Jan 25, 2016, India
I’ve always been fascinated by what makes people do the things they do. The one that really puzzles me is the friend who cons you. This post is my attempt to get inside one such conman’s head, and see the world as he does.
First, a little background. During my time at University, I had to deposit a certain sum of money (the equivalent of say $100) as a Caution Deposit with the University. It would be returned to outgoing students after they cleared all their dues. It wasn’t much, but to a broke student, it was a gold mine. A useful lump sum of money that would help fill the gap between leaving University and finding a job. In short, I couldn’t wait to lay my hands on it.
On the last day at college, we got the money back. That’s when a classmate, Paul, asked me if he could borrow it to apply for a job. Now Paul and I had known each other for five years, stayed in opposite rooms in the college hostel, ate in the same hostel mess, and had the same circle of friends. He’s a pleasant person, and one of the best chess players I’ve ever known.
Anyway, Paul promised to return the money when we returned to collect our degree certificates. Since I was usually broke, no one ever borrowed money from me, and I didn’t really know how to say no. Besides I felt Paul’s need was greater than mine, and so I handed over the cash to him.
Needless to say, Paul didn’t return the money. He didn’t even turn up when all my classmates met one last last time at the college, to collect their degree certificates. I assumed he was broke, or had forgotten about the loan.
A couple of years later, I ran into him on the streets of Mumbai. He seemed happy to see me, and had a good job at the Bombay Dockyard. Since I was between jobs, I reminded him of the loan, and he smiled and said he would return it the next day. It didn’t happen.
Another place, another town, a few years later. A group of college mates were meeting up, and Paul was supposed to be present. He didn’t turn up. Since that non-meeting, our paths haven’t crossed for quite some time.
So let me try to get into Paul’s mind, and try to see the possible strands of thoughts that must have been floating in there at different points of time.
I’m not conning him. He’s a never-do-well, and would just waste that money. I can put it to far better use.
He’s a naive guy and I’m doing him a favour by teaching him not to lend money.
No harm done. He’s well off, and won’t be affected by losing this money, and may not even recall lending it to me.
He’s a soft touch, and if I read him right, he will never tell anyone about this so I might as well take it off him.
Here comes the idiot. Bet he will not ask for the money… Ooops, I was wrong!
I enjoy the thrill of taking people for a ride. Life is just a game.
He’s a fool, and I’m smart, and he will not survive. I mean he shouldn’t have survived but he somehow seems to have. Dammit!
I can afford to return the money now, but that would imply I was wrong to have done what I did.
Will he tell our classmates about what I did? I think I will avoid all get-togethers that he attends, and maybe he will forget about me.
It was all a part of growing up, and we all make mistakes.
Maybe I should return the money the next time I see him and close this subject. But what if he asks for compound interest for all these years?
Honest people are such fools. They are wasting their lives trying to make money honestly when you can easily make much more, by being a bit dishonest.
Who says I can’t look at myself the mirror? In India, everyone is conning someone all the time, and they all look at the mirror, don’t they?
I will never know which of the above, if any, is close to what goes on in Paul’s mind. But I wonder what made him capable of thinking like that.
A friend told me that, as a small kid, he once stole a toy from a shop. His Dad found about it, insisted he go return it by himself, and face the music. The chastening experience made a honest person of him for life.
My guess is that Paul was not lucky enough to receive such a lesson on ethics. In a way, I feel sad for him, as it must be stressful to live a life where you are always at conflict with yourself, and trying to find reasons to justify unjustifiable actions. That’s sad because this was Paul’s only character flaw.
To be honest, I don’t know if I’m conning myself with all these thoughts. It’s not like I’m an epitome of honesty. Like I used to download cracked apps as a college kid. But times changed, apps became affordable, I started earning, and it became easier and a lot less stressful to just pay for the apps.
In short, honesty makes sense not just from an ethical point of view but also from a practical perspective. And the amount of mindspace you free up by sticking to the honest path far outweighs the stress of going Paul’s way.
Now if only Paul had figured that out, I might have looked him up for a game of chess.