My reflex action, the kind the armed forces are famous for, came in handy and I caught the arm that made my pocket lighter. The comparison with ‘King and I’ ceased. This young boy of about fourteen was as far removed from Yul Brynner as you can get; and I was no Anna either. As we alighted from the train in a mad rush of humanity, he would have never imagined that someone would catch him. There was a brief look of pity and defeat on his face (no remorse though) but the next instant he had fully recovered, “Your wallet was falling, Sir; I caught it. You are lucky. Else you could have lost it. Next time, Sir; you must carry it in the front pocket. You may like to give me a small reward.” He rattled out breathlessly as if he had rehearsed this escape route a thousand times.
It was smart and credible. I laughed my guts out if only because I remembered having buttoned my rear pocket and there was no question of the wallet negligently falling out. I pocketed the wallet with my other hand and told him that I would certainly reward him. “No, not the Police Station”, he told me pitifully, “The police would take money from both of us. That’s the way they sort out disputes. Why don’t you buy me a meal?”
Once again, this was ridiculous. This young boy after his unsuccessful attempt at pick-pocketing was demanding a meal of me as if he had actually done me a favour. He was a great actor and having acted in and directed a few plays myself, I admired his impromptu performance. “All right, lets go. But, no running away until we both have finished.” “Promise”, he said with the sincerity of the movie-goers at the rendition of the national anthem before the show.
We settled with our eats: he with a vegetarian combo and a large Pepsi and me with Mac Chicken Nuggets and a coffee. His opener instantly made me feel guilty, “Apun aapke bete ke maafiq lagta kya?” (Do I look like your son?). He told me that his father was a shoe-shiner opposite Mumbai CST Station (“Bapu ghabraya apun ko dekhke; maine signal diya ahl ij well” (My father was frightened to see me with you. I signalled to him all is well)
“What about your mother”, I asked him. He told me she was a maid-servant in a rich family. He sipped his Pepsi and strated his monologue. I shall skip the bambaiya and the translation and give only the gist. He said the art of pick-pocketing was dying down; during his father’s days, it was considered a great blot on the career (he actually pronounced it ‘carrier‘) of a pocket-maar if he’d ever come anywhere close to getting caught. “Today”, he said, “my career is not really ruined because you caught me. We have been told to avoid policemen (easily distinguishable by their sloppiness and paunch) and faujis (armed forces personnel) (easily distinguishable by thier haircuts and smart looks). Indeed, we respect the faujis. One of my friends once picked the pocket of a fauji. He found nothing other than an I-card. An Armed Forces I-card can be sold for more than a Lakh Rupees, but, we are opposed to it on principle. But, you don’t see the Netas (politicians) having any principles. They are the biggest pocket-maars; and then stash away money in foreign banks.”
He considered the property dealers and land-developers as equally big pocket-maars, the doctors and engineers, Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporators who have make loads of money by giving contracts about road-repairs to fraudulent contractors year after year when janata (public) suffers. A guy in his chawl (slum) got killed when a dumper went over him after his motorcycle toppled in a pot-hole during monsoons. What about the police? “Apun mehnat ka kamai khata hai aur vo behan-c–d police wala; khali peeli apun se hafta leta pocket maarne ka. Vo chor nahin hai kya?” (We earn our living with hard work, but that sister f—–r, he receives his cut from us for pick-pocketing. Isn’t he a thief too? He told me that his blood boils to see people like them making money by underhand means and still get a standing in the society.
After that we started some quick Qs and As; a sort of rapid-fire round. What got him into being a pocket-maar? “Family tradition”, he told me. How big was he when he got into it; I shouldn’t have asked him, already knowing the answer made famous by A Bachchan, “Bus youn samjhiye ke jabse hosh sambhala hai apne pairon pe khade hain.” (Well, since the time he became old enough to think, he is been on his two feet). What about the necessary skills? These are, he said, passed down the generations: smooth fingers, sharp blade to rip a bag in a bus or train and take out ladies purses etc, engaging the victim in conversation, creating adequate confusion, run-away acts, techniques of chain snatching, removing watches, cell phones, and other precious items. What about the girls, I asked? Well, he said, they are now getting to be more successful than the boys, “Bahut chaalu cheez hai ladki log. Mard ke pocket mein haath rakhta to saala bahut khus hota; aur bh—i ka bahut dance karke pocket marvaata” (Girls are very street smart. They keep their hand on a man’s pocket and he feels good and then it is easy to fleece him when he is dancing).
He translated my continued interest into my acquiescence for his having a swirl ice-cream cone. He took my money, went to the counter, paid for and collected the ice cream, and then rejoined me on the table. He narrated an incident whence he stole a man’s cellphone. There was his wife’s number saved and then the ba—–d had a string of girls that he was trying to patao (deceive with promises). He phoned each one of them in the night from the man’s phone and told them about the man’s deeds. None of them even knew that he was married. His advice to them was to do something honourable like becoming a pocket-maar and not bring disrepute to their families by falling for a crook.
My last question to him was what he did in his spare time. I was not at all prepared for the answer: he studied in an evening school (School on Wheels) and he hoped to become a doctor, “Pocket maar daakter nahin, sahib, per imaandaar dakter. Pocket maar hamari majboori hai; dhanda nahin in logon ke maafiq” (I don’t want to become a pocket maar doctor though; pick-pocketing is my compulsion not a vocation like these people.
He parted and I sat silently to watch him all the way to find his next victim at Mumabi CST. His opening words still ring in my ears, “Apun aapke bete ke maafiq lagta kya?”
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