From Chai-Paani to Scotch: The Evolution of the Bribe


From Chai-Paani to Scotch: The Evolution of the Bribe

Illustration: Sushant Ahire

The act of bribery is in many ways like the act of sex. Being caught at a traffic light is like the dance of love, where two parties approach each other warily. You talk of lights, traffic, and life, but beneath it all, the subtext runs heavy. Then there’s that moment when the Netflix ends and the chill begins, and both parties give each other subtle verbal and non-verbal cues before actually doing the deed.

The physical act of bribery though is like bad sex – you whip it out in desperation, the other person hesitates for a bit, it all ends before it even begins, and the actual deed gets done in under three minutes. After that there’s no question of a cuddle, as both parties rapidly walk away in opposite directions doing their own versions of the walk of shame.

We’ve all performed this roadside version of sex and lived to tell the tale because money, we’ve been taught, is the answer to most of life’s problems. All problems great and small, judicial and bureaucratic, disappear when they slip through well-greased palms. These palms that need greasing belong to a bunch of people, going through the typical middle-class grind, with aspirations of making it to the other side. The 20s became 50s and then evolved into 100s, but now that life and style have become one solid, hyphenated word, created out of a profusion of Nikes and 12-mega pixel camera phones, palm greasing has changed.

My friend visited the local BMC office last month to get his name rectified on the birth certificate. This simple-sounding operation, is actually a clusterfuck of bureaucratic red tape, and the only way to get it untangled is to throw money at it. My friend went fully prepared, expecting to pay a bribe, but was instead asked to recharge the babu’s phone for ₹500 using Paytm or simply transfer the money using Airtel money. Now the going rate for such minor clerical operations ranges between ₹200 to ₹300, that too in soiled 100-rupee notes that have a distinctly un-bribe-y feel to them.

My friend, usually the “fixer” of the group, found himself in a fix for change. He had neither money in his Paytm wallet nor the inclination to give into the clerk’s whims. Repeated offers of cash went unheard, until my friend agreed to recharge the clerk’s phone on the condition that he initiate the process of having his birth certificate corrected. My friend would recharge the phone on his way out, which he did, but for 50 bucks instead of the promised 500. He received a couple of hateful calls that day and the next, but in the end, the hate went away and he walked out 450 bucks richer.

A friend once told me how someone at the district magistrate’s office showed him a catalogue for Rado watches with his preferred model coyly circled.

I didn’t believe the recharge bribe story, until one fine Sunday afternoon, I was smoking in a cab when a pair of hands appeared by the window. They were attached to a traffic cop wearing aviators, an impressionable knock off. He demanded that I pay a fine of ₹500 for smoking in addition to a fine of ₹300 for littering, after I tossed the cigarette at his feet. I knew what was coming. We’d begin the dance and there’d be some give and take, but suddenly he changed the rules and cut to the chase. Shoving his mobile phone in my face he said, “Recharge kara na, donshe cha. (Recharge my phone for 200 bucks).”

Ladies and gentlemen, Bribery V 2.0 has come to town and with it has come incredible convenience. A friend once told me how someone at the district magistrate’s office showed him a catalogue for Rado watches with his preferred model coyly circled; another told me how he was taken to a high- end men’s store because a fat bureaucrat needed an Italian calfskin leather belt. I know of bribes paid in scotch, wine, and other consumables. Then there are the evergreen bribes of the flesh involving top-end hook ups, where bribery doesn’t just resemble the act of sex, it IS the act of sex.

But perhaps the best anecdote in this new world of lifestyle bribes came from my cousin who needed a property transfer completed. The babu initially demanded a percentage of, which was unreasonable, and after being called out, simply sent my cousin a link to via SMS. The link was to a black, laced camisole. I’ve heard of bridal couture, but it was the first time I’d heard of  bribe-al couture.

My Paytm paandu had no camisole aspirations. He waited, knowing fully well, that electronic bribes are impossible to cover under a sleight of hand like the times when neatly folded 20s or 50s would be passed off as 100 when slid discretely into khakhi pockets. He stood there triumphant, gloating, until in a stroke of sheer brilliance, I decided to be a model citizen and pay the fine, asking for the receipt to go. This unnerved him and a ₹200 rupee recharge became chai-paani that is 100 bucks in cash, which was slyly deposited into his shirt pocket out the window.

The key to this dirty dance is that one has to lead. And that’d better be you.