By Kaushik Basu
March 7, 2019
Meeting my old friend, Michael Menezes, at the beautiful Pali Village Café in Mumbai recently, my mind drifted back to our college days in Delhi and another café.
This was in early 1972, maybe March or April. Our three years in St Stephen’s College were drawing to a close, three magical years of fun and friendship. I did poorly in my final exam but that seemed like a small price to pay for all the joy of not studying. Mike and I decided it was time to do some good deed and our plan was to match one of our classmates, whose name will remain anonymous, to a very charming student of Miranda House, whose name, alas, I do not remember. So we devised a remarkable entrepreneurial scheme. We wrote a letter to her pretending to be him, professing to be in love with her and pleading her to come to the university Coffee House to meet him. And we wrote a letter to him pretending to be her, professing love and that he come to the Coffee House at the same time.
When that momentous day came, Mike and I headed off to the Coffee House to witness the fruits of our match-making. On the way, we had to make a phone call and stepped into one of those phone booths, so ubiquitous those days, where you insert coins to make a call. And there we struck gold, or, more precisely, a 10 rupee note, left behind by someone on the phone counter. There was no one to be seen nearby, and it was too small an amount to go searching for the owner. The thought struck us both that this was an occasion for free coffee. Mike, being a Catholic, wondered if we were about to commit a sin. I assured him of the flexibility of the Hindu gods. Further, somewhere in high school, I had ceased to believe in god. I saw no evidence of god and, in case he was there and had hid the evidence of his existence, he would surely be irritated by the dishonesty of the believers who claimed to see evidence.
In any case, we decided this was a good test of god’s existence. We would see whether or not he punished us for this sin. We walked over to the Coffee House and, soon, as expected, our classmate came in, looking tense. He sat alone in a far corner, an eye on the main entrance. Within minutes she came in, and walked unsurely to his corner. They began chatting. We could not hear the conversation but it was clear that it was running into heavy weather, each claiming the other had asked them to come. Then we saw them both pull out letters from their pockets and thrust them at each other, at which point, Mike and I decided it was time to leave the scene of crime.
As we walked out of the Coffee House, Mike got proof (in his case, a reminder) of god’s existence. He reached into his pocket and his wallet was mysteriously missing.
The salad days of college came to an end in June. I packed my bags from my residence in Stephen’s Rudra South, bid farewell to my dearest friends and left for a short vacation in Calcutta and then for the London School of Economics. (Luckily, LSE had given me admission before seeing my final-year performance in St Stephen’s.)
Three years later, I was delighted when Mike, by then a chartered accountant, came come to LSE do a master’s degree. On a walk one afternoon, we stepped into one of those iconic, red phone-booths of London to make a call. And, yes, an abandoned five pound note was lying, at roughly the same place as the ten rupee note three years ago. There was no one in the vicinity who could be its rightful owner. We gasped at how uncannily similar the situation was. Was god testing us to see if we had learned our lesson? We, on our part, decided we had to check how consistent god was. So we picked up the money and set off to have coffee at Wimpy.
Like Alexander Fleming in his laboratory waiting to see if the bacteria would grow, we sat, drinking our coffee but with our minds transfixed on the experiment. Time ticked away. We finished our coffee, paid for it with our ill-gotten gain and walked out nervously, and back to our hostel. What happened then, was the following: Our wallets were not lost.
Given nature’s different response to our picking up abandoned notes in Delhi and London, the question remained open: Does god exist? There are several possible hypotheses: There is no god, and the loss of the wallet in Delhi was a fluke; there is god but he believes in punishing people for drinking coffee using ill-gotten gains, but only when that is coupled with writing letters in other people’s names. However, when Mike revealed later that the experiment was not quite the same because this time, while having coffee, he had clutched on to his wallet, we realised there was a third hypothesis — there is god but he is not that powerful, and in particular, he cannot wrestle wallets out of clenched fists.
The upshot basically is that there is no firm answer. What I would recommend to you, dear reader, is my own philosophy of scepticism, which has stood me in good stead and which can be summed up in a simple dictum: Anything that is not logically impossible is possible.
Live by it and you will make better decisions in life.
Kaushik Basu is C Marks Professor at Cornell University and former Chief Economist and Senior Vice President, World Bank