The flight ticket is booked on MakeMyTrip. Hotel on TripAdvisor. There is no Uber from Bhubaneshwar to Puri, so no Paytm. The local taxi won’t take card or e-wallet. But the hotel’s travel desk has said they will arrange a taxi and charge it in the final bill. So how long can we go cashless? Well, till the airport parking lot. The attendant asks for Rs 30. I ask Shubo, our driver, if he can pay and put it on the taxi bill. He agrees, somewhat reluctantly. He says there is a toll booth coming up; we will have to shell out Rs 110. But when we come to it, it’s unmanned! Toll plazas have been exempt for now. We ride on our luck and are off to Puri, so far the few hundred rupees in our wallets all in place.
We cross what Shubo calls Bhubaneshwar’s city centre in about seven minutes and are off on the highway. It’s a languid day. The shimmering, almost desolate road winds through recently harvested paddy fields. The mango, neem, jackfruit trees glisten in the morning sun, dense clusters of coconut palms gently rustle to the light breeze. Ducks—are they the Northern Pintail—wander about it in clear green ponds, the trees’ shadow on them like Escher’s lithographs. After Delhi’s PM 2.5 and PM10 levels, our lungs take some time to change gears to savour this air free of suspended particles. There are daab sellers along the road, heaps of succulent green coconuts lying about them. Should we? Celebrate the miss at the toll plaze? We risk it. Rs 60 for three, the first dent on our cash reserve.
Puri is actually a Bengali city which happens to be in Orissa. All the conversation, always animated, is in Bengali, all the shop signs are in Bengali while almost all the restaurants serve Bengali food. There is Calcutta’s Bhojohori Manna here, next to Puri Hotel, on a lane off beach road. And they accept cards. It’s a short walk from our hotel. The Hilsa shorshey bhapa is creamy, sparsely flavoured, the fish still tasting of the sea. We ask our waiter—so soft-spoken that we have to strain our ears in the din surrounding us on all tables—which is the best place in Puri for authentic Oriya food. He looks heavenwards, frowns his forehead, taps his temple, slowly shakes his head and says only in people’s homes. What was a short walk on our way up, seems insurmountable after a five course meal. We get into a battery-operated rickshaw but he won’t go for below Rs 60. We consult our wallet and go for it. As it hurtles down beach road, we see long queues in front of every ATM. The money is dwindling, soon we will have to join one.
The OTDC guest house Panthniwas in Satapada, at the edge of Chilika lake, doesn’t do online booking, says the manager at the tourism office in Puri. And the card machine there isn’t working. The restaurant there will take only cash. The taxi operator too is in the cash economy. The boat ride in Chilika will be around Rs 2,000, again in cash. That’s a lot of cash and we don’t even have half of it. Should we drop Chilika? We are distraught. The dolphins, the birds, the islands. The manager looks at us consolingly. Another man in a brown uniform sitting on a bench immersed in a newspaper who has been hearing our conversation looks up and says coolly, ‘But we accept old notes’. What?! We ejaculate. ‘Yes, that’s the government order till this week.’ The guest house, restaurant, taxi, boat will all take the old money. We rush to the hotel to get our pile of junked 500s.
The ride in Chilika, Asia’s biggest salt water lake, to the white noise of the boat’s engine, is meditative. The islands float around us, as if in space, and it’s hard to imagine from these serene waters that the roaring sea is just beyond them. It’s too soon for the migratory birds and dolphins have decided to lie-in today but the vastness of water is mesmerizing.
There is this niggling thought though that even the old money is now low, replenishments are urgently needed. The Panthniwas manager tells us that there is a SBI bank down the road, with an ATM, but he adds that is there is no money in it. But he will ask his men to be on vigil and let us know when it is filled again. After dinner he sides up near us and whispers surreptitiously, like Shetty would to Ajit, ‘Boss, Madh Island mein maal utar gaya hai.’ We rush to the SBI in Satapada, a building under some renovation, with a brightly lit ATM. There are just a handful of people, all quietly restive. What if it dies at their turn? The man in front of us enters the cubicle, squares his shoulders, takes a deep breath—Gavaskar readying to face Andy Roberts’ first delivery—punches his number and breaks into a grin at the sweet sound of the machine dispensing cash. We see our first Rs 2000 note, looking a bit like Monopoly money, around midnight on Karthik Purnima in the deathly silent Satapada, with the Chilika calmly twinkling nearby.