When an Indian child is growing up, her parents ask her at some point: "Beta, which one is your favourite scam?" The kind of scam you like reveals a personality type—a guide to the future, indispensable to worried parents. My answer as a schoolboy was unwavering: "Mummy, fodder scam."
Scams are generational. Those who are born about now will ten years later have their own favourites: Rotomac, NiMo and others that will show up in the time to come.
We Indians are born fraudsters and hustlers. The big guns obviously hunt bigger game. The returns are higher. Every Indian cheats to the best of her ability. You do the best you can. It’s what school taught us.
My personal favourite in scams has been the fodder scam. Photo: PTI/File
To learn to cheat in India is to learn how to survive. If you don’t, society will treat you as an imbecile who never grew up. Like the freelance writer.
The working principle is this: If you don’t exploit, then you will automatically become the exploited. What happens then is that since everyone is cheating everybody else, all this cheating cancels each other out in the final sum. No one really gains. But it’s something we are habituated and genetically inclined to do, like the way we drive. It’s a mix of nature and culture.
The shopkeeper wakes up and ups his shutters. The spider waits for the fly to come flying in. It could be the smallest of shopkeepers. It’s the reason people don’t change neighbourhoods, although familiarity is no guarantee that you will not be cheated. There is a cold bloodedness to our human relationships: false obsequiousness always follows a successful heist. The cheater respects the cheated’s stupidity. Without that he will be nothing.
This cheating can be about the smallest of things, beginning with plumbers, electricians, carpenters, the cab ride from the airport or train station.
The cigarette seller will keep five rupees and refuse to return the change.
The mobile phone shop man will take a look at you, size you up, then quote you an inflated price for a phone cover and case.
The parking attendant will take an extra ten for parking.
Every tourist is fair game, which is why we have to chaperone, baby sit and play tourist-guide to our foreign guests. They can’t be left alone. They will be fleeced.
You will hand in a five hundred rupee note, the cashier will keep it and return much less than you’d calculated. When you say "Hey, what happened to the rest?", he’ll reply: "Oh sorry I thought you gave me a hundred." He’s testing you. On your face he will make you feel that you’re being unnecessarily difficult. Secretly, he respects you.
The building contractor will cheat. The property dealer will dip his hand in the flowing Ganges. The developer has his hand permanently stuck in the riverbed.
That’s the reason why Indian parents always warn their kids: Don’t let your guard down for a moment. The moment you do, you’ve been had.
To come back to my earlier point, in a system where everyone is cheating everyone there’s a way of things evening out. The system is always in a state of equilibrium.
The shopkeeper will cheat the customer. The shopkeeper will have a heart attack. He will go to a hospital. Here, he is the customer. The hospital will duly fool him, charging an exorbitant amount for tests and medicines. They might throw in an unnecessary stent or three.
Now the guy who owns the hospital will have a boy who needs to go to school. The school will make him part with huge sums of money in lieu of admission, for uniforms, notebooks and text books. The teacher in the school will make the doctor’s son come to him for extra tuitions.
The school teacher’s computer will pack up. He will go to Nehru Place where the computer shop will rip him off for repairs.
Flush with cash the computer shop man will go to the theka where he will be overcharged for the booze. But the theka owner is already supplying several bottles a month for free to the local police station.
Similarly, the fruit seller will invariably overcharge you if you don’t look from around the neighbourhood. But he has to pay hafta to the local goon. Or cop. Or the MCD.
The auto guy will cheat you but when his auto breaks down the auto repair guy will cheat him.
The fancy gift shop guy will put whimsical price stickers on smuggled items, doubling his profits. But remember his mother-in-law will get cancer, which is when the hospital will get the chance to screw him.
Why, for all our family values, family members cheat each other all the time. Especially when it comes to matters of property. The younger brother will keep squatting on prime ancestral property after the patriarch/ matriarch has died and refuse to vacate.
And so on.
Basically if you don’t look local enough, you don’t bargain hard and question every transaction, you will be a sitting duck. That’s the default Indian setting. No Indian trusts the next Indian. Trust signals gullibility, not a valued trait in our urban jungle.
This is also the reason why scams don’t bother us much. The current form of our cricket team, and cricketer weddings, is our only moral worry.
One could argue that instead of waking up and making a c of people first thing, why don’t we just carry out our transactions honestly?
Put this question to the devious Indian yourself and see what he has to say.
Just don’t believe what he’s telling you.