As America dealt with the results of the presidential election this week, we on the Indian subcontinent were preoccupied with our own predicament: PM Modi’s declaration that
the 500 and 1000 Rs notes, the country’s highest denomination, are now invalid. The decision was made as an attempt to curb the flow of black money, which refers to funds made on the black market on which taxes have not been paid. As luck would have it, virtually all of the group’s money was made up of these very bills, and so we woke up November 9th to the news that Trump was President and that our money was now just colorful paper.
The banks were charged with exchanging the old bills for working ones. The main objective of our week was going to the various banks in Assi and trading in our defunct bills, a task that combines the dreary waiting of a DMV visit with the agitation and
excitement of a sporting event. The 500 and 1000 Rs notes account for 80% of India’s cash in circulation and the country is largely run on cash transactions, so every bank was packed with hordes of people desperate to exchange their money. ATMs were closed all across the city, and the few ones that were working were swarmed by huge amounts of people. The ATMs would inevitably run out of money, leaving the majority of those waiting in line without cash. Foreigners were given preferential treatment at the banks, waiting in special lines that took a fraction of the time to move through. Whether this was right or not was something that many of us in the group grappled with, as we walked past hundreds of people who’d been waiting in line for hours to trade in their currency. Nonetheless, the money we exchanged is necessary for paying for our food and accommodations, and the whole process has taken up the majority of our week.
Our week was not all about banks and money though. On November 14th the group celebrated Dev Deepawali, a festival celebrating the gods descent to the ghats. The ghats
are the name of the riverfront steps leading down to the River Ganges in Varanasi. The whole city was
buzzing that day as everyone decorated the ghats with sculptures, lights, and stages, in preparation for the festivities that night. The group met that night at our favorite cafe, and we all went down to the ghats together (though some of the group chose to celebrate with their homestay families). The ghats were busier than we’d ever seen them. Lights shone all around us and music blared in our ears as we squirmed past crowds of people looking for a boat to take us down the Ganga. With the help of Sangameetra, our
guide and guardian angel, we were able to find a boat and get onto the river and away from the crowds of people. Our boat ride was absolutely magical. Varanasi features 87 distinct ghats, and it seemed that each ghat tried to outdo the others
with beautiful displays of light and fireworks. The supermoon shone red on the Ganga as we passed hundreds of
diyas, clay oil lamps dropped in the water
silent awe while we rode up and down the river, each of us entranced by the magic of the night. The experience was something that none of us will ever forget. to honor the gods. Each one of us had a chance to drop a diya in celebration. We all sat in