(Published in Zeitgeist, The New Indian Express, on 12th July, 2008)
Instinct tells me the man who came up with the adage "Neither a lender nor a borrower be" was either my soul mate or the real Nostradamus. I was once shocked to hear an acquaintance, who had fallen out with a friend because his friend expected him to return money, say, "dude, friends are not supposed to return money! It doesn't work that way! If he comes to Madras and is completely broke, I'll sponsor him and not expect him to pay back. That's how I work. I'm not going to return his money because friends don't return money. I get offended when friends offer to pay me back!"
I'm not too sure how many fans this particular Theory of Friendship has. But what I do know is that there are few things that can match the panic or embarrassment of asking for money back. And we always make excuses while asking if someone can return our money. Things like:
"Hey, I'm broke and I'm feeling too lazy to go to the ATM. Can you return my money today?"
"My ATM card got swallowed by the machine, and I really need to buy a microwave today because my cylinder is empty, so I can't heat things on the stove…"
"My salary's been held up, so I need money. Can you repay me now?"
"Hey, my wallet got flicked by some pickpocket…uhhh...you think you can pay me back that six grand you borrowed?"
"Uhh…hi…I need to go to the dentist and he doesn't accept cheques or cards."
"I'm planning to transfer my funds into an FD, so I really need some loose cash…"
"I got stopped by the police and I had to pay five grand, man! Now I'm totally broke…think you could repay me now? I'd really appreciate it coz…you know…I had to pay the police five grand…and uhh…now I'm broke…"
And the borrower always sounds a wee bit offended, or maintains a stoic silence that makes you repeat your see-through attempt at extortion. I've known this person who replied to one of my excuses from the above list, saying something like, "ey, today's my off, ya! I don't want to go to the ATM either!" This other guy, who was running an amateur theatre company with mainly volunteers, shrugged when I asked about being reimbursed for hiring costumes for a play, saying, "hey, the financial year is over…so I can't make reimbursements."
So sometimes, you resort to this habit of being "broke" whenever you hang out with that person, so you get your money back by cancelling off your debt to him or her against his or her debt to you. And you always end up feeling guilty, almost like you feel compelled to apologise when someone who owes you an apology doesn't, just so someone would have said the word "sorry".
My most memorable experience with trying to claim back money, though, was with an ex-boyfriend who arrived in Delhi completely broke. Not only did I have to pay for everything we ate or watched, but had to lend him enough to make it back home. And after not being repaid for three months or so, I had this brainwave. Every conversation for the next couple of weeks revolved around friends of mine who owed me money, and how I hated people who completely forgot they owed money…but this was no mean opponent. Up to the task, he chatted gloomily about how he went through exactly the same thing, and echoed my emotions and then swung the subject within the admittedly broad arena of friends.
So Plan B came in. Operation Reclaim was going rather well, as I staunchly refrained from offering to dutch for the next few weeks. I was close to cancelling out the money he owed me when, finally, at a restaurant, he pushed the bill towards me.
I looked at him enquiringly.
"For a woman who claims to be independent," he reasoned, with a smile, "don't you think it's about time you started repaying me?"