I love walking. It’s the one physical activity that I genuinely enjoy a lot. There’s nothing quite like a leisurely stroll in the evening when the weather is pleasant and the traffic is scarce. Walking helps me not only clear my mind and come up with new ideas, but it also helps keep my stomach calm. I’ve a mouth that’s very fond of food, but not a stomach that can easily digest everything I consume. Hence, I walk.
Earlier today, much like every other day, I was out for my evening walk when I noticed a $100 bill lying on the road. Picking something up from the streets is technically not stealing, and yet you become cautious because you know that thing is not yours. The $100 bill wasn’t mine, which is why I looked around me before I bent down to pick it up.
It was real. It seemed real, at least. I had held a $100 bill in my hands only a few times before, so I had no clue how to make sure it was real or not. I stood where I was for a minute or so, and then walked on when no one came forward to claim the bill.
A few steps later, another $100 bill. Once again, I looked around myself, picked it up, stood still in anticipation of getting called out for picking up something that wasn’t mine, and walked on when that didn’t happen this time either.
But another few steps later, another $100 bill on the road. It was at this point that I started to get really intrigued, suspicious and scared. In that very order.
Why are there $100 bills on the roads in Bombay, I asked myself. $100 bills on the roads in the US would be something to wonder about, but in India it was something to more than just wonder about. It was something to ponder deeply and carefully about.
The famous Hansel and Gretel story came to my mind. I don’t remember much of it, but I knew the two children in that story were lured by a witch who left pieces of bread in a forest. Who was luring me with these $100 bills!
I was a middle-aged man out on an evening stroll. Who would want anything to do with me? Neither am I wealthy nor am I famous. Why would someone want to lure me into something bad? Made no sense.
And of course, I had to make sense out of what was happening. I had 300 dollars with me now, which was equivalent to around 20,000 in Indian rupees. That was enough to take care of a month’s expenses for me. A sensible person would have walked away from there with the cash. But mysterious things hardly ever happen to sensible people. They happened to curious cats like myself.
And so I walked on. I walked further on, but there was no sign of other $100 bills anywhere. Was that it, I wondered. Had someone just dropped these bills by mistake? Was there no sinister plot to lure me into something? Was Rs 20,000 all that I was going to make on this evening walk? Was I satisfied with $300? Nope, I wasn’t.
I walked on. A little further away, I came upon another $100 bill. But this time, it wasn’t alone. There was a man standing before it. A white man. Not a man dressed in white, but a fair-skinned male from a foreign country. I assumed him to be an American. Not that I know a lot about people from America, I assumed because of the currency he had apparently been leaving behind on the roads.
I looked at the $100 bill and then I looked at him. “Hello,” I ventured when he himself didn’t say anything. He grunted an acknowledgement. “Is this money yours?” I asked, showing him the three bills I had collected so far. “It’s in your hands,” he replied. “It’s yours.”
“Oh, thanks!” I said. He grunted, again. I lingered around for a minute or two, waiting for him to venture an explanation. “But, why?” I asked, when he did.
“Ask not why, ask why not,” was his reply.
“Umm, okay! Why not someone else apart from me?” I tried.
“Who said you have been the only one?”
I didn’t know what else to say. The American was clearly not in a mood to explain. He just stood there and looked at me with an expressionless face. I wondered if the $100 bill at his feet was for me as well. I considered trying to pick it up as well, but thought better of it. I didn’t feel like getting any closer to him than I already was. Mumbling a barely audible “thank you”, I walked away with the three $100 bills safely tucked away in my pocket.
After walking away a bit, once I was out of his sight, I ducked behind a car. I wanted to see if he would place $100 bills for other people as well.
“Hey, what did he say?” I jumped up at the sound. Looking behind myself, I saw another man hiding behind the same car. “Tell no, what did he say?” the man asked again.
“Who? What did who say?”
“That foreign person, the one who left money. Did he say anything?”
“You also got money from him?” I asked.
The man dug into his pocket and pulled out three $100 bills. The same as mine. “He said it is mine,” the man said, “but he didn’t say why.”
“Yeah, he didn’t tell me either,” I said. “Let’s wait and see if this happens again.”
And so we waited, hunched behind a car, eyes on the lookout for the American. Minutes turned into more minutes and after what seemed like quite a few minutes, we were beginning to lose patience. There was no sign of the American.
“Let’s go and ask him together,” I said to the man hunched beside me. He agreed readily and jumped up immediately.
The two of us marched purposefully to where we had left the American, ready to together make a case and demand answers. We were happy with the 300 dollars we had been gifted, but we would be happier only if we understood why. It was a different type of greed.
But alas, the American wasn’t there. We looked around the area, but he was nowhere to be found. We hung around there for a little more time, hoping to chance upon him. “Maybe he’s gone to a washroom,” my fellow gift-recipient suggested. Plausible. Maybe he had gone to address nature’s call. No harm in waiting for a little while longer. But the wait was in vain.
Aghast, we finally decided to part ways. His 300 dollars in his pocket; mine in mine. Wealthier but dejected, I came back home.
“That was a long walk,” my wife commented. “Longer than your usual.”
“Yes, it was,” I said, not sure how much of my adventures to tell her about. Money is a tricky commodity. Hardly anyone’s happy with what they have. But having more seldom makes them any happier. I decided to forget about the American’s intentions behind distributing his dollar bills. I had some some of his money and I had it in cash. Might as well get the dollars converted to rupees and put them to some good use.
“You’d been talking about that bracelet you wanted, right?” I told my wife. “Come, let’s go get it.”
“Really? Why?” she inquired.
“Ask not why, ask why not,” I replied.