The Thief

The crash of a stainless-steel water jug, as it fell on the road a few yards in front of him, jolted Bishu out of his reverie as he walked home after work.

Bishu had had a bad day. Honest people in his position at the bank he worked were rare, and Bishu liked to think he belonged to that small group. Like many other nationalized banks in India, his bank was burdened by a plethora of bad loans. Word had permeated down from the top that officers were expected to subject loan applications to added scrutiny. In addition, Bishu assiduously kept himself informed of the tremors that rippled through the finance ministry in Delhi during the pre-budget weeks. Of course, he could not afford all the weekly magazines that had mushroomed of late catering to the burgeoning hunger of the middle-class investor for financial information. But he had struck a deal with the street-corner magazine shop. He regularly bought two of the weeklies, thereby gaining the privilege of reading two others at the shop over cups of tea on Sunday mornings. It also helped that the tea-shop next door belonged to the brother of the magazine store owner.

Bishu has learnt that several international financial institutions had strongly advised the central government to stop making bad loans through the banks. He decided that he ought to play a part in this revolution that would cleanse the banking industry. In that spirit, he had questioned an applicant more closely than usual about the information the latter had offered in the application form for a loan to start a small business. The applicant's professed business acumen and enthusiasm failed to impress Bishu, and he had made that known in no uncertain terms. The businessman had left in a huff.

A few days had passed. However, that morning, Bishu's boss had summoned him to his air-conditioned office, and questioned him coldly about the application. To his dismay, Bishu realized that the applicant had connections in high places, and his boss had forgotten to tell him that this application was not to be refused. He was humiliated at the thought that he would have to reverse his decision. He had felt very hot under the collars even though the room was kept at an uncomfortably low temperature. Later that afternoon, the man returned to complete the loan paperwork, his oily, gloating smile and snide comments further infuriated Bishu.

Times are changing; he ruminated during his 20-minute walk home along the dusty pavement still simmering in the early evening from the overpowering March heat. The days of petty corruption were numbered he consoled himself. Maybe the banks would be privatized. Bishu had always wanted to work in a private bank, where he believed his skills would be better appreciated. But the town was still considered too small for a private bank to operate a branch. "I'll just have to be more patient," he sighed as he turned into his lane, stumbling over a mound of earth left behind by municipality workers. He had inquired about the mysterious problem that had prompted a prolonged bout of digging which had all but destroyed the lane, but never received a satisfactory answer. His small, two-storied house stood close to the entrance of the lane. Since his parents passed away and his sister got married, Bishu, his wife Bani, and his five-year old son Arjun, were now the occupants of the house.

It was at this moment that the water jug fell from the second floor of his house, startling him into leaping several inches into the air.

"What's going on here?" he shouted as he picked up the jug and scrambled for the door. Bani had been busy cooking dinner in the kitchen downstairs. On hearing the crash, followed by Bishu's shout and pounding on the front door, she came rushing out to unlock the front door. "Somebody threw this out of the balcony," shouted Bishu, waving the jug."Where's Arjun?"

At this time Arjun came bounding across the passageway towards them. "This man, he was coming downstairs … He wanted to know if there was a backdoor out … I said no, and he went back up …" his voice choked with excitement. "Good god, a thief!" shrieked Bani as she pulled Arjun into her arms. Bishu was enraged. "Thieves at work, and now at home," he muttered as he raced towards the stairs.

The thief had clambered over the courtyard wall earlier in the afternoon. He was short, slightly built; his health ravaged from addiction to drugs. He sold the stolen articles in the next town, and the money helped sustain his drug habit. With Arjun at school, Bani was taking her afternoon nap downstairs. The thief, having concluded that there was no one at home, proceeded directly to the second floor. In the first of the two rooms, he found Bishu's new shoes, some well-ironed shirts, and Bani's watch that Bishu had presented her on their tenth wedding anniversary. These were quickly bundled into a dirty jute bag that he carried with him. He grabbed the large stainless steel water-jug which was too big for the bag, but was worth the inconvenience of carrying away with him. He failed to notice the substantial amount of emergency cash that Bishu stacked at the corner of the top shelf of the cupboard, just out of his reach.

Just as he was about to move to the next room, his eyes fell on some sweet-and-salty crackers that Bani had baked. These were Bishu's favorites and went very well with afternoon tea on weekends. The thief had not eaten all day, and he immediately opened the jar of crackers.

Sitting at the edge of the bed, he munched through half of the jar's contents in a few minutes. As he finished the crackers, he was overcome by tiredness and heat. The bed looked very inviting. "A 20-minute nap will not hurt," he reasoned as he drank water from the jug and then curled up on the bed. "I will be gone before anyone returns."

Over an hour went by while the thief slept, and Arjun returned from school. The voices downstairs did not wake him. After his afternoon snack, Arjun busied himself kicking the football in the backyard while waiting for the late afternoon heat to subside. Soon, the neighborhood kids would arrive and they could play an actual game with two teams. It was the thump-thump of the ball hitting the wall downstairs that finally ended the thief's slumber.

In the first few moments of panic he ran around trying to figure out ways of escape. He realized that he could not take the stairway down without Arjun raising the alarm. He raced to the balcony and found a storm drainpipe. There was no one in sight. If anyone on the main road noticed his movements, he would be gone before they could take any action. Of course, he could not climb down while encumbered with his loot. In a flash, he had thrown the jug on to the road and the bag was about to follow, when Bishu turned the corner into the lane.

The thief, still groggy from sleep, lost his nerve. He ran back through the room to the stairs. Up the stairs came Arjun, who had just remembered that he had to return a book he had borrowed from his friend. "Quick, is there a backdoor?" panted the thief. Arjun, who had just heard the thud of the water jug hitting the road followed by his father's shout, was dumbfounded. He froze and shook his head. As the thief ran back to the room, Arjun recovered, and raced downstairs to inform his parents of this unexpected visitor upstairs.

Bishu marched up the stairs grim-faced, leaving behind an alarmed Bani screaming "Robbery! Thief! Help!" He paused momentarily to grab Arjun's cricket bat lying under the stairs. As he burst into the room, the unexpected sight of the thief lying on the bed nervously twitching his feet greeted him. He leapt up and dived for Bishu's legs. "Forgive me, sir," he lamented, "I will not steal again." Bishu dragged him up by the shirt collar, which began to rip under his weight. "Steal from my house, will you?" he thundered as he raised the bat, "I need to teach you a lesson you will not forget." Normally a mild-mannered man, he proceeded to administer the beating with an intensity that even surprised him.

The thief continued to yell in pain. Soon a curious crowd gathered outside the house, prompting Bani to stop Bishu from inflicting further punishment. Arjun, shaking with excitement, had found some rope in the storeroom. "Tie him up, father," he whispered loudly slipping into the room. "Go outside," glared Bishu at Arjun, as he grabbed the rope from his son. The hands of the thief, who was now shaking and whimpering, were then securely tied. He was marched downstairs, held by the scruff of his now-ripped shirt.

The crowd outside was muttering angrily about the breakdown of law and order and looked ready to beat up the thief. Bishu's neighbor Jatin, an accountant with a cooler-head, intervened, and quietened the crowd. An auto-rickshaw appeared, and Jatin and Bishu directed the driver to take the three to the police station. Bani, meanwhile, had overcome her initial state of shock was aghast at the news that the thief had made himself comfortable in the bed. "The whole room needs to be cleaned thoroughly," she declared to the maidservant who had just arrived for her evening round of household chores. "All the sheets need to be washed. God knows how long the thief was in that room. You better get started," continued Bani impatiently.

When the trio reached the police station, they were asked by a constable to sit in the waiting room, while the latter went to fetch the OC. The thief's hands were untied by another policeman, who then stood close to him holding a thick stick. "I wish I had one of those sticks," complained Bishu to Jatin, "It would have worked better than the bat." "You did a pretty good job, anyway," remarked the policeman. The thief appeared to be in considerable pain, rubbing the dull red bruises and welts that had appeared on his hands. "I can't believe that he dared to steal in broad daylight. What is the world coming to?" wondered Jatin, mentally estimating the cost of improving security to his own house.

The OC, a thickly built man with a booming voice, marched into the room. "You again!" He roared as his eyes fell on the thief, who promptly threw himself at the OC’s feet. "Forgive me, sir," he cried. "I didn't mean to commit the crime. It's my hands. They do the stealing. I have no control over them," he continued, weeping profusely. To his utter dismay, Bishu realized that this offender was a frequent visitor to the police station, and that the police were not particularly eager to register his case. The OC took Jatin and him to a separate room, and offered them tea. "If you want to register the theft, we will have to first send this rascal to the hospital for a check-up," said the OC. There had been several deaths in police custody all over the country in the past year, some of which were the subject of judicial investigations, Bishu was told. The OC had only a few more years to retire, and he did not want any complications. Any suspect who complained of injuries would be sent to the lock-up only after a medical report was issued, ruled the OC.

Bishu's frustration mounted when someone hinted that the thief could actually take him to court for the beating. "It’s not good to take the law into your own hands, sir," pronounced the policeman pompously. The situation was further complicated because the thief had not been able to get away with the stolen goods. "If you chose to press charges, we would have to hold on to all the articles that he tried to steal. Evidence, you see," said the OC. This was the last straw. Bishu decided to drop pressing charges. This was not going to be his day. On their way out of the station, he saw the thief sitting on the floor. He had dried his tears, and was now busy polishing the boots of one of the policemen. Bishu scowled at him and turned away.

It later turned out that the thief lived in a neighborhood not far from Bishu's house. The following week, Bishu came upon him at the local market. The thief turned his face away as he approached Bishu, and pretended to look closely at some vegetables arranged neatly in piles for sale. Bishu ignored him altogether. He had more important matters that needed his attention. A British multinational bank had just announced plans to open a branch in his town. He had read the advertisement in the morning paper for job openings for experienced bank officers. He resolved to mail in his application the following day.

Sarbajit Ghoshal lives in Santa Clara, CA.




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