How Hon­est Are We?*

Reader's Digest (India) - - Con­tents - SNIGDHA HASAN

What would you do, if you found a wal­let with lots of money in it?

To find out, we sent our jour­nal­ists to the streets of 16 cities around the world

It’s a busy af­ter­noon at the Bank of Bar­oda branch in Bal­lard Es­tate, Mum­bai’s old dock­side com­mer­cial quar­ter. Amid the teem­ing crowd of cus­tomers is a young man named Lalit Kishore Bir­wad­kar. As he walks to­wards the teller coun­ters, he spots a brown

wal­let on a chair. With­out open­ing the wal­let, Lalit hands it over to a fe­male bank em­ployee. In it she finds money and pa­pers, in­clud­ing a slip with the name and cell­phone num­ber of its owner, whom she im­me­di­ately phones.

More than 10,000 kilo­me­tres to the west, in Madrid, Spain, an el­derly woman picks up a wal­let found near Paseo de la Castel­lana, an up­scale area with boule­vards and mu­se­ums. She takes the money, throws the wal­let away and keeps right on walk­ing as if noth­ing hap­pened.

Fur­ther west, across the At­lantic, a wal­let is found in New York’s Cen­tral Park by a group of tourists f rom Ro­ma­nia. As they look around won­der­ing what to do, Michael Lu­panucci, a 46-year- old teacher, of­fers to help and calls the num­ber in the wal­let.

Th­ese wal­lets weren’t mis­laid by for­get­ful or care­less mem­bers of the pub­lic—they were “lost” by a team of Reader’s Digest jour­nal­ists in Mum­bai and 15 other cities across Europe and South and North Amer­ica. In each, we put a name with a cell­phone num­ber, a fam­ily photo, bills, other sundry pa­pers and cash—rang­ing from ₹ 750 in Mum­bai to $50 in New York, the kind of cash or­di­nary cit­i­zens would carry on an or­di­nary day. We dropped 12 wal­lets in each of the cities se­lected. We left them in parks, malls, restau­rants, and on foot­paths, among other pub­lic places. Then we waited and watched. We of­fered our wal­lets along with the money as a re­ward to the find­ers who re­turned them to us.

This was no rig­or­ous sci­en­tific study, but rather a real- life test of hon­esty. Each of the 192 wal­lets had a story of its own, whether of out­right theft, a strug­gle with temp­ta­tion maybe or a re­fresh­ing aff ir­ma­tion of in­tegrity.

Af­ter we got that call from the Bank of Bar­oda and the wal­let was re­turned in­tact, a col­league and I stopped Lalit Kishore Bir­wad­kar and spoke to him. He’s 37, a peon at a nearby of­fice, and has been work­ing hard since he was 18. Lalit said he im­bibed the virtues of hon­esty from his par­ents. “But things are chang­ing now, and cor­rup­tion is on the rise be­cause of ris­ing prices,” he opined. “Life is hard and I’m un­able to save money af­ter I got mar­ried. In fact there are months when I end up bor­row­ing small amounts in or­der to run the house. But I’ll en­sure that my son gets a good ed­u­ca­tion and does well.”

When we of­fered him the wal­let as re­ward, he asked if it con­tained any money. On hear­ing that it did, he seemed clearly of­fended. “No, thank you,” he said. “Please give it to some­one who may need it.”

In the end, what made us glad was that nine of the 12 peo­ple who found our wal­lets in Mum­bai be­haved much like Lalit. That made Mum­bai score sec­ond place across con­ti­nents,

just be­low Helsinki, the cap­i­tal of Fin­land, where 11 out of 12 wal­lets were re­turned.

“Finns are nat­u­rally hon­est, it’s typ­i­cal for us,” says 27-year-old busi­ness stu­dent Lasse Luo­makoski, who found our wal­let on a down­town Helsinki street. “We have lit­tle cor­rup­tion and we don’t even jump red lights,” he says.

Lis­bon, Por­tu­gal, fared the worst, while Madrid did only a tad bet­ter com­ing sec­ond- last. We got back only one wal­let from Lis­bon and that, too, was turned in by tourists from Hol­land! In al­most ev­ery case of re­turned wal­lets, we got a call from the fin­der within min­utes. Those who were dis­hon­est, too, showed some com­mon be­havioural pat­terns.

Two teenagers walk­ing in a sub­ur­ban hous­ing es­tate on the out­skirts of pic­turesque Prague, cap­i­tal of the Czech Repub­lic, came across a wal­let on a park bench. The boy, in baggy jeans, who saw it first, whis­pered to his fe­male com­pan­ion and pointed to­wards it. He sat down, let­ting his bag fall over the wal­let. The girl stood be­hind him, fished out the wal­let and put it into her back­pack. They left in a very good mood.

Sim­i­lar but more dra­matic was our ex­pe­ri­ence one evening at Mum­bai’s Shivaji Park. Our wal­let lay on a path for a while un­til a young man, in blue T-shirt and shorts, spot­ted it. He looked like a hum­ble labourer, most prob­a­bly a passer-by, in con­trast to the bet­ter-off cit­i­zens jog­ging or re­lax­ing on the park benches. He picked the wal­let up and in­no­cently asked a young cou­ple sit­ting nearby if it be­longed to them. The man, in white T-shirt and jeans, took it and dropped it slyly into his plas­tic shop­ping bag. He and his fe­male com­pan­ion then got up and started walk­ing away. My col­league fol­lowed, caught up with them and walked just in front, to eaves­drop on them. They talked about a missed in­vest­ment op­port unity that might have grown to ₹ 350,000, butt said noth­ing about our wal­let. The cou­ple then crossed

the road and dis­ap­peared into the crowd. We never heard from them.

For those who were hon­est, re­turn­ing what’s not theirs came nat­u­rally to them. Lalit, for in­stance, had found a cell­phone at the same bank a few months ear­lier and handed it in. A wal­let dropped on a foot­path at Co­laba Cause­way—a stretch in down­town Mum­bai known for its art gal­leries, restau­rants and sou­venir shops—was spot­ted by 23year-old Ayush Sharma. Af­ter a brief dis­cus­sion with his mother and sis­ter, who were with him, Ayush picked it up and we got his call right away. An engi­neer, Ayush had come from Bhopal to help set­tle in his sis­ter, who had re­cently got into the city’s Gov­ern­ment Law Col­lege.

“It never oc­curred to me to keep what’s not mine and af­ter as­cer­tain­ing that there was some money in the wal­let, I was anx­ious to re­turn it to the owner,” said Ayush. His sis­ter said she would have done ex­actly the same, had she found any­thing. All this while, as the sib­lings spoke, their mother looked on proudly.

Ayush’s con­duct was a re­flec­tion of his fam­ily val­ues: His fa­ther had once found and re­turned a wal­let with about ₹ 15,000 on a train af­ter trac­ing its owner, the pantry car man­ager. He had col­lected all that money from pas­sen­gers for the food sold to them.

Like­wise, what Manca Smolej’s par­ents taught her had a last­ing im­pact on her. When we asked the 21-yearold stu­dent in Ljubl­jana, cap­i­tal of Slove­nia, whether she had even con­sid­ered tak­ing the money she found in our wal­let, her re­ply was an em­phatic “No!” She said, “My par­ents taught me how im­por­tant be­ing hon­est is. And once I lost an en­tire bag but I got ev­ery­thing back. So, I know what it feels like.”

How­ever, many oth­ers in Ljubl­jana just could not re­sist temp­ta­tion, such as the two women in their late for­ties last seen di­vid­ing the cash from our wal­let be­tween them.

Even so, another lady from that age

group stood out. What unfolded that af­ter­noon at the cen­tury-old Mum­bai Gen­eral Post Of­fice added even more dig­nity to that im­pos­ing build­ing. We dropped a wal­let at a GPO counter. A man, busy stick­ing stamps on a large pile of en­velopes, no­ticed it but didn’t bother. Mean­while, Stamp Ven­dor Vaishali Mhaskar, work­ing at a counter op­po­site, saw the wal­let and re­quested a col­league to bring it to her. Mo­ments later, we re­ceived a call from Vaishali. “Lots of peo­ple, mostly stu­dents and se­nior cit­i­zens, leave things be­hind here,” she told us. “A few months ago, I found a folder with some bank pass­books and other i mpor­tant pa­pers in­side,” Vaishali re­called. “Luck­ily there was a mo­bile num­ber scrib­bled on one of the pass­books, and when I called, its owner, a young busi­ness­man, rushed back to the GPO. He had to catch a flight that day and was over­joyed at get­ting his folder back.”

Vaishali took our wal­let as a gift and we left the place, but while we were driv­ing away, we got another call from her. “Please come back,” she said. We re­tuned to the GPO, only to be told that she couldn’t keep the wal­let. “But why?” “I didn’t know there was money in it,” she said. We took it back. Our in­ex­pen­sive rex­ene wal­let might have been an ac­cept­able to­ken gift had it been empty. “I teach my chil­dren to be hon­est,” Vaishali said, and hopes her son and daugh­ter get de­cent jobs. Ac­cord­ing to Vaishali, un­em­ploy­ment is the rea­son for so much cor­rup­tion in In­dia.

We’re not sure about that be­cause this is how peo­ple with reg­u­lar jobs acted at, of all places, the Bom­bay High Court. There, a wal­let lay in a crowded cor­ri­dor out­side the of­fice of the Ad­vo­cates’ As­so­ci­a­tion of Western In­dia. A se­nior lawyer hold­ing his black coat and walk­ing by spot­ted it. “Hey Ku­mar*, there’s a wal­let,” he said to an at­ten­dant, as he walked past. We could safely as­sume what he meant: Ku­mar, please pick

it up and help find its owner. Ku­mar picked it up, went into a room and came back. But we never heard from Ku­mar or any­body at t he court­house again.

Zurich, one of the wealth­i­est cities of Europe, had a sim­i­lar story to tell. A tram driver in his early fifties, dis­tinc­tive in his navy blue suit with the logo of the city’s pub­lic tran­sit com­pany VBZ, found our wal­let. Af­ter tak­ing a good look at the con­tents, he pock­eted the wal­let, money and all. We never heard from him too, de­spite the fact that the VBZ is in charge of Zurich’s lost and found of­fice, and cit­i­zens are en­cour­aged to hand over found prop­erty to t ran­sit staff. The tram driver was, in fact, just one of eight Zurich res­i­dents who made off with the wal­let and its con­tents.

In the univer­sity area of Bucharest, Ro­ma­nia, a young woman in her midtwen­ties with shiny black hair in a pony­tail picked up a wal­let. She asked two peo­ple nearby if they’d lost it. When they said no, she walked into a pas­sage­way to the sub­way. We saw her ex­am­ine the con­tents of the wal­let closely, then place it in her pocket. We didn’t hear from her.

How would young­sters be­have as a group? When Rahul Rai, 27, of Mum­bai found a wal­let ly­ing in the food zone of High Street Phoenix, a cen­tral Mum­bai shop­ping mall, his mind went rac­ing: I once lost my cell­phone and never got it back de­spite all the des­per­ate mes­sages I sent to my num­ber. Rahul picked the wal­let up and waved it about. When no­body re­sponded, he and his friends de­cided to open it. We watched as he di­alled the num­ber on his cell­phone im­me­di­ately and gave the phone to a girl in his group, since this wal­let had the name of a fe­male owner.

Friendly, some­what shy, Kan­pur­born Rahul is a video ed­i­tor at a Mum­bai pro­duc­tion com­pany. “My con­science wouldn’t let me do any­thing wrong,” he told us. “If I see any­thing un­claimed ly­ing around—no mat­ter if it’s in­signif­i­cant— I check with peo­ple near me.”

The Hun­gar­ian cap­i­tal came right af­ter Mum­bai on our hon­our roll. Near a shop­ping mall in down­town Bu­dapest, a young blonde girl put down her bag and vi­olin case, picked up a wal­let and called the cell­phone num­ber im­me­di­ately. “I re­mem­ber be­ing in a car, when my dad no­ticed a wal­let by the road­side,” Regina Györfi, 17, told us. “When we reached the owner he was very grate­ful: With­out the pa­pers in the wal­let he would have had to post­pone his wed­ding which was to take place the very same day!”

A les­son in in­tegrity learnt in childhood stayed with this 73year-old lady from the Brazil­ian city of Rio de Janeiro. In the up­scale neigh­bour­hood of Ipanema, Delma Mon­teiro Brandão was on her way to pick up her grand­daugh­ter at school when she saw a wal­let ly­ing on the ground, and gave us a call.

“This is not mine!” she an­swered when we asked her why she re­turned the wal­let. Mar­ried for 53 years with three chil­dren, she was cer­tain all of her fam­ily would do the same thing. “When I was in my teens, I picked up a mag­a­zine in a depart­ment store and l eft with­out pay­ing,” she re­calls. “When my mother found out, she told me this be­hav­iour was un­ac­cept­able.” Delma had to re­turn to the store, apol­o­gize and give the mag­a­zine back.

In Ber­lin, at Pots­damer Platz, a prom­i­nent pub­lic square, 46-year-old Adel Ben Salem was about to start his shift as a chauf­feur at he Ritz Carl­ton. He was en­joy­ing his walk to work when he found the wal­let be­neath a his­toric traf­fic light clock. “I saw the photo of a mother with her child,” Adel told our re­porters. “What­ever else is im­por­tant, a photo like that means some­thing to the owner. That’s why it has to be re­turned.”

Two work­ers at a Lon­don con­struc­tion com­pany, who found our wal­let and con­tacted us right away, were less solemn about the whole ex­er­cise. “We gave the money back be­cause we know what it’s like to get up in the morn­ing and work hard. Ac­tu­ally, we don’t work hard, but we do get up in the morn­ing,” they joked.

On a wet mon­soon day, a wal­let was dropped near shops sell­ing gar­lands and prasad in the premises of the busy Sid­dhiv­inayak tem­ple— Mum­bai’s most im­por­tant Hindu shrine, dat­ing back to 1801. Ru­pesh Patil, 28, a flower-shop worker, found it. He kept the wal­let in his hand as he con­tin­ued his job of so­lic­it­ing devo­tees to buy gar­lands.

We soon got a call. “A few hun­dred ru­pees won’t make me richer or you poorer,” he told us. For him this was all in a day’s work— many devo­tees, he told us, lose wal­lets here and he’s found many. “What­ever lit­tle I earn here is enough for me,” he said, al­though the ₹ 750 in our wal­let was about three days’ wages for Ru­pesh. And has he him­self lost a wal­let? Yes, Ru­pesh’s pocket has been picked in a sub­ur­ban train and he lost his wal­let with ₹ 1200. “What’s gone is gone,” he re­flected. “You get it back only if it’s your des­tiny.”


Of the 192 wal­lets dropped, 90 were re­turned—47 per­cent. As we looked over our re­sults we found some strik­ing sim­i­lar­i­ties. It seems that age is no pre­dic­tor of whether a per­son is go­ing to be hon­est or not. Across all 16 cities in which we lost wal­lets, young and old both kept the wal­lets or re­turned them. Gen­der and in­come had no bear­ing on con­duct ei­ther. In Poland’s cap­i­tal War­saw, all the wal­lets lost were taken by women; in Ljubl­jana, of the six wal­lets re­turned, all were handed back by women. In Mum­bai men took all the three lost wal­lets. In Ljubl­jana, a man in his early fifties found a wal­let in a park­ing lot near a movie the­atre. He got into his Mazda CX-5 ( priced at 23,000 eu­ros; over ₹ 19 lakh) and drove away. We never heard from him.

As smart­phones and tablets be­come pop­u­lar, many peo­ple choose to re­main glued to the world en­closed in their palms than look at the world around them. Be­fore be­ing picked up, some of our wal­lets were dis­lodged by peo­ple walk­ing while peer­ing into their phones. Many oth­ers sat right next to a wal­let, but never no­ticed it be­cause their phones had all their at­ten­tion.

Apart from those who kept or ret urned our wal­lets, there was a third cat­e­gory of peo­ple who saw it, but chose to do noth­ing about it. In­dif­fer­ence or be­ing in a rush could ex­plain this— or it could be the fear of touch­ing un - known ob­jects. A group of col­lege girls, who found our wal­let at Ma­rine Drive, Mum­bai’s curved seafront, told us how they were hes­i­tant to pick it up. “What if it’s a bomb?” said one. “My first in­stinct was ‘ Don’t touch it’.”

Nearly all nine peo­ple in Mum­bai who called re­fused at first to keep the wal­lets. But when we told them it was a re­ward with no strings at­tached, five of them took the wal­lets. Four ref used out­right. Three of the five called us back when they re­al­ized there was money in the wal­let. One of them re­turned the wal­let and the money.

Mum­bai is crowded. Its cit­i­zens face hard­ships and, as with most big cities, you ex­pect self­ish­ness and crime. So we had many ques­tions in the end: Why did Mum­bai do so well? Why were there so many hon­est cit­i­zens? What gave it a far bet­ter score than much of Europe and Amer­ica? And was it sur­pris­ing? Not for Mum­bai’s Mayor Su­nil W. Prabhu, 44, noted for his hands-on ap­proach to the bet­ter­ment of the city. “This is a city that teaches us a lot,” he said. “Peo­ple come here from ev­ery­where, they strug­gle, work hard and usu­ally do well. So they love Mum­bai and most of them will not be­tray their neigh­bour. I think, as we go along, hon­esty will only im­prove here.”

That’s our hope for the rest of the world as well.

Ru­pesh thinks it’s your des­tiny if you got back any­thing lost.

Adel of Ber­lin was moved by the photo he saw in the wal­let.

Video Ed­i­tor Rahul waved our wal­let about, then made his friend call us.

Vaishali spot­ted our wal­let at her work­place.

Manca from Slove­nia had learnt how bad it feels to lose some­thing.

Lalit wouldn’t take our wal­let and cash even s a gift.

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