The Moneychanger

Today I am early on the streets again. I have skipped the 6:00am Dynamic Meditation and Bhagwan's morning discourse to get to Pune's MG road as the shop owners are sleepily opening their doors. As it is monsoon season, it has rained all night and the city steams as sari'd women with three-foot bundles of wicker bend at the waist, sweeping the streets in front of their shops and houses. Traditionally throughout Asia, the first customer of the day is lucky. You can usually negotiate a special discount on what you buy just on this superstition alone. If you are a regular customer, even better. I am so frequently in the marketplace early either for the Ashram or myself it is now a joke between my regular customers and me. But on MG Road, I am more likely selling then buying.

All over India, cities have streets named for Mahatma Gandhi and other great leaders. The Indians' love of acronyms quickly shortened the Mahatma's namesake in Pune to MG Road. Here MG Road is an upscale shopping area combined with a thriving sabji market where servants can buy vegetables for their masters' daily meals. Next to the sabji market, goats, lambs, chickens are all slaughtered on heavy tables, gutters running with blood, before your eyes. You drink chai and eat chili patata wada (potato croquettes) at a kerosene fueled, one-man food stall to a background cacophony of monkeys and motor scooters while you wait.

But I am more interested in the merchants along the better part of the road, the fabric shops, restaurants, appliance and electrical stores, travel agents. These are the successful business people who I have learned are willing to pay well for western goods. They will also sometimes give me a good exchange rate for US dollars.

I am carrying a huge Sony boom box today concealed in an orange, duffel-like 'hotdog' bag over my shoulder as well as a lot of money from ashram visitors newly arrived from the west. First I will unload all the heavy stuff so I don't have to carry it and then deal with the money. I sell the boom box in about 5 minutes, discretely, to a cloth merchant I know, for a good price. After all, it's a Sony. He also buys a pair of used western designer jeans for his daughter and his friend who has been quickly called from the adjacent shop takes a Walkman, also a Sony, and 10 rock music tapes. There is a gold-plated European pen and one or two other small items left and we negotiate for these less expensive things just on the basis of their rarity here in India. They will make these gifts to their family and friends. They rock their heads and humbly admit they have unusually exalted status in the market and I should always come to them first with prized items. Yes. We namaste each other and I am back in the streets already filling with shoppers.

I come to MG road so frequently that many merchants nod as I walk by, my pressed, orange Terricot robe, long hair and beard making me easy to spot amongst the Indian masses. Many of the shopkeepers raise their eyebrows to me as if to say, "Have you found that western telescope for my son we spoke about?" I nod quickly and hold up one finger and mouth, "Soon," and move along.

Now that I have lightened my load, I am down to money exchange. The official bank rate floats around 12 or 13 rupees to the US dollar but almost no one changes money at the bank when the street rate is easily twice that. From all my time dealing in the market, I can usually exchange with certain people I know at a rate around Rs30. Of course, the exact rate I get is not common knowledge to my clients at the Ashram. If I get Rs30 to the dollar on any given day, I give my client 28 and the extra two is my cut. They know I make something but it is well worth it to them - they don't have to leave the Ashram and their profit is still great. To a westerner just arrived this is a godsend. Their foreign currency savings is worth twice what they expected so they can stay longer and live better.

I won't handle anything smaller than a $100 bill on which I can make 200 rupees. This is enough to support Gyana's and my basic needs for a few days. If I change $500, and make 2 rupees on the dollar, I keep 1,000 Rupees. I probably make 30% on items like the Sony boom box I front but things like that are bigger risks since I have to walk around carrying them all day. The money exchange is the best business.

Although it is still early, I am getting hungry and I work my way over to the Blue Nile restaurant, a few blocks from MG road, my Pune favorite. It's not a very classy place and I don't even want to know what the kitchen looks like but their curries are the best in town. Eggs curry - hard boiled eggs floating in a stand-up thick brown sauce, bhindi masala - spiced okra and onion curry, Sag Paneer - spinach stewed with white buffalo cheese, Navratan Korma - mixed vegetables in a sweet cream sauce with almonds and cashews - close to fifty different dishes on the menu with every dish having a distinct flavor of its own. Over fresh rice, each mouthful explodes. At the ashram, most of us are rail-thin. This is not because we're not well fed but due to dysentery and other digestive disorders, everything moves so quickly through us. My empty pipes crave carbs and pungent flavors.

As I near the Blue Nile, I pass through a group of beggars. The MG road beggars recognize me and mostly leave me alone but these are from somewhere else, probably living in another part of the city and have come to this area of Pune called Camp, for better pickings. One girl is about 12 years old, in rags and filthy and carrying an infant of only a month or so. The baby has scabs around its eyes and mouth and the girl occasionally pinches it so it will cry and attract attention. I wonder if it is hers or whether she has rented it for the day. The baby barely moves. I give them a few rupees and they are very happy. If I was not used to this, I wouldn't be able to eat lunch but it is not the first time I've seen it. I've become inured.

At the Blue Nile I have a leisurely meal and muse about India. A few nights before I had been in here with 20 other sanyasins and we all sat at one long table for dinner. The waiter took our orders one at a time, writing nothing down. Each person needed something special - a pulau with no cashews because they were allergic, an egg curry with less chili and no eggs. Halfway through the ordering people were calling out across the table to change dishes and he is nodding, still writing down nothing. He has no paper or pencil. He keeps the order in his head. When it begins to arrive, every single dish is exactly right and arrives in front of the right person. There are no complaints. Our waiter, who would not have this job if he was not a descendent of generations of waiters, has perfect recall, a photographic memory for orders. His ancestors could not read or write or afford writing implements and so instead they developed perfect retention abilities as a competitive survival skill. It is now a genetic anomaly which he will pass down to his children.

I finish my eggs curry and baingan bharta, rice and buttered nan and tip well, only a few cents to me but an extra meal for the waiter's family.

When I am through, I leave the cool of the shaded restaurant porch and move again into the sun through the swarm of beggars. They are less persistent now as I have given before. I see the girl and baby sitting a few feet away against a tree. The girl is expressionless, pinching the infant as though it were a doll, more forcefully and shaking it's arms and legs. Now flies are clustering over the baby's face and crawling on its scabbed eyes and mouth. The baby doesn't respond. It is dead. The girl sees me watching and pushes the baby up at me. "Baksheesh, baba?"

Back on MG road I slip into a Muslim owned restaurant. They are Paki or Afghani, an unsmiling, bearded bunch. Huge pots of lamb simmer in amber fat over kerosene stoves. The gray walls are bare except for a few framed religious pictures and waiters here also rush around serving platters piled high with rice and meat. I walk through to the back and speak to Yusuf, one of three men I know sitting together at an out-of-the-way table.

"Bhai, I have money," I say quietly. He raises his eyebrows. "I have ten thousand today." A substantial amount.

"Large bills?"

"Yes, all hundreds, nothing less."

He only wants large bills. Even $500 and $1,000 bills still circulate on India's black market. They are much easier to transport. He looks at the others around the table. It is too large a sum for him to handle today. There is a silent exchange and one rises. Yusuf says, "Go with Hariz."

We leave the café and casually walk east from MG Road without speaking. After a few blocks we stop on a tree-shaded street at a massive bungalow with a high, whitewashed wall and iron gates. We enter the courtyard and Hariz bids me to wait. There are large dogs chained around the bare yard, glaring and growling at me. I feel the sheen of sweat on my face and my armpits run. I am standing here with $10,000 in my bag and I am a Jew, although they will only know me as a sanyasin. I don't carry my passport with me since my Indian visa expired three years ago so they will never know my real name. To them, I am simply Swami Deva.

Hariz returns and we enter a great, long hall with stone columns and only a few pieces of dark wooden furniture pushed into the corners. It is all white and gray marble and the ceiling is at least 20 feet high. It is cavernous and empty. There is no sign that anyone lives here but three men lounge against the walls with rifles. They ignore us as we pass to the end of the room to meet a 250 pound beard sitting alone at a table. I greet Amir Askari.

"As-Salaam 'Alaykum" I say with little confidence. He nods slightly, not bothering with the traditional "Alaykum As-Salaam" reply for this infidel. We are not friends.

"I have ten thousand dollars," I say simply. I know Hariz has explained that I have done business with them for some time and that I am safe.

"Today it is 33," Amir says. I am speechless. I've never heard of an exchange rate that great before. I realize Amir is very high up on the food chain. My ten thousand dollars today has been enough to get me to see Pune's direct connection to the money market walas in Bombay. A very lucky day for me but I show none of my excitement as I nod and remove the money from my bag, laying the US Dollars out on the table. The exchange is made quickly, no chit chat and Hariz and I are escorted out. On the street I realize we have just exited from a secure fortress. Amir is some kind of war lord here in the middle of the city. This is where Pune's black market money amasses before it is trucked in guarded convoys to its next stop. My ten thousand dollars was probably the smallest transaction Amir would see all day.

But my orange robe and mala and my reputation has made me a worthwhile asset, a conduit to the Ashram which is one of the largest spenders in this part of Maharashtra. To maintain this relationship, Amir will handle my occasional exchanges and one day something else of greater opportunity will arise.

Hariz leaves me on the street and I retreat from the neighborhood as fast as I can. Even with the high rate I got, Yusuf and his family will get their cut as will many others. Tiny bits of energy will peel off this deal all along its journey, affecting lives here in India and even halfway around the world.

I do a quick calculation and realize if I give my ashram clients Rs28 to the dollar, still an excellent rate for visitors to India, I have just cleared 50,000 rupees profit plus the few hundred I made on the stereo and other stuff. OK, I'll give them 29, be a hero and pocket Rs40,000. These kinds of deals will guarantee Gyana and I are well taken care of and I won't have to hustle blenders and watches every day and night. I'll be able to pick and choose how much I need to work and have much more time to live the ashram life.