Culture could mean many things. To an anthropologist, it means the ideas and customs of a society. To a pretentious CEO, it means the key driver of his company’s success. To a biologist, it means the strain of bacteria on his petri dish. And to the privileged populace of Bangalore, it means absolutely nothing.
Mani arrived in Bangalore on the eve of his twenty second birthday. The arrival didn’t go as planned. After his plane from Chennai landed, he realized that he had misunderstood the term “company sponsored” and that it didn’t apply for the snacks he had bought at the airport, which cost over one lakh INR plus tax. His debit card was promptly drained of his joining bonus. Adding insult to injury, he realized, with embarrassment, that he had also lost his wallet and his conscience when he had entered Bangalore. He was left with no money to spare.
However, being the optimist and the software engineer he was, he knew that he would quickly make the money back. The initial upset did absolutely nothing to dull his spirits in anticipation of his birthday. On arriving at his new apartment, he was welcomed by his nine roommates. They had decided to give him the biggest corner of the apartment as a birthday present. They had also tried to get rid of all the pubic hair that was strewn all over the place. However, they decided to call it quits after they couldn’t figure out which hairs belonged to whom. Mani was grateful for all they had done. He was almost in tears, overwhelmed with these special emotions that are endemic to Bangalore.
Once he had settled in, Mani set out on a walk. He took a walk every evening. He told an imaginary audience that these walks reminded him that there was a beautiful world outside. It was the part of the day he looked forward to the most. Everyday, he would find the cutest dog on the street and take a picture of himself holding it. This daily ritual wasn’t born out of a love for dogs, but from the love of getting a reply from the girl he was trying to woo, who wouldn’t respond to his texts otherwise. In fact, the girl didn’t really reply out of love for dogs either, but from pity for the poor dog. On this particular promenade of his, Mani stumbled upon what he would later recall as the greatest dilemma of his life. Lying naked and alone, right in the middle of the desolate road, was the crispest thousand rupee note he had ever seen.
Gentle autumnal breezes rocked the note in such a way that Mani was slightly titillated. Thousand rupees didn’t seem like a big sum to him, given that he would be earning its multiples every month. But at that moment, when he was particularly penniless and suddenly hungry, it was a godsend. He inched towards the note hesitatingly, simultaneously making sure that no one else was around, lest they swindle it. When all the inches were covered and the face of Gandhi was staring right into his soul, Mani bent over to pick it up.
Mani had bent over several times in his life. He had bent over in reverence to his elders. He had bent over multiple times during his internship to secure his placement. But never had he bent over with second thoughts. His second thoughts were as follows. Whose money was it? Why had they left it there? And many similar thoughts populated his otherwise empty head. For the first time in his adulthood, Mani felt weight on his conscience.
Guilt was an alien feeling to Mani, not because he was a particularly saintly person, but because of an apparent lack of choice in his life. A hamster running a wheel cannot be judged evil because the energy it produced powered a weapon. Mani had been running a wheel all his life and the choice that the note presented was an ink drop waiting to blemish his spotless conscience.
Alas, having a spotless conscience has an inevitable consequence. It convinces one that he deserves happiness for he has done no evil. And alas, most evil that man does is disguised as the happiness that is due. Such was the case with Mani.
He built scenarios in his head, answering the questions he had posed for himself. He reasoned that he could take the money as long as there was no one else more deserving of it than he was. Firstly, he eliminated anyone who was richer than he was, for they should be happy with what they have. Then he thought he should think about those who weren’t as well-off and decided against it as it would be a tedious process. He concluded that he should figure out the worst-case scenario, the person who would need the money the most. If he could then reason why he needed the money more, only then would he take it.
His first case was that of a destitute mother trying to feed her hungry child. He thought, obviously, such a person would need the money the most and that there was no debate about her need. But would such a person have dropped the money in the first place? Surely, she would have been more careful if she had needed the money desperately. So, Mani decided that this case didn’t hold.
Then he thought that it could have been a dying man’s medical expenses. Surely, medical attention is paramount and such a person would need the money more than he did. But, he reasoned, thousand rupees surely couldn’t pay for a medical situation that is a matter of life and death, certainly not in this economy. A medical ailment that could be treated with a thousand rupees is certainly not something that could result in death, he asserted. So, he decided that this case didn’t hold either.
By this time, his upper thighs had started paining as he was still bent over. He had run out of scenarios and patience. So like a judge at his college festival, he decided impulsively that he deserved the money the most. As he pinched the note off the floor, he conjured a reasoning that supported his decision. It was as follows. A man happier than him didn’t deserve it as much as he did. A man unhappier than him wouldn’t attain happiness solely due to this undeserved money. Out of pure logic, the only person who could maximize his happiness through taking the money was Mani and Mani alone, for he had been a good man and this was providence rewarding him with the happiness he was owed.
Unfortunately, tragedy struck. And so did the robbers who had snuck behind him. Mani fell to the floor unconscious.
When Mani opened his eyes, he saw the world in a different light, for the sun had set and it was now very dark. To his surprise, he found the note still clutched safely in his fist. He smiled a smile of reflection. He had learnt an important lesson. It was to never bend over for long stretches of time, for his thighs had cramped.
He limped towards his apartment, the note still clasped tightly in his hands. To his right, he saw the biggest queue he had ever seen in his life. Back in Chennai, it would have meant the release of a Thala movie. In the capitalist city of Bangalore, where theatre tickets were funded by kidney transactions and insider trading, it wasn’t the case. Long queues could mean two things: company sponsored snack evenings or alcohol. A familiar smell of alcohol wafted into his nostrils and confirmed his suspicion vaguely. He stood in the queue without knowing what he was standing for. A fellow bystander informed him that alcohol was being served at a highly subsidized price to promote some company’s new line of fruit juices.
Mani decided to buy as much as he could for it was his birthday the next day and what better way to buy happiness than this. It took him an hour to reach the head of the queue. He extended his now damp note to the retailer only to be met with a stare of confusion and anger. The retailer’s arm swung back. In those brief moments between the swinging of his arm and its contact on Mani’s face, an important realization occurred. Between his lack of general awareness and the age of digital transactions, Mani had forgotten that thousand rupee notes had been rendered useless long ago. Of course, he thought, who would leave money lying around in Bangalore? And then the retailer’s fist landed on his face. However, he wasn’t taken by surprise. It was a punch line after all.