September 2, 2023
Satire illustration

One of the real struggles of embarking on a satirical venture in India is the fear that it will be taken seriously. This is particularly odd when you consider that serious writing is itself often not taken seriously. It is either ignored or read by a miniscule minority; it’s most pervasive interest rarely goes beyond the middle-class drawing room. Satire, on the other hand, falls between the cracks. Its assumptions and ideals place it somewhere between the silliness of stand-up comedy and the deathly serious refrain of Indian constitutional law. Both ends have found a place in the Indian mind. The middle ground of satire is however untreadable. Without the experience of ambiguity and irony a culture needs continuing assurance that what it reads is clear in black and white, a joke, or a God-given truth. But let’s try. Given the current state of the economy during the pandemic, with poverty and unemployment looming, I begin with the first piece on: 12 ways to collect Ransom.

In 2021, with national poverty levels at an all-time high, the government took several crucial measures to create an equitable future for Indian society. First, it eliminated the National Poverty Alleviation Programme, which immediately freed up funds for the poor; second, it set up a Rural Savings Scheme, which allowed the poor to transfer their monthly earnings directly into a bank with a long-term deposit, ensuring that the money remained safe, though inaccessible for an indeterminate period.  Finally, it was decided to remove the social stigma of burglary and theft as punishable offences from the Indian Penal Code, thereby making kidnapping, ransom, and holdups morally reprehensible, but socially acceptable. The government enlisted the help of an experienced kidnapper, a senior bureaucrat in the Home Ministry, to issue 12 specific instructions for future kidnappers. In his words:

1. The ransom note should be courteous, but discreet. Introduce the subject gradually. Don’t just launch into it. People are touchy about kidnapping, and even more so about paying it for a loved one they may not love very much. Begin therefore with a touch of light humour, or some current topic such as global warming or the budget deficit. Avoid obscure subjects like sheep farming in Kazakhstan or the Bitcoin controversy. Then gradually work your way to the issue at hand.

2. Try to sound educated in your ransom call. You don’t need to quote Freud or Shakespeare or acquaint them with your law school credentials. Just be yourself. Well, perhaps not. So long as you don’t sound like two Humanities students in conversation at Starbucks, it’ll work.

3. Another way of convincing them of your educational qualifications is to use a lot of nice punctuation in the ransom note. Throw in lots of semi-colons and exclamation marks, a couple of hyphens in the middle, and end with a full stop or two. Avoid question marks; they always put doubts in people’s minds.

4. Don’t be greedy. Too high a demand puts people off. An experienced ransom demander usually does serious research before taking action, so fix the monetary amount at an appropriate level. Say, if it’s a doctor, you should know the sum you ask a chiropractor would be less than that to a physiotherapist or a neurosurgeon. There are graded ransom scales for every profession. Study these before deciding the amount. Also, remember rich people are quicker in settling demands than poor people. Last year I dressed up as an economist and attended a meeting in Davos, and found there is a big difference between income disparity and abject poverty. I thought they were both the same. To be poor is not morally objectionable; but to derive pleasure from it is. You know who said that, a burglar from Munich. He came dressed as a Financial Advisor for General Motors. On the question of greed, let me tell you, for my first ransom job I kidnapped a homeless man from Chowpatty. Big mistake! It took me three months to first locate his family and another two to get the ransom, and that too only twelve rupees. So, before you get going, check the latest Fortune 500 list.

5. If you contact someone with a telephone ransom demand, don’t sound inexperienced. The last thing you want them to think is that this is your first job. People don’t like to shell out to some unprofessional bimbo who just got a vague idea about making some quick bucks. Do some voice practice on tape before picking up the phone. Thing is rich people in rich countries are happier than rich people in poor countries. I’d be too. If I was rich and all day I saw only poor people, I’d be worried sick. I’d try and increase my inequality even more. It used to bother me that I had contributed to lowering the per capita GDP of my country, but then I reasoned that ours is a developing country, and we all live in hope. Because we are all poor, we all have equal shares of nothing.

6. Truth is, the rich don’t like to spend, that’s what makes them rich. The poor, on the other hand are spending all the time. The rich need the poor to keep the economy active, otherwise markets will wither away and die, malls would close. It’s a mug’s game. So, be firm in your demands. Don’t offer too many options. If you start by saying that you’d like ten lakh rupees by 6 p.m. the following evening, don’t waver and say 50 thousand will also do, and sometime next week is OK. Convey that you mean business. Send them a handkerchief with the wife’s initials (theirs, not yours), or send the ransom note in a hot water bottle; it’ll throw them off completely.

7. Attitude is important; you should know when the rich get richer, the poor feel poorer. That’s a God-given truth. It’s like the Jonses, always comparing. One guy gets two cars, his neighbour builds a two-car garage, even if he doesn’t have a house. Human psychology is funny. It’s best to convey a couldn’t-care-less attitude, indicating that you are pretty well off and it doesn’t really matter if you don’t get the money. People respect that. Never sound desperate. Whatever you do, don’t threaten. Don’t say you’ll cut off a finger or a lock of hair, or call the police. Polite but firm always works.

8. Delivery: Don’t send the ransom note by courier or Fedex. Deliver personally. People like it when things are personal. They can see who they are dealing with; in that way they know they can expect good service. Also, don’t forget that a ransom note is only effective when it’s sent to the right person. If you kidnap the grandson of the Saudi royal family, there’s no point in contacting just any Arab family in Riyadh. Go to the source … and don’t write the note in Hebrew.

9. Convenience is another crucial factor. Never ask for the money to be deposited in a brown bag behind Kentucky Fried Chicken near the north-east corner of the garbage dump on Thursday morning at 3 a.m. Indian Standard Time. No. Times have changed. Either use a bank transfer or the Post Office Money Order. On second thought, forget the post office. Last time I used it to send money to my mother was in 1998. She would still be waiting for it if she weren’t dead.

10. Always ask for the amount in whole numbers. Not, ninety eight thousand seven hundred and sixty three rupees and fifty three paisa. That makes people suspicious; they think it might be a car payment. Truth is life has gotten worse for everyone. Even the segment called extreme poverty see a further decline in living standards. Sure, the couple who sold their daughter for a loaf of bread feel sad; but at least they are happy they don’t have to share it with her. They are the Ransom Business’s new executives. 

11. Weather plays an important part in collection. If there is a thick blanket of snow and a wind chill of -35 degrees, no one’s going out to plant a stash of rupees in an oak tree on the western edge of the Mall in Shimla. So wait till spring.

12. Finally, be patient. People will drop off the money when they are good and ready, or if they happen to be driving past the park one day. Remember, rich people like patience; they respect you if you give them time and don’t rush them.

That’s it. The ransom business is a highly skilled urban occupation that helps in income distribution and creates a level playing field. Trouble with the ransom and kidnapping business is that too many vague people have entered the profession. Things aren’t the same any longer. Those good old days when getting ransom was just like a bank transaction are gone – you sent a ransom note in the morning and got your cash by the afternoon. So if you are just entering the profession, consider these twelve points carefully before taking the big step. Or call me at 6593-4421.

-Gautam Bhatia

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