In praise of con

As I looked down from the balcony of the cafe I was in, I saw something very peculiar. A girl, no older than eight, dressed in grey-brown rags so typical of those who beg at traffic signals. Except that this girl wasn’t begging- she was going from table to table of the downstairs restaurant, selling stones. Smooth, round pebbles of white marble. But that wasn’t what was peculiar. It was the fact that these were exactly the same stones that formed the walkway of the restaurant she was ‘selling’ them in. She must have just picked them up from there, and was now showing them to prospective ‘customers’ just a few feet away!

The people at the restaurant, I imagine, must have easily figured out this rather obvious con. But they were still entertaining the girl- they seemed amused and were smiling as they spoke to her. She definitely knew how to keep her audience engaged. It was only much later that I noticed that the con was craftier than I first gave it credit for. She wasn’t selling the stones as she found them, but had in fact dabbed some colours on them, though I couldn’t really see what the final effect was from where I stood. But one thing was quite clear- this young girl of doubtful formal education knew all about the economy of value-addition.

Theres something about ingenious cons that make us feel both outraged and impressed, almost in equal measure. Delhi has no shortage of these. For almost a year, between 2014 and 2015, when I routinely crossed the intersection of KG Marg and Tolstoy Road near Connaught Place on my way to work, I would notice a group of women accosting cars that stopped at the signal. Their colourful sarees tied in a way reminiscent of rural Haryana and Rajasthan, coupled with white bangles reaching to their elbows, gave them the distinct air of not being from the city- of being migrants. Their harrowed expressions left no one in any doubt that they were in distress. The group had about eight to ten women and one of them, bawling and visibly in pain, was heavily pregnant, and the trouble was that her water had broken. She needed to be rushed to a hospital.

The first time they approached me was when I was with two friends in an auto. The urgency and emergency of the situation is immediately thrust on you by the way they talk- fast, half-shrieking, with at least three of them talking at once. The ticking clock of the traffic light only added to the stress. What happened? Is someone hurt? I cant hear! What? Hospital?

That time, my friend and I ended up giving them about 200 rupees, while my other friend remained skeptical. I only came around to see his point when, two days later, I was accosted by the same women, in the exact same ‘distress’. Extreme coincidence? Exceptionally long labour? Was a different one pregnant now? 

I politely told them that we had met two days ago, at which point they promptly left my window and went to the next one. After that, I lost count of how many times I saw them in the exact same traffic signal doing the exact same thing. I’d like to think that we even established an unspoken bond- when they would notice me and almost nod to the fact that I was in the know- almost part of the con.

This particular intersection happens to be a stone’s throw away from Jantar Mantar, the epicentre of protest-gatherings in Delhi. The recent court order prohibiting protests notwithstanding, it’s actually uncanny to go there and not find some protest in progress. Usually there is more than one, with farmers protesting crop-failure or depressed market-prices, camped alongside military veterans protesting paltry pensions. If anything speaks of the liveliness of the place, it is the huddle of tea stalls on the pavement, doing a brisk business of steaming tea and questionably-fresh bread-pakoras in the sullen landscape of Patel Chowk which is otherwise monopolised by government offices and banks.

Its an area reserved for peaceful protests- a term that is striking in its contradiction, yet slips by almost unnoticed. Aren’t protests supposed to be disruptive- if they hope to achieve anything at all? Isn’t maintaining ‘peace’ effectively maintaining the status-quo? Surely, the intention behind the term ‘peaceful protest’ is better explained by lawful protest, of non-violent protest? Why does our imagination limit any possibility outside peace to be war/violence? 

We are a nation not remotely unfamiliar with non-violent protests, thanks to Gandhi- the poster child of modern non-violence. That this man of agitation and disobedience would eventually find his image branded on currency notes will always be something of a cruel joke. In any case, we have had protests for as long as we have had reasons to be unimpressed with the status-quo, and theres never been any lack of those. So much so that protesting has become a bit of a ritual. A cleverly contained ritual? A bit toothless, and a whole lot less disruptive?

Why this sudden digression about protests? Wasn’t I just talking about cons and con-artists? 

But is this really a digression? Is the ‘art’ of conning so much different from the politics of protest? If a protest is a demonstration of displeasure with the status-quo- and a critique of the socio-political system, don’t cons represent exactly the same thing? A con is ‘cheating’, something dishonest, and always illegal. It is a disobedience of playing-by-the-rules. But in being so, isn’t it also a critique of those very rules? Don’t both cons and protests emerge from the same lack of faith in the existing rules?

Of course, a nonviolent protest is largely legal, while most cons are a breach of trust. But lets look at the pregnant-woman-in-trouble con a little closer. Its an elaborate performance, and definitely requires planning, and a good degree of acting and performance-skills. The whole con works on its plausibility- its ‘realism’. Its a piece of fiction, of course, as there is no pregnant woman actually in distress. So its believability rests entirely on the skill of the performers.

Can you think of anywhere else where we willingly let ourselves into such cons? Don’t we enjoy watching fictional performances by actors, and demand as much ‘realism’ in their acting and plot? On stage or on screen, we readily pay for such performances. Don’t we go and sit in cinemas and auditoriums, waiting to be conned by the most gripping and ‘realistic’ of cons?

Theres no breach of trust there- in cinemas and theatres, we know what we are getting into, and thats why we put our money there. In fact, a bad film, with bad acting or poor storyline, makes us feel cheated of our money- makes us feel that the filmmaker violated our trust in them to con us well. At the traffic signal though, the women do an impressive job- they manage to get Rs. 200 from me and my friend and more importantly, they won our trust. Their realism was spot-on. If that was a film, I’d have written a glowing review of it. 

How odd. If we go to watch an action film, which promises gangsters and shootouts, and then in the film some gangster manages to unrealistically dodge bullets, or survive three bullets to the chest, or famously splits a bullet in two by throwing a disc at it, we are unconvinced because its not realistic enough. But at the traffic signal, with these con-artists, we are outraged because its too-realistic, because they completely convince us.

But a con is much more than just a site of performance. Nobody, of course, likes being cheated, and I am no exception. Its probably because we are ourselves in thrall to money, and painfully aware of the cost of earning it in our capitalist rat-race. But on a closer look, every con always speaks loudly as a critique- and stands out as a protest. An unpleasant protest, because its not peaceful- it refuses to be peaceful. It uses our own absurdities and turns them against us. 

Perhaps the pregnant-woman group is aware of our absurdity in spending money on ‘realistic’ entertainment, while being generally tight-pursed and wholly indifferent to the omnipresent deprivation of people and migrants sleeping on pavements? That we would easily pay 300 rupees to go watch a movie about a homeless person, but not bat an eyelid when we pass actual homeless people sleeping under flyovers- their only shelter being the incidental construction of flyovers for our cars.

Perhaps the young girl at the restaurant is also aware of our tendency to spend money on things that are readily available in front of us, or at least should be? Every table in that restaurant had a bottle of packaged water on it, willingly ordered by the customers. Its called fresh, natural Himalayan water, which translates as river water thats been put in a bottle and transported to the city from the foothills. And we pay for it. So why shouldn’t this girl call out on our absurdity? Why shouldn’t she sell us stones from the restaurant, as banal as that water, and expect us to pay for it?

Perhaps a con is too problematic to be seen as a protest. Maybe a con is not so much a protest in itself, but a symptom of our lack of protest at other, more legal cons? We sit through demonetisation, and countless television ads of toothpastes promising the extinction of dentists and fairness products offering racial superiority and professional success. We pay for comedy built on casual misogyny and homophobia, and we conveniently forget that an HRD Minister offered her head in parliament, after blatantly lying about Rohith Vemula. We unquestioningly believe surgical strikes, and an obnoxiously loud newscaster telling us that Rohingya refugees are radical terrorists. 

Maybe the girl at the restaurant and the women at the signal are merely testing where that thin red line is, which separates acceptable cons from unacceptable ones?

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