Friday, March 6, 2009

Orhan Pamuk and Istanbul Scams

Orhan Pamuk is not one of my favourite authors, so I was in two minds about attending his reading and discussion at the British Council yesterday. I'm very glad I decided to go, because he read exceptionally well in English and spoke with candour, clarity and wit. His pragmatic views on writing, publication, translation and cultural influence were a refreshing change from the romantic platitudes one usually hears in India (The market is an enemy; self-expression is corrupted by thinking of readership; there's a conspiracy to value only those works which pander to western prejudice, and so on). Prodded by a questioner from the audience, he disclaimed sufficient knowledge to speak about issues related to Indians writing in English, but what he did offer went to the heart of the issue. He was glad, he said, to write in the same language which he spoke with his grandmother and the grocer, but its limitation was that the world at large knew nothing about it.
After being translated into 55 languages, the second of these is no longer a problem.
The passage Pamuk read reminded me of an incident from my visit to Turkey back in 2005. Before, I recount the incident, here's the relevant text, from the historical detective novel My Name Is Red. It is a version of assignments all of us wrote in school with titles like, 'Autobiography of a Rupee Coin'. The speaker is a counterfeit Ottoman gold coin minted in Venice and shipped to Istanbul:
"We were loaded into iron chests, hauled onto ships and pitching to and fro traveled from Venice to Istanbul. I found myself in a money changer’s shop, in the garlicky mouth of its proprietor. We waited for a while, and a simpleminded peasant entered, hoping to exchange some gold. The master money changer, who was a genuine trickster, declared that he needed to bite the gold piece to see if it was counterfeit. So he took the peasant’s coin and tossed it into his mouth. When we met inside his mouth, I realized that the peasant’s coin was a genuine Ottoman Sultani. He saw me within that stench of garlic and said, “You’re nothing but a counterfeit.” He was right, but his arrogant manner offended my pride and I lied to him: “Actually, my brother, you’re the one who’s counterfeit.” Meanwhile, the peasant was proudly insisting, “How could my gold coin possibly be counterfeit? I buried it in the ground twenty years ago, did a vice like counterfeiting exist back then?” I was wondering what the outcome would be when the money changer took me out of his mouth instead of the peasant’s gold coin. “Take your gold coin, I don’t want any vile Venetian infidel’s fake money,” he said, “have you no shame?” The peasant responded with some biting words of his own, then took me with him out the door. After hearing the same pronouncement from other money changers, the peasant’s spirit broke and he exchanged me as a debased coin for only ninety silver pieces. This is how my seven-year saga of endless wandering from hand to hand began."

As our taxi parked at Istanbul airport, I pulled out a 20 million lira note from my wallet and handed it to the driver. He gave it right back, signalling it wasn't the correct amount. It was a 250,000 lira note, the same colour as a 20 million, but smaller. All those zeroes were confusing, but how could I have mistaken the two? I looked in my wallet and found no Turkish money there, though I'd made sure I retained enough for the cab. I offered the driver Euros, he quoted an absurd rate. Better to find an ATM, but the closest one was in the arrivals hall, which was pretty far off. Who'd want to draw Turkish currency on the way out of the country? Since we were barely on time for our flight to Athens, I hurriedly changed some Euros in the departures terminal, paying the high commission always charged in such places, and ran back to give the driver his dues. I was completely bewildered through the five minute process, but something in his expression as he took the notes from me, a half-smirk, made an alarm go off in my head. He hit the accelerator as soon as he started his car, and, as he sped off, I realised I'd been duped. He'd had the smaller denomination note in his hand and pulled off a quick change before my eyes. It wasn't a huge amount of money we lost, about 1000 rupees in all, including the exchange commission, but it took the gloss off what had been a marvellous two weeks in Turkey.

Listening to Pamuk, I wondered if the swindle was a hoary tradition in his hometown, or if it had grown common off late, and he'd projected it back four centuries. But of course, these tricks are employed everywhere. I've been told that taxi drivers in Bombay do the switch when given 500 rupee notes by tipsy passengers at night. Two years ago, a local cab man tried to pull a fast one in broad daylight, handing me back a ten rupee note after I gave him a hundred. I realised what he was up to, and briefly thought of taking the matter further by baiting him into claiming I'd given him the wrong denomination. In the end, I merely said, "the fare is 70 rupees, you owe me twenty more." The anger in my voice, fuelled by an incident in a far off land he could know nothing about, made him reach into his pocket hastily and pull out two more ten rupee notes.


Anonymous said...

I'm sorry I missed the reading

Anonymous said...

Reading posts such as this one makes me wonder when a book of your travel writing is hitting the stands.

Anonymous said...

No one but the Italians can swizz you with style. At a toll post on the Amalfi coast while the correct amount was clearly printed on the board near the booth, the man behind the counter asked for double the amount and when we refused and pointed at the board and insisted on paying the correct amount he disdainfully accepted our money and waved us on like he had done us a favour, never a moment or gesture in his manner suggested that he'd been caught out.