Saadat Hasan Manto’s celebrated short story Toba Tek Singh is perhaps the most eloquent symbol of the madness that was Partition. Nearly 70 years later and hundreds of kilometers away from the India-Pakistan border that was the setting for Manto’s story, psychiatrist Dr Venu Gopal Jhanwar witnessed a Toba Tek Singh-like moment in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s constituency of Varanasi post-demonetisation.

Jhanwar’s story revolves around a milkman in Varanasi who had thought of signing up for the state government’s scheme to encourage dairy farming. It allowed those who wanted to expand their dairy farms to avail of government finance if provided proof that they possessed a percentage of the capital required for the project. To that end, the milkman had to collect around Rs 4 lakhs in cash.

On the evening of November 8, when Modi announced that old currency notes of Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 were suddenly invalid, the milkman went into a tizzy. He disappeared from home for 18 days. “When he surfaced, they [the family] brought the milkman over to me,” said Jhanwar. “He thought under the government’s demonetisation policy all those who possessed cash in excess of Rs 2.5 lakhs were liable to be punished.”

Varanasi’s milkman epitomises the trauma that demonetisation caused for many Indians. Though Modi admitted that the exercise would cause a few “inconveniences”, the pain was clearly much greater: thousands lost their jobs, the informal sector took a hit and farming operations were hobbled. Almost four months after Modi’s decision, it is perhaps appropriate to put Indians on the couch to examine how their experiences of demonetisation have affected them. spoke to 20 psychiatrists, clinical psychologists and psychoanalysts, most of whom are located in North India. They plotted India’s psychological graph through 100 days of demonetisation.

The cleaving of India

The Indian psyche was divided because of the two dominant views on demonetisation, said psychoanalyst Dr Ashok Nagpal, Dean of Human Studies in Delhi’s Ambedkar University. One view was that the policy would devastate the economy and inflict pain on the people. But it was also claimed that since demonetisation aimed to curb terror finance and black money, it would free the nation from their tentacles.

“The cleavage in the Indian psyche was between pain and freedom, leaving none untouched,” said Nagpal. “The night became longer for every individual. How was he or she to wake up after the passage of long night? How was he or she to dream? And what kind of dream was he or she to have?”

The kind of dream a person would have depended on his or her economic position. No doubt, in the initial days of demonetisation, the prime minister galvanised the poor. To them, demonetisation represented a dream in which they were on the same level as the rich, queuing up together outside banks. It was as if the queue was the nation.

For the rich, demonetisation challenged their fantasies about the future – for instance, the investments they had made so as not to be dependent on their children. Demonetisation made them realise that they were not as rich as their black money was supposed to guarantee. It held a mirror to even those who had converted their stashes of old currency notes, largely ill-gotten, into new ones.

In Nagpal’s “long night”, they perhaps asked themselves: “To what extent are we patriots? Can we continue to be brazen as we were in the past?” Such introspection holds out the possibility of social change. If this were to happen, Modi would be recognised as its mentor.

Nagpal explained, “In the initial few days of demonetisation, Modi made corruption seem akin to untouchability, and the corrupt the new untouchables. Modi shook the idea of what a nation is, and redefined it in terms of people’s relationship with money. The nation has been recast in the image of money.”

But demonetisation also spawned what Nagpal called the “imagination of jail”. It trammeled people’s right to access their own money, held out threats of hunting black-money hoarders, and identifying and penalising those who evade paying tax, or underpay taxes. It sparked rumours about the officials inspecting people’s private bank lockers and trying to establish whether houses really belonged to those in whose names they were registered.

“All this has triggered fears and uncertainties about the future, likely to grow unless the slowing economy is revived, industrial production and employment picks up,” said Nagpal, suggesting that the Indian psyche is still in the process of being moulded by demonetisation. “The dreams of the long night will then have to contend with a reality harsher than what was imagined earlier.”

A sense of nihilistic glee

However, the dream that demonetisation would become the great equaliser of classes triggered what Anurag Mishra, chief of the psychoanalytical unit of Fortis Hospital, Gurugram, calls “nihilistic glee” at the discomfort of the better-off, who, it was assumed, would be brought to ruin. It had an element of sadism as it drew pleasure from the travails of a class of people who were deemed to be the “other”.

To Mishra, this nihilistic glee was redolent of the mob mentality he witnessed during the 2002 riots in Gujarat, where he then worked. Mobs provide people the anonymity to assert themselves, to indulge in violence against the other with impunity.

“It is as if people derive orgasmic delight in destroying properties and lives,” said Mishra. Demonetisation did not lead to the harming, at least physically, of the other, but expressions of support for the policy echoed the popular justification for the 2002 violence in Gujarat.

Nor was this nihilistic glee anchored in reality. As the better-off became less visible in the lines outside banks, it became obvious to the underclass that the better-off had seceded from the nation-in-queue, to use Nagpal’s phrase. The better-off converted their old currency notes into new ones and accessed their superior network to obtain money from banks without standing in queue. Even the poor were willing to cut a deal, exchanging their Rs 1,000 for Rs 800 to get around.

“Demonetisation aroused anti-social instincts all around,” said Mishra. The suffering that demonetisation inflicted, and the consequent indulgence in anti-social behaviour, enhanced camaraderie among people that is evident in the jokes and memes circulated in social media.

As is true of riots, “demonetisation became a spectacle in which everyone participated even though not all were hit equally,” said Mishra. “They derived voyeuristic pleasure out of it.”

Then again, rumours – such as tax officials examining the gold jewelry every individual possessed – circulated unabated. This was another characteristic that the popular response to demonetisation shared with riots. Worse, the societal panic grew manifold because banking rules were changed every passing day. “Anything that disrupts the rhythm of life is traumatic,” said Mishra. “That’s why demonetisation was traumatic.”

Yet the trauma didn’t lead to protests. Why?

Mishra said it was perhaps because of “dissociation”, a psychoanalytical term for a condition in which a person doesn’t identity with what is happening to them, when they watch their experiences as if it were happening to another person. “People suffered because of demonetisation, but they didn’t identify with it,” said Mishra. And because they didn’t identify with it, they were numbed into quiescence.

Grief and rationalisation

The lack of protest could also be because the nature of popular response to demonetisation was one of grief, suggested psychoanalyst Dr Rajat Mitra, who heads the Swanchetan Society for Mental Health in Delhi. “People grieved because demonetisation severed their old relationship with cash. Our relationship with cash is deep and as sacred as a religious tradition.”

(Photo credit: Reuters).

People grieved as they would at a breakdown of a relationship they value or at the passing away of a loved one. A grief reaction typically has five stages – denial, protest, sadness, rationalisation and fear.

At the announcement of demonetisation, there were many who thought the government would roll it back. The next stage saw some people complain and protest, at times publicly, but mostly among friends and family members. It was followed by sadness among those who had suffered losses, whether because of having to convert old currency notes into new ones at a hefty discount or because their businesses dipped. But sadness also prompted people to rationalise, which entails finding a new meaning in the new or emerging reality.

In a way, this meaning was provided by the Modi government through its campaign to encourage digital money. “A new meaning enables a person grieving to adjust to the new reality,” said Mitra. “During the days of cash-crunch, people took recourse to making and receiving digital payments.” Their change in habit acquired salience as it was under the overarching idea of combating tax evasion.

Yet fear persists through the adjustment process. This is because the reality is still emerging and, therefore, remains potentially destabilising. Or because the possibility of failure remains high as people haven’t yet adequately adjusted to the new reality.

“Given that demonetisation affected just about everyone, you would have thought that psychological implications would have been far more severe than what we witnessed,” said Mitra. “It speaks a lot about our resilience as a society.”

One reason could be that our society isn’t as individualistic as, say, western society. The individual remains deeply embedded in the network of extended family and friends, all willing to provide help.

“But this mental resilience could also be because of our ability for jugaad or improvising upon a situation,” suggested Mitra. Jugaad here would include the conversion of old currencies into new ones. “Then again our society has a strong tendency of internalising [the causes of our] woes, which we ascribe to our karma, to our past deeds.”

Obviously, when a person is culturally wired to blame the self for their woes, they are less likely to take to the streets to protest against an inherently destabilising policy that demonetisation was.

Clinics in metro

But anxious and distressed people did come to clinical psychologists and psychiatrists. Mishra said that while only a few came primarily because of demonetisation, many among his existing patients did speak of it as additional points of stress. At least two of them were small-scale industrialists whose businesses demonetisation more or less wiped out.

Likewise, psychologist Ekta Soni of Delhi’s Apollo Hospital, said nearly 30% of those whom she counselled in November-December spoke of demonetisation as a new source of anxiety. Women in particular focused on inter-personal stress, of their husbands becoming irritable because of the pressure demonetisation mounted on them. It made their depression a little bit more difficult to cope with.

It is also possible that the psychological impact of demonetisation could perhaps have been far more discernible if there was no stigma around seeking psychological treatment.

“Psychological treatment is a matter of choice than compulsion,” said Soni. “People don’t seek help until their problems become unmanageable or they are on the verge of breakdown.”

Given the cash-crunch, hospitals witnessed a substantial decrease in footfalls too.

Soni’s colleagues at the Apollo Hospital in Bengaluru didn’t have a single case that could be remotely linked to demonetisation. That was also the case at the psychiatry department of the All India Institute of Medical Sciences in Delhi. “Nobody came to us because of demonetisation,” said Dr Rakesh Chadda, who heads the psychiatry department at the institute. “But yes, in the larger society, there was a great deal of anxiety about the future, a forbidding feeling of chaos. There was also a joyous sense of satisfaction at demonetisation.”

Chadda said the feeling of anxiety ebbed over the weeks, largely because demonetisation wasn’t as disruptive as the “economic crisis that America witnessed in the 1930s”. His junior colleague Monica Mongia thought people in general seemed under tremendous stress “because they felt that somebody else was controlling their lives, making their future appear unpredictable”.

Haywire without cash

But psychiatrists in non-metro cities had patients coming to them on account of demonetisation. They reported a familiar pattern in the footfalls to their clinics.

In the first 14-21 days of demonetisation, the rich, whether businessmen or bureaucrats, sought help for heightened anxiety and sleep disorders. They were at a complete loss on how to manage their funds. But as old currency notes were readily converted into new ones, they stopped lining up outside the shrink’s clinic.

In the foyers of psychiatric clinics, the wealthy were replaced by those from the lower strata. Most often they were from the previous batches of patients doctors had successfully treated.

Their story is truly heart-breaking.

“Because they didn’t have the money for bare necessities, not even for travelling from villages in adjoining districts to Lucknow, they stopped taking even maintenance dose,” said Lucknow-based psychiatrist Aleem Siddiqui. In psychiatric parlance, a maintenance dose is the minimum drug a person treated for a psychiatric problem is required to take to ensure that their condition does not slide.

“Once a relapse occurs, it can take anywhere between a month and two to put a patient back on the rails,” said UC Garg, a psychiatrist in Agra. He said nearly 20% of his patients experienced relapses because of demonetisation. “Imagine the torment of the care-giver, having been compelled by circumstances to discontinue the maintenance dose and watching the person who had recovered, regress”.

Garg said the impact of demonetisation still persists, providing as evidence the wish care-givers have taken to expressing. “Earlier, they would request me to cure the patient quickly, regardless of the cost of medicine,” said Garg. “But now they request me explicitly to prescribe medicines which are cheap.”

Kanpur’s Dr Ravi Kumar has had a similar experience.

Gorakhpur’s Dr CB Madhesia credited the “anti-social instincts” for saving villagers from the dark shadows of demonetisation. “Villagers were gleeful,” said Madhesia. “They were being courted for laundering old currency notes by those who had earlier never cared for them.” It was a boost to their self-esteem, apart from fetching them a commission.

In the shiny city of Rohtak, also the epicentre of the Jat agitation for reservations, Dr Dilip Puri runs a psychiatric clinic that he opened after retiring from government service. He has a roaring practice. But only 10 of his patients over the last three months were directly affected by demonetisation. “Frankly, I was surprised at this low number,” said Dr Puri, laughing. “I suppose everyone was overactive converting their old currencies into new ones. It prevented their slide into a negative, pessimistic frame of mind.”

A curious aspect of demonetisation was pointed out by Dr Tarlochan Singh, a psychologist at Ludhiana’s Guru Tegh Bahadur Hospital. He is part of a team of doctors that visits villages to provide mental healthcare.

“City-dwellers showed anxieties about the future,” said Singh. “By contrast, villagers had regrets about their past – for instance, bemoaning that they should have invested in land or gifted more gold to their daughters on their marriages.”

To this curious fact, add one by Dr Harish Shetty, a Mumbai-based psychiatrist. No doubt, those who had high cash reserves visited him to come to grips with their anxiety. But he was also visited by those who sought his help for family members who were such avid supporters of demonetisation that they were spending all their time on social media, ignoring their work.

To conclude, here are two more cases from Varanasi-based Dr Jhanwar’s medical files. A grocery store-owner slipped into depression because he thought demonetisation had turned the Rs 15 lakh he had collected over 15 years for his daughter’s marriage into wads of worthless waste. “It is from him we buy our provisions,” said Jhanwar. “The store-owner’s family brought him over to me – he looked slovenly, had stopped working. He is still recovering.”

The other case is of a man from Danapur, near Patna, who had entered into an agreement with a middleman who had promised to organise a kidney transplant for this son for Rs 2.5 lakh. The man had collected the sum in cash. “Demonetisation sent the man into rage,” said Jhanwar, pointing out the centrality of cash in the lives of Indians. “He blamed Modi for the aborted transplant.”

Jhanwar then declared: Demonetisation was a psychological insult, so to speak. Like all insults, demonetisation too has left behind its imprint on the Indian psyche, which now needs a session on the couch.

Ajaz Ashraf is a journalist in Delhi. His novel, The Hour Before Dawn, has as its backdrop the demolition of the Babri Masjid.