Demonetisation and the Indian housewife’s financial privacy

Deepak Kashyap

Kumari Rani achieved superficial peace with her husband after 9 years in her arranged marriage. The marriage had turned sour immediately after the wedding celebrations, with thinly veiled requests for more ‘gifts’ from her parents. Somehow, through constant resistance, quoting dowry laws and befriending her sister-in-law, Neeta, whose experiences in her marriage were even worse, she’d managed to keep a lid on her husband and mother-in-law’s demands.

Her brother Puneet, sympathetic and painfully aware of Kumari Rani’s position, found himself, at his parents’ behest, unable to intervene. He could only look away and say, “It will get better,” when she complained of verbal or physical abuse.

Divorce meant social suicide in her community, pushing her to make the marriage ‘work’. After 4 years, the husband, though having ceased his incessant dowry demands, had adopted a rather cold demeanour, briefly broken by the arrival of a baby, fortunately a boy.

The infant’s arrival, while securing her position in the house, did not necessarily add to her happiness or confidence.

Lacking a source of income was her main deterrent for most decisions. Women of her ‘righteous’ community never worked outside their homes.

Puneet and she made a sibling’s pact, unbeknownst to their parents, that if ever things went out of her control or she felt afraid for her life in any way, she would just run away with her son to Puneet in Ajmer, just a 3-hour bus ride away. To be prepared for such eventualities, Kumari Rani had been squirreling away sums of cash left over from the household allowance and haggling. Without a bank account, the biggest help were the sums that Puneet would give her as ‘secret presents’ from the pocket money he received from his parents.

Kumari Rani’s confidence in dealing with life grew as the stash of her money grew, given the exit plan. She would sometimes be lenient with her spending and even buy her son some gifts that the father coldly refused. She would, however, never let the amount go down below a certain level.

On 8th November 2016 at 8 p.m., Kumari Rani’s already precarious marriage was going to be shaken. She would wake up to a reality where most of her cash ‘savings’ would be worth nothing if she didn’t change the sum of Rs 54,000 in a few weeks’ time to the new currency bills.

Her sense of physical freedom, and hence confidence, were largely dependent on that stash of money. She’d risk her financial privacy and consequently her safety; in her town, it was hard not to be noticed entering the only bank around for miles.

The emotionally abandoned wife felt a sense of helplessness yet again amidst the clamour of her relatives telling her to stick it out in the marriage for the greater good of the community and her son.

This story is not just that of Kumari Rani, but also of those millions of housewives in precarious marriages banking only on their cash caches.

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