Giving Money to Strangers
The first time it happened to me was about 15 years ago. I had just moved to Bangalore for my first job after finishing my final year at university. The firm was headquartered in the Silicon Valley and my manager was in the US, which meant I often worked strange hours. On that day it must have been close to midnight when I stepped out after a late meeting. The air had turned cool and I had forgotten my jacket inside. I remember debating whether I should head back in to get it, and perhaps that’s why I didn’t notice them until they were only a few feet away.
They were a family of three — a man, his wife and a son who couldn’t have been older than five. Definitely from one of the villages up in the north, judging by the way they dressed and spoke. India is a potpourri of different cultures and languages but the man’s turban, his thin cotton kurta, and the way woman wore her saree were dead giveaways. They were at least two thousand kilometres away from home.
The man did all the talking. Did I speak Hindi, the language commonly spoken in north India, he asked. When I nodded, a relieved smile flashed briefly across his face. He explained that he and his family had come down to the south on a pilgrimage and were on the way back to their village. They were going to board the Rajdhani Express train to Delhi, a thirty hour long journey, but someone had stolen all their belongings, including all the cash they had.
He showed me his train ticket with tears in his eyes, his voice breaking. Could I lend him some money, he asked. Just enough to get to the train station and perhaps to buy some dinner?
It wasn’t very bright under the hazy streetlight but I remember their faces quite clearly. The little boy seemed hungry, his parents desperate. I pulled out my wallet. All I had was a five hundred rupee note, enough for twenty bus tickets to the train station and ten dinners from a roadside stall. I handed it to the man who joined his hands in gratitude. I could hear his wife muttering her blessings as I wished them a safe journey and walked away.
I headed to the nearest mall where the cash machine wasn’t working and the only eating joint still open was only accepting cash (the phone lines were down). With no money for a cab, I ended up walking the six kilometres back home without dinner. It didn’t matter. My stomach might have been empty but my heart was filled to the brim.
But then a couple of weeks later I saw them again. The same trio — this time speaking to another gentleman. They were facing away from me and no one noticed the expression of utter shock on my face. Did the man speak Hindi, the father was asking. When he was waved away, he turned to me next. I could see he was about to speak, ask me the same question I had answered only a few days ago, when he bit his tongue and stopped himself.
Perhaps he recognised me. In the next moment, he was crossing the road with his wife and child, and hurrying away. I didn’t rush after them. I stood frozen on the footpath, feeling like the Rajdhani Express had just passed over me.
I had fallen for a con job? For months on, I tried to remember what I saw on that train ticket. Did it actually say Rajdhani? What was the date on it? What were the names? It had been dark and I had simply trusted the man. I don’t think I felt angry but it was a strange sort of feeling. A mixture of hurt, sadness and betrayal.
The next time, it was outside a mall in the city. I was alone, waiting for a friend, when a clean-shaven man came up to me. He was dressed in black trousers and a white shirt, a bit like one of those salesmen who sometimes knocked on your door on a Saturday afternoon selling a magazine subscription. He had the same desperate look on his face and another similar story.
He said he lived in an area of Bangalore a few kilometres away and had come over for an errand. But as he was heading back, he realised he didn’t have his wallet on him anymore. Someone must have nipped it. Could I lend him the bus fare so that he could get back home?
I was immediately suspicious. I told him I could make a phone call on his behalf but he said his brother would have to come from across town. It would be much easier if I could spare a tenner for him. He looked me in the eye and said that it was fine if I didn’t want to. He understood.
Against my better judgement, I reached for my wallet and handed him a ten rupee note. I still remember his smile. He shook my hand and said that if I gave him my address, he’d try and get the money back to me. I declined.
My friend was running quite late that day and I was left with a lot of time to ponder over this incident. Had I just been conned again? I went over every word the man had spoken, repeating them in my head, looking for any clues or inconsistencies. But there was nothing conclusive. I should have been feeling great, helping someone out is a wonderful thing. But nothing I could tell myself would pluck out this thorn of doubt. A terrible voice kept telling me that the man’s story was probably false, his smile was probably fake.
The third incident was in London, almost 15 years later. I had moved to the UK a few years ago and was walking back home from work when an old man called out to me. He was sitting on one of those mobility scooters that those who have trouble walking sometimes use in this part of the world. In his palm were a handful of coins. He said he was running out of charge in his scooter and he barely had enough to get back home. And he wanted a cigarette. Could I please get him a pack of twelve? I knew where the nearest shop was — a good 5 minute walk away — but I couldn’t really say no.
As I reached the shop, I realised I had no idea how much a pack of cigarettes costs. I don’t smoke, neither do most of my friends, and I have never bought a pack. I counted the change the man had given me — it came to a little over a pound. Didn’t quite seem enough.
And it wasn’t. When the shopkeeper told me the price, I knew I’d have to put in some money from my own pocket. Had I just been duped again? For a second, I thought I wouldn’t buy the cigarettes. But what would I tell the old man? Walk back to him just to say that he didn’t give me enough money? Maybe I should just forget the man and go home. But what about the change he had given me? Surely I couldn’t just keep that. Oh well, I stuck a credit card into the machine.
The old man was waiting for me at the spot where I had left him. When I handed the pack to him, he smiled through his bushy beard and thanked me. His fingers flipped open the pack and one of the cigarettes was soon at his lips. Maybe I should have asked him for the money I had paid but I didn’t. He was old enough to be my grandfather and it didn’t seem right.
I was really annoyed as he drove his scooter away. Annoyed at how I felt. Annoyed at the universe at large. That voice was back, laughing at me, telling me I was a gullible idiot. This is such a rotten world where we can’t even trust someone enough to help them without suspicion.
The last chapter of this series took place last week. On the street that leads up to my flat, between the spot where I met the old man and the shop where I bought the cigarettes, I saw him again.
He was on his feet this time, a walking stick in his hand, ambling along with a woman who I presume was his daughter. They were only a few footsteps away, the woman holding a palm out for her father, when the old man’s gaze met mine. There was a flicker of recognition. He grinned, raising his hand in a half wave. I smiled back.
“This is the young man who got me my cigarettes the other day,” he said to his daughter. We talked for a bit. I found out the old man lived a few blocks away and it was his 78th birthday. As we parted ways, the woman half-unzipped her purse and offered to repay me. I shook my head.
The voice in my head was finally silent and that was payment enough. Quite enough.