Photo by Kamalakannan PM.

The English language’s composite heritage has allowed each word to register shifting allusions, according to time, place, and the people’s own vernacular. Cash. Money. Currency. All of these words have different origins in ancient languages, as well as mutating referents in the pragmatics of life. Cash: from the Latin for a box (capsa, Latin; caisse, French). Money: from the goddess Juno Moneta, whose shrine overlooked the treasury where coins were made in ancient Rome. Currency: flow, the movement of value through social space. So: physicality, power, and connection. The words for money doubtless invoke their own referents in other languages, as in the Indian cases gathered in this collection of essays about the responses of Indian citizens to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s demonetization. These cases unfold against the backdrop of a historic innovation: digital currency.

Worldwide, there is a growing necessity for invention on the part of users of money, particularly with respect to embedding money’s four classic functions—exchange, payment, accounting, and store of value—in the temporalities of life-as-lived (from daily life to the life cycle). Exchange is immediate: hand to hand. Payment presumes a collectively accepted standardization of timeframes, such as hours, days, weeks, seasons, the annual cycle, and ritual markers (sabbaticals, anniversaries, and so on). Account involves agreements where the parties fix the dates. Store of value is long-term in its temporal referent. Taken together, the essays in this Hot Spots series offer inspirational guidance for the study of people’s monetary practices during money-time turbulence. A complex transition with respect to all the official attributes of money provokes a topic of great anthropological importance: people’s own commentaries and practices, in their own terms and for their own purposes.

To extend these accounts still further, the people’s own “memory bank” (Hart 2000) would be another source to consult about present events, particularly the concepts and temporalities they have generated. There have been two earlier episodes of demonetization in India, in 1946 and 1978, which might remain in popular memory and culture, and we might explore how these past experiences infuse the many practices that people tried to enact under the new circumstances of 2016. According to the historical record, in each case of demonetization there was government concern about illegal uses of certain banknotes and the evasion of tax payments. So there may be an older generation whose members remember this whole process: from the first announcements and justifications to the policies, through the struggle with how to manage (especially money’s store-of-value function) and onward to longer-term adjustment. The editors of the series, Namita Dharia and Nishita Trisal, crucially challenge us to understand the cycles of economic precarity through which people have developed “affective temporalities—the sudden and mystical combined with longer durations of apathy and neglect.”

The important contribution of this series may be to gather sharply defined topics together, with time as an implicit common theme. Dharia and Trisal’s introduction explains the reasons for the demonetization of the higher denominations, which were seen as being used increasingly for illegal or suspicious purposes. The temporal referent of the long-term payoff in these decisions would be a theme to follow. A. R. Vasavi’s contribution, in particular, brings these political calculations to the fore. As she highlights, demonetization was not intended for the poorer populations, except possibly such that demonetization meant “holding the rich and corrupt accountable” and claiming that the difficulties of the poor were “temporary sacrifices.” In fact, by her account, the pain for the poor was recurrent, due to unpredictable employment, precarious wage-earning, and inadequate money to pay for health care, ritual celebration, and other temporally fixed or emergent processes in life. Sohini Kar and Aniket Aga’s examples of farmers’ suicides point to another temporal intersection: that of seasonal income and the life course. And, with respect to living day-to-day life, Mekhala Krishnamurthy gives examples of traders creating their margins when undertaking the classic function of money as a means of exchange in the immediacy of face-to-face deals. Finally, Trisal’s essay takes on the honoring of formal commitments in the banking sector in a major trade center in Kashmir, where money (as cash) appears to be the main medium for all four classic functions. With demonetization, every function became suddenly questionable, as “bankers tried to determine what exactly would constitute legal tender the next day.” As these essays suggest, demonetization drew out a dense interweaving of functionaries, transactions, and participants in temporalities of varying duration.

A challenge for us in money studies to take away from this series is that of undertaking detailed ethnographies of the definitions and management of the temporal commitments of life, by all parties, in the present money economy. There is also, clearly, an invitation to connect current experiences in the world to recent classics such as Keith Hart’s (2000) work on money as memory, David Graeber (2011) on debt, and Bill Maurer (2005) on alternative currencies, plus, doubtless, other classics by scholars based in India. The horizon has been opened, and it beckons us to greater empirical focus on the people’s money experiences, concepts, and imaginations in our turbulent times.


1. Several of the essays mention the revival of gold in the spaces cleared out by demonetization. This suggests the recycling of, and people’s confidence in, the oldest material embodiment of the store-of-value function.


Graeber, David. 2011. Debt: The First Five Thousand Years. Brooklyn, N.Y.: Melville House.

Hart, Keith. 2000. The Memory Bank. Money in an Unequal World. London: Profile Books.

Maurer, Bill. 2005. Mutual Life, Limited: Islamic Banking, Alternative Currencies, Lateral Reason. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.