The words on the wall in the police station that night read “Truth alone triumphs.” Truth, as I have come to learn however, is a dangerous lie. Truths can be conjured from banal realities. Some of these reflective, retrospectively constructed, imagined realities sometimes define who we are. One way of living with these truths, I am beginning to understand, is with gratitude – an acknowledgement for how I remember what transpired and how it has led me to rethink. And so it is in gratitude that I recount the following incident. My memories are hazy from emotion but sharp with recollection. For all intents and purposes, what I am about to tell you is the truth.
The lashing cut through the silence of the night to a chorus of muffled cries. “Please! No more.” begged a ragged, emaciated figure hunched shapelessly on the ground trying to cover its face with one hand while holding out the other in defiance of a relentless leather belt. The metal of the buckle glinted triumphantly as it rained down blow after blow catching the figure sometimes on the knuckles, sometimes at the elbow and once or twice across the face. From time to time, the arrival of a train would set the window panes jarring and muffle the desperate cries. Inside that unforgiving police station by the platform, the air was heavy with smells of sweat, piss and disgust. An incandescent bulb hung limp over a large table casting shadows over the faces in conversation about it. The table had a glass top under which was laid out a green velvet cloth decorated with lists, notices, notes in indecipherable scribbling, some photographs and posters for wanted criminals, a postcard with exuberantly painted gods and goddesses, a calendar turned to anytime but the present – really just a summary of such information as which never concerns anyone in particular. The corners of the room were black and mouldy from the damp and red pan spittle traced hurried arcs across the lower reaches of all walls. In one corner of the room lay a pile of broken and rotting furniture from which emanated, periodically, the excited squeaking of rats. Files lay in precarious stacks up to the ceiling and the toilet door lay ajar. Two places in this room could be described as having been clean – the bench on which were seated mother, brother and I, and the inspector’s desk with its ensemble of furniture where my father sat patiently negotiating our way back home. “Please sir, we just want to go home…” my father said from the shadows across the table adding “Keep the money.”
A lash across the thief’s cheek sent a wail of pain and a tooth flying across the floor by my feet. “Shut up!” said the inspector to the blackguard who had by now begun shivering. Phlegm ran down his nostrils, congealing over his lips. He dared not move his hand to wipe it out lest the belt come cracking down once more. “Bhosdike chori karega?” the constable standing over him chortled, “Ab karke dikha chori!” I pushed the tooth under the bench with a nervously dangling leg.
The railway station has always inspired mixed emotions in me. When I was a child we would often entertain guests at home over long periods. After all, we were staying so far away from our hometown and relatives came but once in a while. They brought sweetmeats and snacks, toys and clothes, gifts and blessings. But most of all, they brought stories. Goodbyes nearly always came too soon. As they’d extend waving hands out through the horizontal bars of the train window, tears would well up in my eyes and sadness would grip me for a moment – a feeling that I wouldn’t see them again, that they would become another story from another mouth some other day. I hated it. On the other hand, I loved travelling in trains, whizzing past the landscapes, laughing at jokes, playing games and eating packed home food with my father, mother and brother. I enjoyed it because it took me on vacations which were fun. But it also brought me back home. And so the railway station has been a happy place too. That night was clearly the station of happiness – until it wasn’t.
On the platform outside the police station, porters scrambled to assist struggling passengers, suspicious travellers peeked their noses out of the windows and doors of resting trains warily before stepping out onto the platforms, half-sleepy families bade farewell to guests unenthusiastically, infants wailed incoherently in the arms of mothers who were dragging along a bag too many, elders hobbled slowly to nowhere in particular, the homeless were asleep alongside travellers who had arrived in time only to find their trains delayed by many an hour, groups of youths hung about laughing amongst themselves, drunkards zig-zagged their way across the platform dodging perfectly stationary things, the announcer never once broke her dignified tone to steal a yawn and trains heralded their comings and goings with those deafening honks which sound romantic only from a distance. Inside the room it was silent save for the ever louder screams of pain that followed every…
Earlier that day in school, my restlessness had gotten the better of me. A week long trip in attendance of a family wedding was as bright a prospect of freedom and hope as could be afforded to a mediocre student in a strict convent school. But mostly, getting out of school was vacation enough. I had choked down my lunch, wished my friends goodbye at recess and arranged my books in neat stacks within my bag an hour too early in anticipation of the school bell. For once the bullies on the van ride back home didn’t faze me. They couldn’t have. Not on that day. At home that evening, our bags were packed in time and we sat down to an early dinner. As was customary, pre-travel dinner was a simple combination of idly-molagapodi, curd-rice and pickle. To save the effort and to avoid a case of the running stomach, mother would cook two days worth of the fast-food, divide it in pairs or triplets, place it on clean wet banana leaf squares, apply the oily gunpowder on the steaming idlys, fold the bite sized parcels into a leafy envelope, tie it up in an old piece of newspaper and place the parcels in tiffin bags with an assortment of fruits and drinking water. Mother had been explaining the rudiments of home-making to my father who wasn’t accompanying us on the trip. “…and if you are hungry during the day you can eat this idlys that are kept in this casserole here. Remember to put the spoons and plates in the sink in the morning for the maid and don’t cut open a new packet of cooking oil…” An exasperated remark from my father saw to the end of that conversation as usual. My infant brother was patted down to sleep and I was indulging in the rare luxury of watching cartoons and not caring about homework. My chief concern back then was to maximize tele-viewing time.
“These items will have to be taken into custody and produced at a court hearing. You cannot take them home with you if you choose to file a report.” said the inspector sternly from across the table. “It’s two in the morning, the kids are exhausted, and I’m missing my sister’s wedding and now this! Let’s just leave. They have the thief. I don’t want to file a report.” my mother muttered in urgency at my father. “Shhh! Let me manage this.” father said irritably. “But Amma, if we don’t file a report, this thief will get away!” I protested. “Hush, kanna!” she said.
The lashing must have lasted an hour. The sobs had receded into whimpers a while ago but the shivering continued. The thief was breathing heavily and holding a swollen cheek. The cop lifted him by the collar and pushed him to the corner under broken chairs prompting a hidden rat to scamper across the room in panic. There he laid, his head thrown back in pain, moaning as he drew a weary and bruised arm under his trembling body, straining to lift himself to rest his back on the wet, red wall behind him. I avoided his glance. I pretended to sleep but I knew he was looking at me, his spirit beaten out of him, his dearest wish to be out of the room if but for one moment. I clenched my jaws, stomached my fear, stared menacingly in anger at him and quickly turned away, wishing for the lashing not to end. Someone had to pay. He had to pay. “Main to bolta hoon aap F.I.R. karo, sahib. Yeh gandu choron ko hum thikane lagayenge.” said constable as he slid the belt back through the loops of his khaki trousers, adjusting the buckle just under his corpulent belly.
The night before, my mother had been packing her choicest jewellery in a large festive bag. My brother, who was just discovering crawling, found an opportune moment to upturn the neatly packed bag and bathe himself in gold. Much to mother’s dismay, the child was laughing. Father was laying down warm freshly pressed clothes in one of the bags, yawning as he hoped for packing to be done and for sleep to come sooner. He had had a long day at work. He always had long days at work. Those were the days when families like ours worked hard to satisfy needs – let alone wants. Toys – I always needed toys. I remember, I was allowed only one toy on the trip which made no sense to me because the toy will need company while I’d be away with my cousins. “Okay two!” What joys the week ahead held for me, I imagined. I had even finished my homework on time and packed my bag for the last day of school. “Good boy.”
The belt was out again. This time it was another constable. “Saab mujhe mat maaro saab! Mat maaro saab. Maaf karo saab. Uncle aap bolo na inko. Ae ladke, bhai bol na. Aunty… Mat maro saab. Mat maro… Mat maro…” the frightened thief scrambled back into the pile of chairs begging, crying and shouting to anyone who would hear him. “Do you have to do this to the boy? He is a child. He’s learnt his lesson. Don’t hit him, I say!” father implored, shaking his head in disapproval and clucking loudly with his tongue. “Stop it. It’s making the madam and the kids… uncomfortable.” the inspector ordered. “Mister, this is no child. He is a thief. He will be back here tomorrow. And the day after and the day after that… And every day we will beat him. And others like him. All because you can’t see him getting what he deserves.” said the constable as he walked off in haste almost sorry for missed chance at disciplining the child.
“I need to buy goodies for my nephews.” my mother said the night before as they were discussing about the week’s finances. “Then I need to buy authentic snacks and pickles, pick up the sarees that have been delivered to my mother and put a hundred rupees in the donation box at the temple.” she counted out on her finger tips.
“I’ll give you money for the temple and the sarees. We don’t need the eats; you’ll be eating wedding food for a whole week. And you just gave your nephews gifts a few months ago!” father replied inattentively with a wave of his hand a look inside his wallet.
“The eats are for YOU! I might be a spendthrift but I think about others too. Always worried about the money! Where is it going to go?” she yelled back.
“Fine” conceded my father out of sheer exhaustion “How much money do you need?”
“Six” said mother.
“I’ll give you four thousand. Be careful. And split the money in four different places when you pack the bags. I don’t want my money getting stolen or lost!” he spoke instructively pointing at the four bags lying about the room.
“You don’t have to tell me all this!” said my mother stashing the whole wad all together into her purse. “You’re not the only adult here. I can manage.”
Money – the only reason parents ever fight. Money – the most impersonal of things and yet so potent in inspiring the ego to hurtfulness, to arrogance, to greed, to thievery…
The constable brought us a second serving of hot tea with glucose biscuits just as the clock struck three. My father thanked him politely. “This is a common problem, mister. These kids… Don’t pity them. This is a racket, I tell you! Put one behind the bars and the rest will follow.” The inspector was negotiating with my father, asking for us to file a police complaint. No amount of reasoning on my father’s part was getting us back to bed that night, I knew. “Let us start from the beginning. Tell us when you first noticed your handbag was missing, ma’am” said the policeman to my mother wiping the tea from his handlebar moustache.
“Not my handbag, my purse. Well…”
My eyelids were suddenly heavy with sleep and exhaustion. I didn’t want to sleep but as my mother’s voice trailed off into the background, other sounds began filling my ears – louder, and closer, and closer. “Beg for it!” they were jeering, ganging up on me. “Beg for it, you idiot.” “What, you’re going to complain, are you?” one of them was asking in a feigned tone of fear. “Leave him alone, guys. Let him run back to his mamma’s lap.” another said with a hooked smile that slanted up along only one of his cheeks. “Let me GO!” I said. “I did nothing to you all.” They laughed. One of them was poking me mercilessly, laughing every time I twitched. “Let the kid go!” the van driver screamed. “Can’t stand up for yourself, can you? Won’t let you go until you beg.” As always, it was the fat boy who was holding my hands behind my back. Everyone always said he was a good boy because he topped his class and smiled in front of elders. Nobody saw him in the van. “Let me GO! Please!” I’d cry on some days. “Arre, his mom comes and asks me about this, guys. Let him go. He’s an idiot kid. You should see them eating their rasam and sambhar with their hands. Disgusting people! Let him go.” the elder of the brothers who were my neighbours was saying. “I can’t take this nonsense anymore!” “Did you hear that, fool? Your bodyguard is tired of your shit” “I’m begging you! Please! Please!” The van stopped, the doors opened, and I was running out back home. Back home. And suddenly…
My neck was hurting. I had dozed off and my head, heavy with sleep, had strained my neck to one direction. In time, I looked at the thief – the thief who everyone believed to be a child. His defeated body lay about, his head rolling from side to side as he tried to seat himself. Did his neck hurt too? Good. He wore a filthy shirt stained with dirt, grease and shit. There was a faint tan around the area where a pocket used to be. The buttons were torn, his vest was in rags where the crowd had pulled him up. The zip on his crumpled brown shorts was wide open and the waistline held in place only by knotting the overlapping flaps. He stank. He breathed heavily, brushing flies away from the fresh cuts on his exposed legs. His face was filthy with sweat and dirt but his flushed swollen cheeks were as smooth as a child’s buttocks. Neither had a hint of moustache sprung up under his flared nostrils. His hair was short and straight but shabby like a stray dog. He was thin, frail, his concave stomach betrayed his hunger, prowling every now and then like a tiger from a dense bush. His mouth bled from the broken tooth. His lips were red and trembling. There was something placid about his countenance yet a silent rage seemed to be bubbling just under his skin. His clothes marked him homeless, his posture hopeless. He had the body of the emaciated, the smell of a sewer rat, the nimble feet of an athlete, the desperation of a thief, the shamelessness of a beggar, but his eyes – in that moment – he had the eyes of a child.
The announcer was already welcoming our train onto the platform. We dragged our bags along the rough and uneven platform. “Come on! The train is on the right platform!” father said, pulling me aside as I was tickling my brother’s feet, trying to awaken him. Unlike me, he was a quiet child. He never made any noise and you never knew where he was which made my mother anxious. She never let him out of sight. He tried to kick me away with pudgy baby feet but he was quiet, alright. I lifted the lightest of the bags and ran to keep pace with my father. Mother hoisted the sleepy bundle higher on her shoulder. “Mom! Fast!” I shouted more out of excitement than out of urgency. We got across the foot-over bridge onto a completely packed platform. The train was just pulling in with a bellowing honk and the flatulent sounds of its own air brakes.
“Check the coach! Check the coach!”
“Make way! Trolley coming through!”
“Where is the TTR?”
“Excuse me, is this train going to… Will you please SHUT UP!”
“Who are you?!”
“I told you not to push!”
“Dad, I want a cup of tea!” I was saying as I tugged at my father’s shirt. “Not now, kanna. Let’s settle down first. Seriya?” The train slowly came to a halt. Scores of desperate bodies clung to the window grills and door frames of the general coaches. The railway police were blowing their whistles trying to bring the platform to order. We all walked hastily towards the entrance of our coach. “Look for seat 35! It’ll be towards the middle.” Things were beginning to feel like eternity already. The latent smell of sweat, garbage, trackside shit and exhaustion wafted into the packed compartment. Someone turned on the fan – momentary relief. Porters howled for us to move ahead, the old lady just in front of us shouted at us for pushing and my brother who had just chosen to wake up was in the initial throes of whimpering. “My bag is stuck at an awkward angle. Help me pull it front.” my mother suddenly said. Wrenching the bag, we moved towards our berths. My father who was just behind us put the bags under the seats. “Check the tickets once more, will you?” my father was telling. “The tickets are in my purse. One minute” Mother was saying… The look of horror on her face was palpable as she pulled forward her bag to remove the purse.
“So how did you know it was this kid who had stolen your purse?” the policeman asked while taking notes. ‘This kid…’ I thought. ‘This kid…’ A visceral anger had begun building up at the thief, who, in reality had stolen my vacation.
“My son caught him, inspector.”
When my mother screamed that her purse had been stolen, the coach erupted in a furore. From my seat by the aisle and from the corner of my eyes, I saw a figure shuffling hastily from one of the toilets to the exit. I tugged my mother just in time, pointing towards him. “There! He’s the one! He was standing behind me when my bag was stuck!” she shouted. The next thing I knew, I was running, the wind at my heels and the word “thief!” on my mouth. Tripping over a bag and someone’s foot, pushing over a porter and barely escaping an itinerant dustbin, I managed to keep pace with the boy who was used to running away. “Stop him!” I shouted. Faces turned and other feet joined my own. The desperate and surrounded ‘thief’ could go only one way – over the tracks. He jumped. The rails broke his fall. The bigger men hoisted him up. He was caught.
“Chori karega tu? Chori karega? Kahan rakha tune mere Mummy ka purse?” I heard myself screaming at him in a high pitched voice. My father came running, holding me back. “Leave the boy alone, kanna. We’ll call the police. Don’t get excited.” The police, noticing the commotion were already walking up to us. Apprehending the ‘thief’ with a swift smack on his head and a tug under his arm, the police asked us to follow. My father walked behind me thanking the small gathering of curious onlookers and exhausted sprinters.
“You need to go back to the coach, get your wife and kids and bags and get out of the train, mister. Even if this kid is the thief, you don’t have your tickets.” And that was that. The vacation had ended. We alighted, my mother shaken; her sister’s wedding only to be a photo on one of our albums but not a reality for us. My father who was red in the face with anger, annoyance and embarrassment managed a word of disappointment at my mother. “How can you be so stupid after I told you to split the money? So stupid!”
“Sir, please. They need to be on the train.” father pleaded on our behalf.
“Oh sir! Aap pehle thane chalke FIR likhwaiye.” said the constable.
“Kidhar chupaya tune purse ko?” asked the cop of the kid who was by now breaking down. “Ma kasam, sir, maine chori nahin kiya. Mai chor nahin hoon!”
“Is that why you were running away from me, thief!?” I shouted back. The ‘thief’ stared at me incredulously. “Sir, please ask your child to keep quiet. Let us do our job.” the cop told my father.
“I was afraid! This boy kept shouting at me and ten men came running with him. I was afraid they’d beat me! Please, sir.”
“Shut your mouth! Do you think we are chutiyas? Do you want to tell us where you hid the purse or should we strip you in the public, you piece of shit!?”
“I didn’t steal anything sir. Aai shapat sahib.” He was crying.
“Search him.” The cop said with a slap across the face.
“Four thousand Rupees in hundred Rupee notes and a gold chain, sir.” said the constable bringing his hand out of the kid’s vest.
The boy wailed as the cops rained more blows on his head.
“Don’t hit the child, let’s get the purse and be done with this.” My father was saying when the policeman rebuked him. “This thief is not a child and we are not done here. After we retrieve your purse, we will file a report in the police station. I am sorry, your family cannot board that train.”
The boy led us to one of the toilets on the adjacent coach. He must have meant to return for it once the train was on the move. Hidden behind the pipes of the western style latrine camouflaged in the redness of the cubicle was the purse. The cop grabbed it and handed it to my mother asking her to check if all the other valuables were in order.
They were – the cards, the lipsticks, the mirrors and all the rest of the things that seem to find such unconditional acceptance in a woman’s purse.
We had just stepped off the train when it began pulling out of the platform. Slowly but surely, it was dragging along with it the playtime with my cousins, the wedding and my vacation. We stood for a minute. All of us silent except my brother who had woken up unable to comprehend the reasons for our being outside a moving train. He desperately pointed and cried in angst at the moving bogies which were floating into the distance. I had gone back to tickling his feet when my mother slapped my hands down in exasperation. “But I’m making him laugh!” I protested. My father muttered something under his breath. The cops were already calling out to us from ahead to follow them.
The inspector walked into the police station in a few minutes. “All the things we retrieved from the thief are in evidence. You have to file a report. We will get you a court date. The evidence will be presented to the judge and returned to you after the hearing. This is the procedure.”
“Please sir, we just want to go home. Keep the money.” My father was saying. The inspector was clearly offended by father’s interpretation but continued speaking politely. “Sir, you misunderstand us. We do not intend to part you from your money. And we seek no bakshish. If you do not file a report, this thief will be back on the track, stealing.”
“We’ll sign in as witnesses, but we really just want to leave, inspector. Thank you for all your assistance. My family has had a long night.” My mother was visibly frazzled. I was too cross to notice anything other than the boy thief. After hours at the table, my father finally rose from the chair and shook the inspector hand briskly. He motioned towards us to get up. “What will happen to this boy, inspector?” I asked the inspector as he patted me on my back for nabbing the thief. “We’ll take care of him, child.” He said.
“Please do. I don’t want more children losing their vacations.” I replied bitterly, staring in disgust at the huddled mass which had micturated upon itself. My father caught my shoulder, directed me to lift the bags and walked us towards the car. I turned around one last time and saw the two constables walking back inside with their belts in their hands. By then, we were too far to hear the screams.
The drive home was excruciating. Nobody spoke. By brother who was awake and in a mood to play was baffled by my lack of enthusiasm. My mother cried silently and incessantly. For the wedding she will have missed. For the sarees and jewels she wouldn’t be able to wear at the function. For the carelessness that brought her on the brink of a public breakdown. For the argument her husband had so clearly won this time. All the way home we heard my father muttering. “So stupid.”
We returned to an empty home sooner than expected. Our home, expecting us to stay out longer seemed unwelcoming and let us in only grudgingly. We left the bags in the hall. Removed the packed idlys from the handbag, put them in the kitchen and washed the ‘train toilet’ from my mother’s purse. Too tired to do anything else, we all bunked in the children’s room. My brother and I went to sleep on the bed and my parents spread the mattress on the ground below us. No one spoke. My brother was asleep again.
I must have been lying awake in bed for what seemed like an hour. I had the very uncomfortable feeling that none of us were asleep. My father, disturbed by the carelessness of my mother was consoled only by the fact that he had managed to get back all our money and valuable. We missed the train and the fare was lost to us, and that hurt him some. But we got the rest. If only we weren’t so stupid! My mother was quiet. But I knew she had been silently shedding tears. “Ma, I think you should sleep. Aunty will understand.” I squeaked. “Go to sleep.” She said stiffly. But I couldn’t sleep. Not on that night when I was a little boy – a boy who had just wanted a vacation.