In its earliest justifications, demonetization was represented as targeting the widespread presence of black money in all manner of transactions as a generic marker of corruption—part of a common practice through which a significant percentage of many larger-scale transactions was taken off the books and made invisible to various forms of accounting. As both praise and criticism spread, demonetization was also justified in terms of its ability to curb fundraising for terrorism, and touted as a blow to large-scale criminal enterprises such as trafficking. Eventually, as zeal for the new policy spread, and individuals began to die in queues waiting to withdraw cash from ATMs, the justifications began to touch on the prospects of ushering in a cashless economy—an economic system that could take advantage of the latest technologies. Demonetization thus promised an economy of the future.

This promise, however, was not just a deferral of any reckoning of benefits to a future moment. The point was not that the pain of the present would be balanced against and even superseded by the gains of the future, though this was a dominant trope. Rather, the promise served to affect the total enclosure of a corrupt past, a righteous present, and a just future by shifting the axis of evaluation from failed versus effective policies to corrupt versus honest actors.

But how is one to know who is honest and who is corrupt? Not through a process of audit, to an adjudication of various forms of evidence, nor through an examination of accounts, nor through metrics of any kind, nor through any external agency. Rather, the distinction is to be materialized through one’s attitude and orientation toward one’s present pains. Where all manner of people may suffer, only the corrupt complain: for what is there to complain of, if one stands inside the unfolding of a promise in which nothing is actually lost or interrupted?

In December 2016, the prime minister of India offered a salute to the nation’s citizens for “wholeheartedly participating in the ongoing yajna against corruption, terrorism and black money.” Yajna is a Vedic ritual of sacrifice, in which the presence of fire is central. As one might expect, some were quick to retort that it was the common man who was being sacrificed by the government, and that as participation was compulsory—their feet held to the fire, so to speak—one could not speak of willing participation.

The figure of fire is a potent one, and here its link to sacrifice presents an opportunity to experiment with a reading of demonetization-as-promise as a diagram of epic power.

In one telling of a famous episode from the Ramayana concerning Ram and Sita, a divine king and queen, a line was drawn around Sita by Lakshman (Ram's brother) to protect her while Ram was away. This line could not be crossed by anyone except these three, and any other person attempting to do so would be burnt and destroyed. Sita, however, was tricked by an evil enemy into crossing the line and was abducted. When she was eventually returned, she was made to pass through fire as a test of her fidelity while she was a captive. In another telling, her abduction was foreknown, but was allowed to proceed as the unfolding of a fated and divine epic battle. In this version, an agreement was thereby made that she be taken by the god of fire, Agni, into the fire of the hearth. There, he produced a duplicate and illusory Sita—Maya Sita—who would take the original Sita’s place as abductee and captive. When Maya Sita was subjected to the trial by fire she was destroyed, and the true Sita emerged again, untouched and pure, returned to the world.

Fire is often said to be a purifying agent in both versions of the story, but its relationship to purity is operationalized in different ways. In the first version, fire demonstrates purity though a validation of Sita. In the second, fire affirms purity through the production of a double, not as comparison but as a substitute that gathers and isolates those activities which might engender impurity. In the yajna of demonetization, however, there is neither demonstration nor affirmation. There is no rigorous testing of the promise, nor is the cashless society the double of a prior society, which will later emerge both transformed and always already redeemed. In this instance, fire operationalizes purity as a promise: the promise of a world in which the fated conflict between good and evil might be entirely obviated, through a more immediate presence to the good, which neither a test nor fate need mediate to guarantee. In the case of demonitization, sacrifice is a criterion, and the adjudication of fidelity has no endpoint.

Who applies this criterion, and what is the forum for its application? What is the proper way to represent the time and space in which demonetization as promise might be realized? To know this we would have to ask: where was Sita while she resided in the fire, and what would it mean for her to remain there indefinitely? What would it mean to universalize such a condition, to frame a mass of transactions woven through much of ordinary life as both testimony and judgment? What does it mean to frame everyday life as an epic without a series of events, without a story?

Answers to these questions could perhaps afford a better apprehension of the concreteness of demonetization as a promise.