Picture this. It’s the week before Diwali and you find yourself frantically covering Little India, Singapore, on foot as though it is some pre-festive ritual or some kind of pilgrimage that promises nirvana. To make up for the lack of festive exhibitions and diwali bazaar this year, you force yourself into every single shop that displays mannequins draped in ethnic bling. It takes you an entire afternoon of biting dust to realise, all that glitters is not gold.

Disappointed with zero shopping and reeking of sweat, thanks to Singapore sun, only a food break is vested with powers to reset your nosediving mood. After a mental exercise of going back and forth over the best place for chai time bites, you innocuously head towards Mogul Mahal – a sweetmeats outlet known to tantalize your Desi tastebuds. The long, snaking queue does its best to dissuade you. Yet, you drool at the prospect of juicy rasgullas melting in your mouth, alternating with spicy samosa nibbles and possibly cutting chai a little later. While the sight of food adds fuel to your growing hunger pangs, life is at the crossroads of surprise.

Enter stranger – a lady standing right in front of you with nothing but a phone, appears all friendly and opens a conversation. She directly gets to the point, “Hi, my husband is getting here any minute now. I am waiting for him. If I miss my turn, I will need to queue all the way again. Could you lend me 10 dollars ? I will PayLah it you first and then you can give me cash….”

It all happens so instantaneously, you have to rely on your intuitive ability to answer your predicament, to lend or not to lend. At that point, the story of Little Red Riding Hood about being aware of strangers, or Bollywood movies like Golmaal refuse to come to your rescue. A mental relflex action guarding you against dangers rings a bell though, ‘golmaal hai bhai sab golmaal hai..’ (music playing in the background). Completely in vain.

Devoid of retail therapy all day, your parched soul craves adventure. In a split of a split second you decide to bet your ten dollars to study how much trust you can put in strangers in 2020, the year of the pandemic. You smile and offer the 10 dollars before getting any money in your account. You get sold to the idea of someone offering to transfer first.

Bored humans in the queue glance at the two newly found friends yapping away, exchanging smiles and introductions, one a dancer, the other a storyteller, while the dancer opens up her PayLah app, adds details and swipes right. Wow that was quick!

But wait a minute, your phone refuses to beep with notification which is otherwise more instant than instant noodles. You stand there waiting for the money to arrive, 5 mins, 10mins. Now the dollar 10 begins to play on your mind. The lady in question reads your face and gestures to give the dollar 10 bill back. But you find it awkward to take it, simply because she entered all details and showed you a ‘-10’ on her account.

The queue refuses to budge. The weather in your mind changes quicker than Singapore skies. The dollar 10 debt looms large. You give up on the speed of the non-moving queue that rests like a python post dinner. You quit and disappear in the crowd. On the way, some shops distract you. But your mind keeps coming back to the 10 dollars. Another 30 mins and still no sign of money coming. By now you could have cooked Maggie 15 times.

You find yourself seated in a South-Indian joint, where the aircon is incapable of cooling your heated head while piping hot Rava Dosa waits patiently to be butchered under your teeth. But nothing seems to satiate your rasped soul that feels like a fool. You palpitate as a thousand thoughts wrestle you over, like ‘your face has come cheat me, I have truckloads of money’ written all over it. Or thoughts like ‘four decades on this planet and you are still such a bad judge of people’, suddenly emerge out of nowhere. You console yourself with ‘it must be someone broke wanting to eat a good meal’ or ‘you made a mistake trusting her…’, the list is endless.

Just then, you receive a message that reads, “Firstly Thank you for trusting a complete stranger and lending me”

Instead of helping, the message infuriates you beyond reason as though she is now having a good laugh after mugging you. And that’s when you do the rudest thing. You reply back, “Hey haven’t received any money. Well cheated. So strangers are not to be trusted after all”.

While your hands and mouth continue to usurp the dosa full speed, you imagine her standing there, shameless, ruthless and without any remorse, in the witness box while you play the victim, the lawyer and the judge in the courtroom of your mind.

Suddenly, a reply pops back, “Sorry was driving. Sending you $10 a second time.”

That’s surprisingly positive. But once again, no money, no notification. This time, it feels crazy. You lose all sanity to decide what mind games is this person trying to play. Your mind has donned the victim cape by now and refutes any logic or benefit of doubt for the other. Just as you sit there, chaos thundering your numb skull, a new message flashes across. It’s a screenshot… and lo behold, she has been using PayNow all the while. She calls.. but you don’t answer. You check the correct app this time. There is a debit of 20$

You return 10 asap and heave a sigh of relief. There follows a string of sorry and happy diwali and thank you from both parties. The last few bites of Rava Dosa taste heavenly, like the best food on earth. Better than Rasgullas and samosas put together with cutting chai.

But right after the carbs on your tongue lead to a sugar high, there begins the unending saga of another chain of thoughts, “What did this lady think about me? Sure she mentioned the wrong app, but maybe she didn’t even realise that. Did she think I was trying to make a quick buck? Did she think I was a cheapskate? Why did I not leave it and let the 10 dollars go? How bad would she have felt with that utterly rude message?”

The list is endless. And for some reason, you have replaced her in that witness box. The trial is against yourself, by yourself. Could you feel any more ridiculous?

P.S. Some experiences shake us to the core. I made my choice by lending the money, knowing well, I risked getting cheated. I was in the mood to experiment. Losing 10 dollars was not a big deal. We get robbed in lakhs and crores to real estate developers, politicians, casinos, designer and branded wear and stock markets. However, the feeling of getting mugged in broad daylight or feeling cheated is something the human brain finds difficult to handle.

It meddles with your theories of goodness in the world and pricks your beliefs. A S$10 gave me a story that taught me more about myself than any degree ever has. It also reinforced my belief in goodness of humans. I wonder what my new dancer friend thought of me. That would be the other side of the coin. A story for another day.

Well, well, wouldn’t the results be interesting if the stakes were higher, let’s say a 100 dollars or maybe a 1000?