When I see the rupee tumbling, I turn nostalgic and try to hum Kishore da’s song in Chalti ka Naam Gaadi, “paanch rupiah baara aana”. I used to wonder why only “paanch rupiah baara aana” when our rupee was trying to stand on its own feet against the adolescent dollar in the 1950s? The rupee those days was coy and kept a distance from getting weak-kneed by outside cupid currency overtures and held its ground. You could watch a movie, buy varieties of fruits or a bagful of sabjis for a song humming “aaj saara zamana aaj pehli taariq hai … saara zamaana aaj pehli taariq hai …” Alas, this fairy tale did not last long. We were on a slippery ground not because of overflowing oil reserves but due to acute food scarcity as we had no security either from the ruler or the tiller, then or now.
Songs based on our rupee were dime a dozen in south Indian films. Indian Rupee, a Malayalam film, was a satire on today’s youth who attempt to make quick money without sweating it out. We had a Telugu film Bhale Kodallu (Bhama Vijayam in Tamil) where the spendthrift daughters-in-law were made to realise the value of money by their father-in-law. The same was made in Hindi Teen Devian (popular song “aam danni athani, kharcha rupiah”). Our films never lost an opportunity to highlight the value of the rupee but Bollywood was notorious for pumping money in all forms — black, white, smuggled and D-company cash, too. Films always gave the rupee a high value despite its sliding image in the 1970s and 1980s.
Then came the real face of the rupee when the voter was freely rewarded for voting, err, ‘noting’ a party in or out. The rupee got its strength in getting the governments we deserved. We were dazed to see the rupee in its full size and colour. No foreign currency could touch our ‘Gandhian’ note, nor could it corrupt our taaza and crisp note. The rupee came of age in the 1960s and 1970s. Then it began feeling the heat with the oil getting dry in our undiscovered wells and we crudely borrowed tons and tons of oil barrels from outside only to reduce our note size and value gradually.
The rupee began to feel the slippery portion and the note turned greasy and out went the crispness with the dollar stamping out its crispness mercilessly. The smiling Gandhi looked on helplessly while Uncle Sam began turning the big baazars small and the small ones into ciphers. The apostle of non-violence looked for help and revival from our rulers and the ruling netas said oil is well with the world while the world was divided into Greecy’ and dry faces each trying to get a facelift. The face of the Indian note has never looked shining since then.
But, perhaps, the fall of the rupee has its plus points too. ‘Brain-drain’ in terms of students going abroad for higher studies would drastically come down and ensure indigenous talent to sprout all across. Expenses on studies abroad would prove costly for many middle class families and the ‘dollar dream’ would remain a pipe dream for many fathers and their wards. The rupee breaching the 64-mark against the dollar is certainly a scary development and a joke that goes around is of the three PPPs — paisa, pyaaz and petrol — which one would touch the 100 mark in the days to come! The pound forced the rupee to touch the 100 mark, and thus in a way the Britannia still rules us monetarily, apart from leaving many other trade marks in India.
It was oil which left the buyers falling and rising meekly and getting hurt in the process of revival. In the impact of such turbulence, the sabjiwallah and bus began royally robbing the aam aadmi, not caring two hoots for the poor and the muddled middle class. Then the gold rush further crippled rupiah, despite repeated pleadings from our ‘Chiddu mama,’ asking Indian women to reduce their gold load.
The currency in ICU (Intensively Crumpled Unit) looked for life-support with oil dripping out of its wounded nerves and gold shining brightly taking away the sheen from the currency.
Perhaps, some numerologists believe that the rupee would have been better off without that sword-like cut across the Devnagiri ‘Ra’ in the insignia. The cut looks symptomatic of the global effect on the Re. Should the government revert to the original shape of no symbol and no identity? An unsung and incognito currency would at least give the markets some respite and the panic button would not be pressed immediately. A currency without shape and size looks the best bet to keep country’s ‘paisa vasool’ on an even keel. When the currency goes abegging in the global market, the professional beggars on the domestic front refuse to accept a small change and prefer a ‘stock exchange’ in bulk trading with the owner!
The sliding rupee in a way, some economists feel, is good news. Our exports would improve, they say, provided we produce something for outsiders. Going by our manufacturing and depressing industrial production scenario, our export scene is now at ground zero and our craze few getting everything from outside has overshot the heights of any Petrona tower or Dubai Burz.
(The writer’s email: veturisri@ yahoo.com)