My first initiation into digital payment was in the U.S. during my student days in the 1970s. Almost half of my graduating class from IIT had proceeded to the U.S. for further studies. How could I be left out?
We were all used to the Indians settled in the U.S. regaling us with glitzy stories of large superstores where you could just pick the stuff you wanted and then stand in the queue to make the payment by presenting your credit card to the ever-smiling girl at the counter. Ditto at the gas stations, restaurants and what have you. I looked forward to experiencing it first-hand, most thrilling of all was the flashing of the credit card.
But stinginess was the order of the day. Filling a dollar-worth of gas in the tank of my scrap worthy car that I had was all I could think of. It became a compulsive habit to throw the phrase “a dollar-worth please” at the gas station attendant and get going. Occasionally an American would pull up next to my car and flash his credit card with aplomb and the emphatic phrase of “fill-it-up!” And boy, was I envious! I couldn’t wait to do the same someday.
But then I learned very quickly that it was not necessary to have a job to qualify for a credit card. Almost anyone could apply for a credit card and get it.
My first credit card was from an oil company called AMOCO, and was accepted, aside from gas stations, at a wide range of stores and restaurants.
Soon I did my best to get into the American way of life, saying “uh huh” instead of “you’re welcome”, ‘taking’ a university test instead of ‘giving’ one, the Professor ‘giving a test’ instead of ‘taking’ one, attending ‘ball-games’ of the University team and cheering my heart out with “go, go, go…”, and getting burgers at McDonalds.
I’m not sure when exactly I felt it was time to ask a girl out. My excuse had to be music. I convinced a girl called Brenda from the music college to teach music notations to this budding sitar player from India. My sitar techniques may not have been perfect then but I sure had class, with my own credit card.
So after the music lessons started, I mustered the courage to ask her out for coffee, and to my great surprise she agreed. My joy at snagging this date prompted my friend Yogi to quip: “Oh, now I know where all the books on dating etiquette have disappeared from the University library!”
I chose a coffee joint far away from the University and made up my mind to impress her with my brand new credit card that I was dying to use. So off I went to pick her up, opening the door for her with a gesture that would put any Hollywood actor to shame. I had no inkling as to what she must have been really thinking because my awkwardness must have been so glaring. Anyway, she too had dressed up, which I took to mean was meant to impress me. Did she really have to?
“Where do you want to go?”, I asked anxiously, hoping she would not choose a place that was too close to her house.
“Don’t matter Raj, wherever you want to,” she replied sweetly – music to my ears despite the wrong grammar.
As I drove to the coffee house, I began asking inane questions such as: “Where did your grandparents migrate from?” and observing that “you are one of the quietest girls I have ever met”. Thankfully she never asked me how many girls I had dated before our grand date. She had probably figured out that it was my first date.
Presently, I drove up to the nearest gas stations and pulled up like an F1 race driver. The attendant was busy with other cars so I started practising saying “fill it up, fill it up.” so as not to blurt out “a dollar worth”. Brenda gave me a quizzical look. Unmindful, I smiled and ordered the attendant to ‘fill it up’ and started working on my wallet to take out my prized card. The fuel tank filled up, for the first time ever, the attendant swiped my precious card and thrust the slip at me to sign.
As I started signing, as if I was signing the declaration of independence, my full signature Rajendra Bhikhubhai Naik cramming the two-inch space, my eyes kept going to her face to see how she was reacting.
“Why do you sign like that?” asked Brenda. “It is not decipherable and Raj, you don’t sign there. You sign it here, pointing to the space provided in the slip. Oh gosh, I had signed at the wrong place, while my attention was fixed on Brenda’s face.
I smiled sheepishly – “well, here you go’, I said, signing again at the space she had indicated. It was all highly embarrassing and I bet Brenda realized that this was also my first attempt at using the credit card.
“That is how I sign so that no one can forge my signature” I managed a defensive smile with a wave of my hand that signalled a masterstroke, I thought.
“Oh come on, Raj, anyone can scribble that gibberish and get away with it”, Brenda was not done yet.
“Well, let’s move on” I said, in an effort to close the matter.
The coffee and chips shared with Brenda never made it to the gossip columns of the University weekly magazine, but thankfully, Brenda was suitably satisfied with my clumsy attempts to impress her and our music lessons continued.
Cashless at home
I am proud to say that I might have been one of the first, enthusiastic, adopters of cashless technology in this country.
In the 1980s, the credit card revolution had not started in India as yet, at least not with the intensity that I had hoped to see. All I could see were some stray advertisements exhorting people to apply for a credit card. I took the plunge when the bank where I had an account offered one. Soon I was one of the first few proud owners of a Bank of Baroda card, abbreviated to a rather endearing ‘BOBCARD’.
The joy in my heart was no less than when I had got my first credit card in the U.S.
Now I faced the problem of where to use it. The number of establishments that accepted credit card payments was abysmally small. But I was determined to use the credit card somewhere.
In the summer of 1984 I drove up all the way to Mumbai with my wife and two daughters.
“Let us go to Lonavla,” I announced one weekend, hopeful that this all-time favourite ‘hill station’ for Mumbaiites would have a hotel that accepted credit cards. So after a long winding journey by road in our regal Ambassador car, I started enquiring at hotels in Lonavla: “Do you accept payments by credit card?”
“We don’t give credit” was the unnerving reply from all, except one, located far away from the main town. It was dark by the time we finally drove up there. I promptly pointed to their advertisement that promised ‘Credit Cards Welcome’, just in case the manager on duty did not know about it.
“Sir, I have no idea, but let me check with my owner”
I sighed with relief when he nodded ‘yes, sir’ to the owner on phone and I shot a triumphant look at my wife and the girls.
We settled down in our room and made merry with all the goodies that the resort offered.
Finally, the momentous checking out ritual! We trooped out to the reception and checked the bill. “It looks ok” I said and motioned the clerk to swipe the credit card.
At that moment, the owner, who had been witnessing this ceremony emerged from his office.
“Sir, I can give you a 10 % discount if you pay cash.”
I was shattered. This guy was hell bent on depriving me of the pleasure of using my credit card.
Before I could give vent to my frustration, my better half, being the wise companion that she always had been, accepted the deal.
“A 10% saving goes a long way,” she reminded me.
My BOBCARD remained unused for a long time. I finally used it to buy some clothing in Bombay – it was a good feeling, even waiting for the bill was exciting. Now,of course, there’s more than enough credit cards to go around.