Sunday, November 13, 2016

Do you have change, Please?

The line leading to the toll booth gate was growing by the minute. The wait appeared to be endless for the occupants of the waiting vehicles. Government had just demonitized high value currency notes as a tool to fight black money menace. Everyone was rushing to his or her destination. The government had waived toll charges on all National Highways for a short period, but this was a private toll road and such waiver was not recognized here. As a part of demonitization process, 500 and 1000 Rupee notes were not legal tender anymore and were required to be surrendered to the banks. 2000 rupee notes were said to have been released but not much in circulation as they were still on their way to the banks. Small denomination notes were not in adequate supply and people did not care much for them as their purchasing power was also too small for any meaningful use. Even beggars would not accept small denomination notes now. Government felt that use of electronic money would alleviate all cash shortage problems. But electronic money receiving gadgets were not in use in this toll booth. Beggars, small merchants and such toll booths were not yet caught in the electronic money tsunami. For all of them, Cash was still the King.

At last the vehicle reached the toll booth. The driver tried to hand over a 500 rupee note to the booth operator. Booth operator looked at it but did not touch it. "Do you have change, please?" he asked. The driver said he did not and added that nobody had change these days. "Go on and pay the toll at the exit point", said the booth operator looking at the long line of vehicles. The driver nodded and pressed the accelerator pedal. One hurdle was cleared.

As he approached the booth at the other end, the driver again showed the 500 rupee note to the booth operator. The booth operator asked the same question about change and the driver repeated his answer. Booth operator sighed, swung his hand and by that gesture asked the driver to be on his way. The driver smiled, pressed the accelerator pedal and put back the 500 rupee note in his pocket.

As per last available information, the driver had waved the same 500 rupee note at the booth operators for five days, ten trips in all, and moved to and fro without paying toll. He wants to pay, but cannot pay. He has not paid toll even once and the 500 rupee note is still with him. 

Henry Adams was a 27 year-old young man and worked as a clerk in a San Francisco mining-broker's office. He was free on Saturdays and had the habit of venturing into the sea in a small boat. On one such saturday he ventured too far and the currents swept him deep into the sea. He was rescued by a ship bound for London. He was made to work on the ship during the voyage without wages and dropped off at London harbor. When he stepped on London harbor, he had only one dollar in his pocket and his clothes were ragged and shabby. The dollar sustained him for one day, but he was hungry and without a place to stay on the next day. He was moving along the city's Portland Place and was looking at a peach thrown away by a small child and was thinking of picking it, clean it and eat it. He was that much starved now.

Bank of England had issued two notes of one-million pound each, to be used for a special purpose in connection with some public transaction with a foreign country. One note was used, cancelled and returned to the Bank. The second was still lying in the vaults of the bank. Two wealthy old brothers had a chat over breakfast about this note. The issue that came up for discussion was what might be the fate of a perfectly honest and intelligent stranger who came adrift to London and came in possession of such a note. Brother A said he would starve to death and be ruined. Brother B said he wouldn't. The argument went on till brother B bet 20,000 Pounds to put this to test. Brother B went to the bank and bought the note. They dictated a letter to a clerk who wrote it down in beautiful handwriting. The letter was put in an envelope with the note. Now they waited near the window watching for the right man to give the envelope and put their wager to a test. The faces they saw on the street were not of strangers. Those who were strangers either did not appear honest or intelligent. Now, here was Henry Adams who was a stranger and looked intelligent as well as perfectly honest.

Henry Adams was called in to the house and was handed over the envelope after a brief discussion. He was asked not open it until he reached his lodging and sent away. After coming out of the house Henry Adams opened the envelope and found the letter and money in it. He went to the nearest cheap eating house and ate well enough. When he was full, he took out the note and could not believe his eyes. It was five million Dollars! (One pound was equal to five dollars as per exchange rate in those days.) The owner of the food house fainted when he saw the note. He apologized profusely and told Adams not to worry and let the bill go unpaid. But honest as Adams was, he insisted on getting the change. The owner respectfully told Adams that he can have an account at the place and come and eat whenever he desired. But there was no possibility for him to break the note and get the change.

Adams rushed back to the house to return the money and the envelope to its owners. But the brothers were gone to either Egypt or India. The servant reported that the brothers had indeed told him that Adams would be back within half an hour. The servant was to assure him that there was no mistake and it was real. Adams was to report back after 30 days at the same place and tell the brothers about the happenings in his life. 

Adams went to a cloth shop and asked for a misfit cheap suit. He was given one and he produced the note and asked for the change. The note went from the salesman to the owner and the owner was now apologetic. He scolded the salesman and gave the dresses made for His Serene Highness the Hospodar of Halifax. (Hospodar is a title given to a Governor or a Prince.) The dresses were handed over but the note was duly returned without change! Within a few days Adams was on the pages of every newspaper. He was described as the "Vest-pocket Million-Pounder". Punch carried a caricature of him. He was the talk of the high society in London and elsewhere. He got whatever he wanted to buy, but the note was always returned to him. Everybody was willing to lend money to him to now.

Adams went to meet the American Ambassador who later said he was a boyhood friend of Adam's father! Adams was invited to a dinner of fourteen with the rich and mighty twelve, besides the minister and himself. There Adams met the 22-year old English girl Portia Langham and the two fell in love with each other in two minutes. Adams was honest with her and told her that he had nothing with him except the million pound note and she did not care. They had great time together thereafter.

Adams met a friend from San Francisco who wanted a million dollars on a business deal. Adams agreed but not to give money but his reference. His word was now as good as money. They became partners in the business deal. The deal clicked and he had a million US Dollars (200,000 Pounds) in his account with a London bank by the end of the month. He requested Portia to go with him to the brothers at the end of the month to make his report. She agreed and he presented himself with her to make the report to the two brothers.

Adams produced the million dollars note and along with it a Certificate of Deposit for 200,000 Pounds in the London bank. The brother who won the bet offered a gift but Adams said he did not need it. Then the biggest surprise came. The man was none other than Portia's father! The two brothers had a hearty laugh. Now Adams said he would apply for the job of son-in-law. He added that he can be tested for 30 years as a son-in-law and can be confirmed later. 

The brothers took the check to Bank of England and it was en-cashed. The bank cancelled the check and returned it to the two brothers as a souvenir. The brothers happily celebrated the wedding of Portia and Adams. The cancelled check was given to Adams and Portia as a wedding gift. The cancelled check was duly framed and hung on the wall of their house to tell this story to all those who saw it.

The above is the summary of a delightful story titled "The Million Pound Bank Note" by Mark Twain, which I read some fifty two years ago. It is a story with lot of Twain's trademark humor and twists. The story was made into a movie in 1954, with some modifications to suit screen presentation, with the handsome Gregory Peck playing the role of Adams. The film is available on Youtube.

The 500 rupee note our Driver has may not be able to get a Certificate of Deposit of 200,000 rupees or get a Portia Langham. It was just like the million pound note; never got broken and yet gave dividends. But it was adequate to remind of the wonderful story weaving and telling capacity of Mark Twain!


  1. Amazing story of Adams and the 5 million dollar note. More amazing is the author who every time finds a topical issue to discuss and lazes the discussion with an anecdote which is not only interesting but very informative as well. Thanks KM Sir.

  2. It brought back by childhood memories, when I first read the story as a kid and wanted to become a Millionaire. To tell the truth this was the book that used to always motivate me and today I am proud to say that I have achieved what I wanted to as a kid.

  3. I remember the story by Sydney Sheldon in which a traveller sneak in to sea side diameter and treasure spot and comes our with few diamonds in mind ng with just loin cloth and he was driven out in dawn by security personnel to deposit those diamond in banks to becobe one I'd the richest families of those days

  4. For me, it shows the telling capacity of Mr. Keshava Murthy Sir.
    R Jagannathan

  5. Hats of to Keshava murthy sir for publishing such interesting and amazing readings which are vitually interesting and worth reading when we are bogged with routine. Thanks.

  6. You have a wealth of stories up your sleeve to be quoted on every occasion. Thoroughly enjoyed this piece. Hats off to your sterling quality as a writer.

  7. Your ability to connect the old (and forgotten) with the present, and in such a short span of time is remarkable!

  8. An Excellent Narration Sir. At times, certain Life's Experiences keep repeating itself , after a considerable span of time and we get surprised over the repeat experience.

  9. Once again, Keshav, your story is heart warming. Thanks for getting us involved in knowing these stories.

  10. Excellent narration and well related to the present situation happening with demonetization. Hats off to you.

  11. Nice reminder. I have read this story too about 20 years back. But you have nice memory and reproduced it at the most opportune time.