My thousand-rupee note ($15) was torn..
I hadn’t noticed the quarter-inch imperfection at the top of the bill, just left of the declaration in Hindu and English, “Reserve Bank of India,” but the waiter at a dismal Palolem Beach restaurant brought it back, holding it gingerly, as though it had fallen in the toilet.
It was no good. He showed me the tear and made a sad face.
Of course it’s good, I said. It’s all there. Christ…
I found other rupees enough to pay for the beer and the worst steak I’ve ever had and tucked the torn note back in the zippered big-note compartment of my Hugo Boss wallet.
A couple of days later, on a morning ride south, I parked my scooter next to the trash-strewn verge in Chawdi, just across from the State Bank of India.
The manager at the Agonda Beach branch of HFDC Bank had directed me there. Yes, he said, the bill was good. I was correct. Unfortunately, he could not give me untorn money in exchange. State Bank would take it.
Inside State Bank, a large sign in English instructed all newcomers to take a token and wait until that number was called. There were no tokens. The token tube was empty. Each of the tellers had a lighted “20” below their window.
Twenty-five expressionless customers sat shoulder to shoulder on rows of soiled chairs, their backs to the tellers; others milled as though the train were due. It was a solemn group, not a smile in sight. A policeman with a double-barreled shotgun sat on a stool by the front door, already sleepy.
Teller number 4 was loudly officious in a lilac shirt and tie and was nearly free. He finished with the tiny man peering at him over the counter, waving his hand in dismissal. He continued scowling at his screen when I spoke to him, then sprang to his feet, athletically avoiding an empty computer-paper carton and consulted with teller number 1, a thin, twitchy man in a white shirt and Buddy Holly glasses all askew.
Teller 2 was absent.
Teller 3 was a fashionably-bloused woman of 30 with penciled eyebrows. She was displeased with her customer and showed him with a tapping purple nail where to sign the long document stretching between them in multiple copies, sighing her exasperation.
In three minutes, my teller came back. I showed him my torn bill. Could I exchange it?
“No brown paper here,” he said.
I didn’t understand.
“We are not having brown paper here,” he repeated loudly, then said it again, “no brown paper.”
“See this man.” He was displeased with my slowness. He pointed to a portly bank man of authority at a crowded desk back toward the front door. The man’s stacks of folders and loose sheets of paper leaned precariously.
I showed him my bank note.
He had been napping and had no work in front of him. He eyed me by peering upward, his head on an unchanging downward tilt. “See her,” he said. He fluttered his hand in a weak diagonal across the bank toward a heavy woman in an orange top.
She saw me coming and made a little face, a your-zipper’s-open-you-idiot moue. Her finger was stiff and humorless. She pointed at a managerial woman in an inner office, conversing heatedly with an elderly man who repeatedly pushed up his slipping and smudged glasses and a dejected village woman in a cheap purple sari.
I sat on the chair outside and waited. My guess was that the old man wanted a loan to marry the much younger village woman.
The woman in the orange top was talking to another bank veteran in a long-sleeved white shirt. His folder and document stacks seemed from his work pace to guarantee years more of work, perhaps all the way to retirement, even with no new papers added. Neither he nor orange woman looked at me.
After five minutes, the woman inside gestured to me, then, when I hestitated, waved me in, frowning.
She was middle-aged, brisk in a linen suit and in command, apparently, of the bureau I needed: Bill Vandalism and Lecherous Loans.
I showed her my bill, feeling a flash of shame at its condition. She frowned at me again, then held it up to the light. She examined the tear carefully, as though looking for evidence of illicit behavior. Then she handed the bill across the desk to the elderly man with the dirty glasses. He, too, I saw now, was dressed as a manager of some sort. He didn’t look at me but pushed his glasses up and began measuring short strips of brown paper.
He was not a petitioner. He was the brown paper man.
I asked the brisk woman if I could have my new bills in hundreds.
“Hundreds?” She was incredulous. First I tear a bill; then I want hundreds?
The paper man had settled on three strips of brown paper, like old-fashoned butcher paper. One went on the serial number. He placed it carefully on the bill to measure, trimmed a bit more with what looked like moustache scissors, then turned it over, gummed it meticulously from a glue pot and patted it down.
I left with my dirty handful of hundreds. The brisk woman said nothing. The village woman had not moved. The papering was unfinished. The brown paper man was holding up his second strip, scrutinizing with a specialist’s eye the tear on my bill, which was not straight, but curved.