue-mate whose water had broken and to carry her into the bank lobby to have her baby. Pensioners succumbed to heatstroke or cardiac arrest on the second, third, or fourth day of waiting to deposit their life savings. Tiffin carriers lovingly packed with ghar ka khana (homemade food), filled just that morning by wives who had sent their husbands off as to a job, dropped to the ground as their bearers expired. Politicians consulted actuarial tables and determined compensation for the victims, who were beholden to finance capital from their first breath to their last. The financialization of everyday life had never appeared more complete.

Before demonetization, bank guards were bystanders with legs stretched out lazily in the heat, sitting vacantly, guns loosely yoked to their sides. Questions about how a customer might manage to withdraw money tended to elicit blank stares, and they never entered the ATM booth if someone was inside. Now, it was as though demonetization had charged them with purpose, causing them to morph into entirely different hybrid beings. They became avuncular dispensers of much-needed wisdom, knowledge producers, caregivers, and even prosthetic conduits. For example, in the queue at Connaught Place, as people stepped up to a recalibrated machine that was behaving in fickle ways, the guard helped by inserting debit cards, pressing keys for patrons, putting in their passwords properly, and taking over the mechanics of decision-making, effectively offering himself up as each patron’s avatar. In another queue in Uttar Pradesh, one of us witnessed the habitually stoically silent guard turn voluble. This heretofore taciturn figure showed patrons where and how to stand, estimated how long they might have to wait, and announced the arrival of cash. Guards, much like the people standing in the queue, assumed postures of intimacy: they lent their pens, helped fill out forms, and told stories to keep customers entertained.

While pens are generally a precious, hoarded commodity in India, queue companions and guards who could not read ended up sharing them freely, one more mundane way in which people  translated ever-shifting conditions into intricate strategies to secure an afterlife for paper notes. To approach demonetization as a world of everyday financial transactions upended by a policy that mobilized class resentment would be to miss these nuances. In the queues, financial literacy assumed unexpected forms, fostering evanescent alliances and inversions. The deposit and withdrawal of modest sums, a household’s bid for remonetization, would otherwise have been impossible. What materialized through this process was just as interesting as anything that dematerialized. Isn’t it always thus?