Why do Indians love the sight of cash?

Shivaji Dasgupta
New Update
Cash recovered by Enforcement Directorate from Partha Chatterjee's aide home in Kolkata

The answer, quite simply, is that cash is not just valuable currency but indeed invaluable culture, to our impressionable demography. It effortlessly straddles the perks of virtue as well as the perils of sin, changing hues without altering colors.

In the early 1970s, the income tax rates for the highest slab could go as high as 90 percent, a very clear reason why the successful hoarded cash. This, when coupled with the dubious penetration and often, reputation, of organized banking made legal tender the inimitable marker of possession. Even as virtual transactions became normal, earlier cheque and now digital, the role of raw lucre evolved as illegitimate or undeclared earnings, truly a  timeless motivation.

But the greatest contribution to this obsession for cash has been popular culture, endowing it with a certain unpredictable romance. The enigmatic leather briefcase, stuffed like a Mumbai local, ably represented the transition of morals, depicted in cinema and replicated in life. It was a telling tipping point in Don and an edgy shift of power in Deewar, a dramatic pattern emulated relentlessly in subsequent narratives. Although cash was always dangerously fleeting, its throbbing presence was forever mired by its dire absence, through theft, dishonor, or a destiny going astray.

To add further substance, religion and customs played their roles ably, both in meaning and transaction. Most temples have an organised cash culture, followed sincerely by demanding devotees, as an entry pass to win celestial attention. To bless the newborn or currently wedded, the finely manicured envelope containing crunchy currency is much regarded, way above porcelain tea sets or lifeless gift cheques. It creates a voracious sense of anticipation and the revelation of content can lead to both delight or fury, and each of us can endorse this sentiment.

Most recently, as multiple tales of organised corruption were revealed by hungry media, the symbolism of cash heists became even more apparent. The signature mnemonic of the ex-TMC minister's purported crimes was that frenetic pileup of hardened tender, reminiscent of Uttam Kumar's iconic dream sequence in Ray's 'Nayak'. In its deliberate disarray resided the sordid tale of many a job seeker, whether denied or satisfied and in its overflowing decadence, history found continuing resonance. From the historical betrayal of Plassey to the routine betrayals by MLAs, the Jharkhand case now live, cash is the timeless adhesive.

In India, and across the universe, there are far more high voltage illustrations of swindling, the sub-judice cases of DHFL, Nirav Modi, Ranbaxy, and even ICICI Bank, rather prominent. But in these instances, and so many more, the transgressions were boringly digital, thus the scam was captured listlessly in figures and not in figurines, and I do mean the persuasive physicality of paper. Thus, these end up being far less dramatic than the West Bengal affairs, imagine the Mafia exterminating enemies via cyanide pen pricks and not technicolor shootouts, rather pedestrian confessedly.

Quite admirably, we are moving up the charts as an UPI nation, the RBI performing splendidly to digitize our dealings, whether chocolate bars or gold bars. This, in tandem with Form 16 incomes rising in stature and influence, envisage a reduced logical dependency on hard currency, unless naughtily acquired. But then, as proven across multiple arenas, Indians are famously non-logical and cash promises to be the choice of the heart in expressing sentiments, from 'ashirvaad' to solicitation and gratitude, whether divine or earthly.

On scamsters, though, and their persistent whistleblowers, here is a thoughtful suggestion. Before inviting the media for a damning dekko, please orchestrate a monument of hard cash, ideally real or if necessary, digitized to amplify the surrogate value of the usurpation. It will considerably increase curious eyeballs and the ensuing spike in TRPs may well add some extra cash to your kitty, albeit electronically.