So this is how filthy lucre looks like

As a legal tender of a financial-minded newspaper, I have grown comfortable over the years with the idea of crores. Of rupees, that is. This comfort, as well as the idea of crores, is inflation-proof.

Each time I’ve ascertained that a crore is indeed 100 lakhs no matter what the dollar exchange rate is – a lakh being a unit I am personally familiar with – various multiples of crores become abstractions, like a Gaitonde painting, one of which was sold last year for ₹39.98 crore. (I couldn’t tell you which one because Gaitonde titled almost all his paintings ‘Untitled’.)

But this abstraction was given flesh in the form of paper notes adding up to apparently ₹21.9 crore last week in an apartment of a woman who’s allegedly a close friend of West Bengal industry and commerce minister Partha Chatterjee. The Enforcement Directorate (ED) is, even as I electronically transfer a substantial amount to an unnamed source for my July electricity bill, is questioning Chatterjee. But one question I bet my bottom rupee they won’t ask him is: Why was the ₹21.9 crore kept in such a godawful mess?

Finding piles of ₹21.9 crore – and a few days later another ₹28.9 crore in another flat – in purple ₹2,000 and greenish ₹500 currency notes in someone’s home is strange enough. Used to as I am seeing a few lakhs in currency notes once the villain or hero (pretending to be villain) opens up an attache in 70s Hindi movies, actually seeing what ₹21.9 crore looks like is like catching a glimpse of the Yeti.

The TV show Scam 1992 may have shown Harhad Mehta played by Pratik Gandhi open a suitcase to reveal the ₹1 crore stashed in ₹100 notes, and then flick a wad before the gathered press as his lawyer Ram Jethmalani names prime minister PV Narasimha Rao as having accepted the 1 crore in bribes from his client. But in reality, at the June 16, 1993 press conference, only the two (empty) giant suitcases in which the ₹1 crore was purportedly carried were displayed.

But more than the Nat Geo kind of wonderment of finally getting to see what crores look like in banknotes, what threw me off my good lakhs was the way the money was kept – in utter disarray. How does one keep currency notes heaped like garbage, the images themselves giving off an odour that’s a mix of rotten cabbage, wet plastic and low-level puffery? I mean, who keeps money like that?

My relationship with currency has had its ups and downs. While I did recover a gnashed up ₹20 and a ₹10 note from the maws of my dog recently, and have on occasions left the stray note in my trousers to be spun out of circulation by the washing machine, I have consciously not been piggish about paper money storage. The closest I have come to being irresponsible with regards to currency was when I may have attempted to light a purple £20 note on fire in Britain – where curiously, according to their Currency and Bank Notes Act, 1928, it’s a criminal offence to deface a banknote (like draw a moustache on the queen) but not illegal to destroy one. I was told by an unreliable source in RBI that it was the opposite here. So my plans of reenacting The Joker in The Dark Knight making a bonfire out of a huge block of bank-robbed currency notes is indefinitely postponed.

In my defence, I was 20 years younger, am anti-monarchy (even Bhutan’s) and was having my first taste of Jameson, the lovely Irish whiskey. But what excuse does Chatterjee or his girlfriend have in not destroying, but actually keeping ₹21.9 crore currency notes in such an abject state?

Unless – and this may be investigated by a higher power that understands swachhata better than most Indians – the filthy dump was made by the ED after finding the stash. After all, what looks more dirty than dirty money in dirty piles for the media to take camera- and potshots at?


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