"Per caste 200 each for converting", the text message from an unknown number reads and I am momentarily non - plussed. I then realize that this must be from the photography store guy where I had enquired earlier in the day about copying mini DV cassettes onto a hard disk. 'Per cassette Rs. 200 each for converting'.
In upwardly mobile India, where everyone is keen on communicating in English in addition to their mother tongue(s) you can't predict what the written or spoken message will be, but chances are high that it will bring a smile to your face. Unpredictable, but 'fun types', as they say in Mumbai.
Unpredictability unfortunately extends to too many other less 'fun types' aspects of life in India. Will the car coming from the other direction stop at the red light, or keep going? Will the policeman provide help to the citizen asking for it, fine him or thrash him? Will the motorcyclist who was stopped for driving without a helmet apologize to the policeman, pay his fine or thrash him? Will the passenger show up for the flight or stay home? Will the cargo booked for a vessel or a flight out of the country actually show up, be a few days late, or get cancelled altogether? Will the friend who says he's coming over today actually come over, or was it a 'we'll play it by ear'? Will the family of the bride or bridegroom actually see the wedding through, or will they bail? Will the businessman pay his taxes or not?
You never know, not until the last minute, and it puts Indians' ability to cope with uncertainty to the test. It also causes stress across the system because not knowing, not being sure of such crucial things means that individuals and businesses and yes, Government bodies, have to constantly make contingencies, keep buffers, make allowances, and plan for surpluses, redundancies or massive shortfalls.
The Government of Prime Minister Modi has just made the most unpredictable announcement in modern times for a large complex economy. All Rs. 500 and Rs. 1,000 bank notes were declared illegal tender on the night of November 8th, the day that the people of the United States were planning a little unpredicted result of their own.
86% of legal tender is being sucked out of the system and replaced with new bank notes. The trade in grains and rice and fish and meat has ground to a halt. The sale of white goods and cars and motorcycles is down by 25%. Day laborers can't be paid. Trucks couldn't move because truck drivers need thousands of rupees in cash to navigate police checks across the land, never knowing when they'll have to pay someone.
Lines of citizens are snaking in front of banks, trying to offload old money and get their hands on new notes. There's an air of resignation in the air, there's anger but also a feeling, as one columnist wrote, that this is the role they have to play in cleaning up the system, in making it less unpredictable for and biased against the common man.
What if we as a nation were a little bit more predictable? We have no hope of ever being Japanese or Swiss or Singaporean or German in terms of predictability, but wouldn't a little predictability, a little boredom be a boon for the country? Wouldn't fewer accidents and deaths on the road come as a relief? Wouldn't normal citizen to policeman or tax man or Customs Officer conversations be a welcome change? Wouldn't knowing that the 96% of the population that currently doesn't pay taxes, will pay some tax make a difference in the Government's ability to allocate resources? Wouldn't my wife like to know that I'm going to be home when I say I'm going to be home??
Well, let's not get ahead of ourselves here.
Oh, to be predictable and boring, if only for one day.
Btw, the banner photo was taken from our holiday home outside of San Gimignano at 6.20 am. What light! It lasted all of five minutes.