Naked into the Urban Jungle

Ah, but a man's reach should exceed his grasp.

Veni, Vidi, Vici. So many tycoons claim to have arrived in a city “with nothing but fifteen cents in my pocket” and, having done that, promptly proceeded to transfer wealth from the pockets of the citizens into their own. Today, on a sunny Mumbai Sunday, I’m participating in an interesting experiment along with two other people to test how we will fare in a similar situation.

Our challenge today is to step out into the city with just our wits and Rs. 30 ($0.65) between the three of us, and parlay our meagre capital into as much money as we can within two hours.

The rules are simple: without our wallets and purses, lacking any meaningful cash for food, water or emergencies, without any identification to prove who we are, without our watches and jewellery, without our mobile phones and having forsaken the help of any friends and family for the duration, we will be venturing truly naked into the urban jungle.

With me on the experiment are two smart women; AM, a dynamic 32 year old placement executive at a Mumbai B-school, and Sanidya Shetty, a lissome 18 year old commerce student. We set out in the Vile Parle area at 12:00 noon without much ado or preparation, empty handed except for our seed fund of Rs. 30.

Firstly, we need a cause to motivate us. We begin by asking ourselves what will we do with the money after we’re done. After a few minutes of discussion, we decide to utilize any money we raise to feed street urchins. Now that we’ve adopted a cause, it becomes really simple to figure out what we will do – we’ll just ask people for the money!

Now it’s time for some strategy. We decide to start with targeting crowded places, and places with an overall younger (and so less cynical) population, and wing it from there on.

Cause? Check. Strategy? Check. Now it’s time to go raise some funds!

We start by pouncing on the nearest people we can see, who happen to be a squad of marching cadets training to be in uniform. An impassioned appeal by the feisty AM to their commander hits home almost immediately, and he allows the marching cadets to break formation and get us any cash they’d like to donate.

My notepad becomes a subliminal symbol of authority.

This lucky stroke nets us our first cash, but we quickly realise we need more than luck. We need an authenticity boost if we’re to convince people that we’re not just hucksters looking to make a quick buck. What we need, apart from oodles of confidence, is a prop. We ‘invest’ half of our capital into a notebook and pen, so one of us can stand around taking down donors’ names and looking all official, while the other two pull off their confidence trick pitch.

We don’t have any receipts to give people, nor do we have any ID. So we decide to present ourselves as a bunch of students who’ve decided to do a good deed on the weekend. Like all lies, the imaginary backstory builds up around itself gradually, and soon we have a waterproof tale to tell while soliciting funds.

We quickly learn that it is pointless to ask shop owners for donations, they’re too jaded for that. Not even Udipi hotel owners part with their cash, despite Sanidya’s shy attempts at a pitch in her native Tulu. Students are more receptive to our pitches, and middle aged and older women even more so. There are a few poignant moments, like the young student returning from college who says she really would like to contribute to our kitty, but all she has is the six rupees for her bus fare.

It is quickly apparent that it is pointless to solicit from students, who have their hearts in the right places but not much disposable cash in their pockets. We don’t want to spend time collecting Rs. 10 per person in the trenches, when we could be collecting 100 bucks each from the right sorts. Our quest for juicier marks takes us into the noisy crowded marketplace, bustling with activity. And women who are willing to contribute to our noble cause.

Descent or ascent, sometimes the difference can be just a point of view.

Our running tally grows by leaps in the marketplace, but our story about wanting to feed street urchins gets us into trouble when a few hard-nosed ladies decide to contribute in kind, rather than cash. We’re loathe to refuse from a fear of appearing blatantly insincere, and we end up with two huge bagfuls of bananas and peaches. Which SS and I then have to lug around for the next hour.

We move towards the station, expecting more rich pickings, but people here are in a hurry to catch their trains and we don’t manage to pitch to many. We move back into the interior lanes of suburbia, where the marks are fewer but the pickings richer.

Our purse has been growing steadily, and AM’s pants soon threaten to fall off with the additional cash stuffed into the pockets. The maximum amount we get is Rs. 200, from a 30-ish anonymous well dressed male. Women give more than men, middle aged people are the most cynical, and while poorer people are more willing to give, it evens up because richer people give more.

Soon, it’s almost two o’clock, and we decide to call it quits. The total we’ve raised today is Rs. 2156 (and some bananas and peaches). While not a fundraising miracle, we’re happy in the context of our original goal.

If we were a scam, we’d have a whopping 7187% return on our original Rs. 30 in the span of two hours. Actually, we’ve ‘invested’ only Rs. 15 of our ‘capital’, so the ‘returns’ are more to the order of 14,373%. Not bad for a couple hours’ work.

This has been an interesting experience, so let me try and list the lessons learnt.

  1. God helps those who help themselves, but people help those who help others.
  2. It is simpler to act when you have a cause you believe in.
  3. All you really need to take money from people is a lot of confidence.

We end up sharing a bit of the fruit among ourselves, and donate the rest, along with the cash raised. Anything for a good cause, I say.

2 thoughts on “Naked into the Urban Jungle

  1. I liked the article.. the idea behind the activity.. The lessons learnt.. But there is one thing that is doesnt fit right for me.. you guys collected around 2k from people just by asking them for it? Plain luck I must say.. Strange but good 🙂

  2. Good to hear the experience.
    If you had got 300, or 3000 instead of 30, would the collection have been higher? And what happens to the return then? Food for thought.

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