Hats Off to You, Swindler of New Market

I’m still figuring out camera issues, so more illustrative posts about Kolkata will have to wait, but a few bits in the mean time….

I don’t usually think of myself as someone who’s easily conned. When people come asking for “just enough gas money to get home,” I never have any change. And e-mail scams? Don’t even try.

Well, I think I just handed over about $6—not much to me, but a good day’s earnings for most laborers in Kolkata—because of a well-told lie.

It started out like a few interactions I’ve had so far on the street: Guy sidles up, says “Hello, where are you from?” Most of the time I’m fine telling them, and maybe chatting a bit about Kolkata, what they do, what I think about India, before going on my way. Bengalis have so far only been helpful to me, gladly giving directions when I’m lost. I might as well give them a positive impression of Americans as well.

This one, as I was wandering around the vast New Market bazaar just after dark—it’s kind of like the city’s Walmart, composed of hundreds of small merchants—came in the form of a skinny kid named Steven in a dirty purple polo shirt and flip flops. Eighteen years old, maybe 20. Just like usual, he asked where I was from, and what games are popular in the U.S.

“You know American football? Not like soccer,” I answered, bemused at the question. Steven seemed doubtful. “Also basketball,” I offered.

“Ah yes, yes,” he said. “Is there also this came where you have four people, hitting a ball across a fence made of wood? This is what my father is telling me.”

“Oh, tennis?” I guessed. Maybe that was it, Steven replied.

Then the story started. Turns out his father is a 69-year-old Christian living in Varanasi, where he’d lost his job when a local plastics factory shut down. Steven’s mother had died three years ago, so he was left taking care of his dad, and came to Kolkata a few months ago to look for work. He had almost landed a gig as a security guard, but he needed an I.D. card first, so he was working on getting the paperwork together—including passport photos, which aren’t cheap.

The tale was full of digressions and little details as we weaved through the chaotic street—he’d hit his head yesterday, for example, showing me the divot where the hair had come off—that it didn’t seem suspiciously pat. Maybe he just needed someone to talk to, I reasoned, being from a foreign city with no friends. By the time he reached the crux of the story, I was ready to give him anything he needed in order to get hired.

“Steven, why haven’t you gotten those passport photos? How much are they?” I interrupted his stream of verbiage, touching his bony shoulder. “Two hundred and sixty five rupees,” he said, after asked three times. “It’s very hard. Now some other boy may come and get the job before me.”

I took three 100 rupee notes out of my wallet and held them out. Steven seemed overwhelmed, and couldn’t stop thanking me, saying he would pray for me. I felt a rush of altruistic satisfaction in helping this poor boy get on his feet. But he still wanted me to come with him to the passport photo taker, which he said was just a few minutes’ walk away. Well sure, I thought, not having anything better to do.

We kept walking, chatting. A little further than I expected. Steven motioned that the place was just around the corner, but I thought I saw him motion to someone else out in front of us. Visions of getting pulled into a dark alley and held for ransom—or at least humiliated and forced to give up my valuables—started percolating. I balked, saying I should probably not stray too far from my hotel.

“But please sister, you see the thing is, I need to get a stamp, you know like a witness? I have no friends in Kolkata, and I need someone…”

Alarm bells finally ringing, I apologetically declined, saying I was sure a non-citizen wouldn’t be able to help.

“Okay then, please sister, I just need 170 more rupees,” Steven said, his eyes pleading.

“No,” I said, backing away. I shook his hand goodbye.

“Okay, thankyou so much, I know you are a girl but, can I…” he said, motioning to give me a hug. I accepted it, intensely aware of my shoulder bag. People in the street turned to look at us, wondering at the meaning of such a public display, or maybe knowing a tourist just got duped.

As I left, the pieces of the conversation started coming together in my head—the Christian bit, calculated to charm a Westerner; the precision of the ages he cited. I noticed another pair of foreign tourists strolling through the market, their faces shining like beacons in the crowd. We are the great white whales of a Kolkata con artist’s universe. My happy good-deed buzz had deadened, but I wasn’t angry. All I could honestly feel was admiration.

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