The worst day of his life began just like any other day.
‘Oota aayita? Had food, Majestic?’ asked Doc.
‘Had,’ said Mr Majestic as he entered the cybercafé, adding, ‘New virtual girlfriend, Doc?’ when he saw Doc tweak his nose sideways, squint at it cross-eyed and remove the fur growing on its perimeter.
Doc had no medical qualifications to speak of—‘Doc’ was his pet name, or what in police records was referred to as an ‘alias’. In this somewhat disreputable part of Bengaluru, everyone used aliases to deflect the negative fallout of their misdeeds, as did Mr Majestic, who really was just Hari when he wasn’t working. He went by approximately half-a-dozen different aliases, which came in handy in different situations.
Doc ran a seamy Internet parlour where regulars got a discounted rate. Mr Majestic was an old customer. Ten plywood cubicles were crammed into the cybercafé. Each had room for a PC, a chair and, if one wriggled a bit and wasn’t too fat, a person. The doors were adorned with blow-ups of Doc posing next to Sabeer Bhatia or Steve Jobs, daubs of vermilion powder dotting their foreheads like flambéed brain. Mr Majestic was the day’s first customer, and following his rule of never using the same computer two days in a row—it was a known fact that a fixed routine had been the downfall of many an underworld operator—he shut himself into the Bill Gates cubicle.
Mr Majestic didn’t think of himself as a big crook—medium-small-fry at most—but he was strict about security measures. And yet, despite being cautious at all times, the recurring nightmares in which he saw himself painting number plates in the Parappana Agrahara Central Jail made him sleep poorly. So he always carried a wire basket with six tall glasses of filter coffee to work.
He set his coffee down and browsed the news websites to find inspiration for new scams. The big national top story was monsoon floods: spoilt crops, collapsed bridges and natural anarchy.
But the local headline was about a popular actor, Jagatprasiddha, or JPS, who was like a god to his fans. There was excitement over the fact that the star had performed an elaborate temple ritual before commencing the shooting of his new romantic action-comedy, loosely based on one of his previous blockbusters. Everybody looked forward to the new production, especially since there had been worries that Jagatprasiddha, whose films never flopped, might retire, which would have been nothing short of a death blow to the box office.
Mr Majestic often thought that if he hadn’t had to make a living, he too could have been a star with a thousand hit films to his name. He had tried to win the Mister India competition a couple of times, submitting photos in which his pimply chest gleamed with coconut oil. He had a tuft of hair sticking up over his forehead and used a lot of oil to slick it down. A toothy ear-to-ear smile made him look younger than twenty-seven (others of his generation had lost their teeth and gone to seed by twenty). When the bodybuilders’ association turned his application down without comment, he organized his own ‘Mister Majestic’ challenge online and won the title fair and square because nobody else entered. A registration fee of 20,000 rupees may have scared the losers away.
In those days, he had made a living off the streets by guiding tourists to cheap lodges or shops that offered great deals. He had been occasionally booked for minor felonies, mostly cheating: a crime according to Section 420 of the Indian Penal Code, which was why professional fulltime cheaters were known as a ‘number 420s’ to distinguish them from the amateurs. It was also illegal to work as a tout according to Section 151. Although he understood that the cops were just doing their job when they filed cases against him, he was fed up with having to appear, time and again, before the Court of Small Causes.
Officially, his sort wasn’t supposed to exist. But what was one to do, he thought, if one had already been born? One just had to go on living for as long as one lasted.
Getting busted too often was one of the reasons that had driven him off the streets and made him turn to the dotcom world of unlimited opportunities. Being a quick thinker, he had sniffed potential when Mrs Bulala, the alleged deputy manager of Risk Capital Bank of Nigeria, contacted him in connection with a spam-scam. ‘I was directed to you by the economic crimes division of the police and found your particulars in the professional database of Yahoo.’ This made him a bit paranoid. People out there kept an eye on him?
He had carefully read what she wrote next: ‘I’m notifying you of the investigation conducted in cyberspace. It appears that scammers claiming to operate on behalf of our bank contacted you regarding the discovery of an abandoned sum of money belonging to your estranged uncle, and that you were tricked into paying an exorbitant fraudulent processing fee to get the money.’ Nothing remotely like that had happened; Hari’s uncle was very much alive and kicking, and he didn’t believe for a minute that he was eligible to get a compensation sum big enough to be counted in cartloads, or whatever the currency was in Africa.
However, scamming people online seemed a neat and easy job compared to running around in the heat and dust chasing tourists while being chased by the police. He wrote a sample email to Mrs Bulala detailing how she could improve her scam, more as a test of his own prowess. He pasted a nice-looking disclaimer at the bottom of the pitch, which suggested that those who got scammed had no reason to complain; instead, it implied that the scammee was liable to be prosecuted: ‘This email may contain confidential, proprietary or legally privileged information. You must not use, copy, distribute or disclose the email or parts of it. The sender does not take legal responsibility for damage resulting from the use of this email or attachments therein.’
Mrs Bulala wrote back praising his innovative ideas and offering him a freelance position in her customer services department. For each new customer he brought in he received a commission. She also found it helpful to have a local person to collect the money, somebody who’d open and access bank accounts in India on her behalf, and act as the interface between herself and various investors in risky schemes, such as spiriting away the annual GNP of assorted Third World countries.
He logged into all twenty of his email accounts, downloaded the latest tutorials from the online university where he had registered to do a B.Sc., and opened Wikipedia and a thesaurus site. He dreamed of going straight one day. Once he had a valid degree he could start a legitimate business and finally be rid of his nightmares. In the best-case scenario, the online university would not be another scam. You never knew with stuff on the net.
Zac O’Yeah is a Lounge columnist.
Mr Majestic: The Tout of Bengaluru will be in book stores in December.