Over the previous weekend, I was at the CityWalk mall in Saket with some time to spare. I wanted to buy a tea or coffee, but was running low on rupees, so walked through the shiny and spotless mall to the nearest ATM, which was operated by Citibank. I inserted my debit card, punched my oh-so-memorable PIN code, and requested three thousand rupees (for reference, the current conversion rate of rupees to dollars is 66:1). They were given to me in the form of two thousand rupee notes and two five hundred rupee notes.
I then walked over to the nearest Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf (an American chain that I had never encountered previously) to order a splendid slice of almond cake and a just-a-little-too-sweet-and-certainly-overpriced peach iced tea. Humming merrily to myself, I requested the bill–somewhere between two hundred and three hundred rupees–and placed one of my thousand rupee notes in the check booklet. Mm-hmm, I thought to myself, I can’t wait to break these thousand rupee notes.
Two minutes later, the waiter returned with a frown on his vicenarian face. “I’m sorry, sir,” he mumbled. “The note is a counterfeit.”
“That can’t be!” I said with mild irritation. “I just took this bill from that Citibank ATM over there.”
He picked up the bill and held it to my face. “See that green dotted line in the middle. It’s sticking out when it should be part of the texture of the bill. It is a fake.”
I protested again, only to receive a shrug in response. Shaking my head, I took out my other thousand rupee note and settled the bill without hassle.
The same exercise was repeated at a pizza dinner later that night. When I tried paying with the same bill, the waitress returned to the table to point to that same damned green dotted line and insist it was counterfeit money.
Without any other ideas, I called the Captain to seek his advice, since he had already guided me through the intricacies of our water pipes system and the purchase of bedsheets (in fairness, his wife was more helpful with the latter). The Captain was gracious as always, and offered to reach out to his fourth cousin, an executive muckety-muck at Citibank in India who might be able to help. He told me not to try using the note again, as someone could blackmail me for attempting to use counterfeit money and this could get me deported. Nonplussed, I tucked the thousand rupee in the back of my wallet so as not to use it by accident.
He called me back the next day. “The ATMs check very carefully for counterfeit notes and are quite secure,” he said. “My cousin says that it would not have been possible for you to receive this note through a Citibank ATM.”
“How could this happen then?” I asked with some exasperation in my voice. The Captain told me to walk him through the events of the day that I received the note.
“It is most probable that the first waiter swapped your note out for a counterfeit that he had,” the Captain told me in his deliberate cadence. “Did you check to see that you received the same note with which you paid?”
I had not done this, of course. The Captain told me not to feel embarrassed, that this happened to him once with a five hundred rupee note, and that this occasionally happened to his friends. He also told me not to feel bad about having my phone stolen, that his wife had once had her purse taken on a train, and that his daughter had once had her belongings taken as well. The Captain likes to tell stories and is not one for short conversations. He offered to try changing the ersatz note at the bank, and I gladly accepted.
Today I received a phone call from the Captain to say that no, the bank would not take it. When I returned to his house tonight to take it back as a souvenir of my troubles, the Captain pointed out that in addition to the green dotted line, the serial number of this bill in the upper right corner was slightly smaller than those on authentic thousand rupee notes. It is most certainly a counterfeit.
Is there a lesson here? I will write down the serial numbers of thousand rupee notes before paying with them in the future.