Last week when 75-year old Sathi Bai went to a grocery shop, she was deeply shocked to hear the shop-keeper tell her that old currency notes of 500 and 1000 denominations are no longer legal tender in the country.
Living all alone in a small house at Varapuzha in Ernakulam, Sathi retired 20 years ago from the state veterinary department. Having absolutely no contact with the outside world, Sathi leads a solitary existence cut off from all her relatives and neighbours.
She has no use for a phone, television or even a newspaper. “I don’t have electricity here. I don’t need it. I have no idea how to use a television…never used a phone either in my life,” Sathi claims in all solemnity, while speaking to The News Minute.
She gets out of the house only once in a while in order to stock up vegetables and groceries.
“My pension is deposited directly into my bank account. Whenever I need to buy something, all I do is withdraw the requisite amount and use it,” she says. The past two months saw her use the new notes that the bank dispensed as part of her monthly pension.
Not once did she suspect anything amiss. That others around her forgot to tell her about the recent demonetisation just adds to the whole mystery.
After shops started rejecting the old currency she possessed, Sathi approached the Varapuzha branch of State Bank of Travancore -where she has an account- with a bag full of old Rs 500 and Rs 1000 currency notes in the first week of January.
“That day she was waiting outside the bank, even before it opened. She has an account here, and comes frequently to withdraw her pension. Each time, she withdraws a minimal amount.
She had a whole bunch of banned currency notes with her. We were helpless, as the deadline for exchange had already passed. It has been extended now only for NRI accounts.
When we told her the same, she was very angry and made quite a scene. Even though we did not count the whole sum, I am sure it was around Rs 5 lakh or so,” says a senior officer of the bank.
Located at the end of Bhagavathy Parambu in Varapuzha is Sathi’s home, a small two-roomed house amidst a lot of shrubs and creepers. Neighbours say that she does not like anyone entering her compound, much less her house.
“She never speaks to anyone. She is scared to even taste the food we sometimes offer. She stays cooped inside the house for weeks together without even opening the door. We never imagined that she had such a huge amount with her. Had we known, we would have told her,” remarks Radha -Sathi’s neighbour.
Ask her about the bank incident, and Sathi stoutly denies it ever happened. “I don’t have any money with me.” Coax her a bit more, and she whispers: “Since I don’t read newspapers, I never got to know.”
She thinks for a moment and continues: “Everyone is out to deceive me. They all have an eye on my money. I don’t trust anyone.”
Prod her further, and you get a glimpse of the deep-seated strains of insecurity that run through her troubled psyche.
“All I had was my daughter. She died years ago. My husband too passed away, when I was quite young. I manage everything all alone. People come here only to cheat me,” she shares, vaguely hinting at some past incident when someone tricked her into parting with her hard-earned cash.
On getting to know her plight, the Varapuzha Panchayat committee did offer to help her get in touch with the Reserve Bank of India, but she simply refused. Her reasoning is that since she gets her monthly pension, she really did not want anyone’s help.
Bank officials however say that it is now a legal offence to retain old currency notes, and in her case, a significant number of them.
But Sathi refuses to budge. No one is going to get her to part with her money, she is adamant.
Update: A police official told TNM that Sathi's house was raided on Tuesday evening by the police and panchanyat members and Rs 4 lakh in old currency notes were retrieved.
The officer however said that since the woman is old and did not know about demonetisation, they will ask the income tax department to help her and advice her on what can be done with the money.