The heavy dark brown shoes came into my line of sight and I thought that this is the end. Holding my breath I crouched on the edge of the nullah (culvert) six feet below the road and stood still delicately balanced. The stink filled my nostrils as the culvert carried a bubbling grey green muck in a steady fierce flow spewing venomous vapors. Luckily it is summer and thetime evening. In the rains one finds the gently sloping sides slimy with moss. It would have been suicidal even attempting then what I had done now. A wrong foot and I would be in the nullah. Being caught would seem mild in comparison to what I would contact in the flowing fluid was this to happen.
He was huffing and being out of shape I had a head-start on him & given him the slip. He was persistent though and sensed I was around here somewhere. He waited and spat a stream of chewing tobacco straight into the stream where the nicotine reddish brown speedily melted in the torrent of grey green as if it never was. After a few minutes he lost his patience as he swore on my mother and sister in chaste street lingo. The tone carried more venom than the actual words. I could hear steps retreating away; apparently the stench around had got to him. I didn’t move for another hour. Only changed my position; from facing the embankment wall, I lay upright now with my back to it. There is a wide but low bridgehouse over the culvert and that became my destination; the space below it. Creeping lightly along the ledge I went into the gap below the bridge. Now I was invisible both from the road and the bridge.The bubbling noise of the water, warm vapours and the stench was terrible for a moment. Then the nose got used to it. Gently checked my trouser pocket to find it was there; the real cause of this chase from a while ago. His slim wallet stuffed with red lined Gandhi notes that he had flashed at the cigarette shop for the last time. It was rightfully mine now earned with skill and sweat. Truly hated these jobs that involved sweat, was kind of particular, but occassionally it was inevitable.
Heard a squeak and from the red equidistant dots knew it was a rat. It sensed a soul brother in me & came closer. Standing very still as it sniffed around my ankle, nimbly jumped to the side and brought my heel hard on its neck. Heard a sharp crunch as it gave a shrill squeak and died. I left it there on the ledge; its blood would deter the others from venturing closer. Wiped my heel away on the wall and wondered what had that chase been all about? Then Laila’s image flashed before my eyes and I grinned at the answer.
I felt my own grin as clearly; the way I see it in the cracked, wood framed, 6” x 8", board backed barbers mirror every day that I had in my kholi (room) in Khetwadi slums of Bandra, Bombay. The barber was my Baap (Father). He shaved people’s scalps for a pittance. It could not even keep him in his “pav sher desi” (quart of country liquor) that had become his need. Never knew my mother and from the talk around she had worked in a Ladies Service Beer Bar as a waitress. She was supposed to have been saucily beautiful, used to stay in the kholi next door on rent. The bar was raided and closed down and she had moved in with my father the barber. The lady next door was unrelenting in her rent demand; hence my ma had to move her lodgings. My baap and his kholi had been a soft target. Am sure though that he had his hard moments too else I wouldn’t have been born. She died giving me birth and he took to the bottle hard. It was a curious love story, the likes that can only happen in space starved Bombay.
The cheap liquor consumed him and he just collapsed on the mirror cracking it. This was while he was shaving Dhondiba the slums scrooge. As he fell, so did his razor in one swoop, carrying with it, half of Dhondiba’s moustache and right nostril? It was poetic justice as Dhondiba had never once paid my pa a single rupee for his shaving. They hailed from the same village and did he take advantage of this fact? Now my baap in his dying moment had ensured that the snot smeared hair in his nose was on permanent display. The world had been a better place without this gross sight, but strange are the ways of the creator in his balancing act.
My looks came from my mother and the rakish approach too. In fact the neighbors even said there was nothing of my barber father in me. My ma would have been sleeping around before she latched on to my father. In popular opinion the baker was another and the loaf was already in the oven before the barber came on to the scene. Whatever it was, the drunk barber did raise me. He shaved scalps while I grew up into plain scalping. At seventeen was already the best pick pocket in the area.Khetwadi pickpockets are second to none in all of Bombay. Bombay is a city that is second to none in all of India and hence fancied myself to be the best damn pick pocket in India. This is by relativity or transitivity or something similar that they taught us in school. Never was clear on which was the right term.
My true education though had come from Maganlal, and he was a true artist. He was the ladies tailor of the neighborhood and I started out as his assistant from the age of 12 in his shop. I was tall for my age and was fascinated by the lines that Maganlal would throw at the ladies. I had seen him personally take measurements of blouses and the manner in which the tight assed ladies would simper at this scrawny man with a silver tongue. The quick silver though was in his fingers. This was my classroom, his shop and he allowed me the practice. Women here had the habit of keeping their small purses stuffed deep into their blouses. The trick was to lighten the purse from here. It was considered impossible in the pocketmaar kingdom and this was what my guru excelled at.
The conversation would begin in a ribald style where he would have a lady wait for some time sweating. Then when she began fanning herself with her sari pallu our man would begin his action. Then he would compliment her on the curves, with the tape measure in his hands. Draping it around her would murmur, “Hmmm Ramu seems to have been active in the past two months. This has expanded, look how it is straining the seam.” The finger would pass over the seam and almost accidentally would feel the swell. Invariably the lady would giggle and he would have got the measure of the purse and its position. Craftily the purse would come out and while he kept his talk on his fingers would have relieved a note, never all just one. I had mastered all of his skills saving one.
Some of the ladies would insist on being measured at the backroom in the shop and those he never touched. Their purses I mean, in fact back there everything but the purses would be touched, measured, relieved and the lady would emerge flushed and happy. I asked him about it, and he would give an enigmatic smile saying sometimes there are things far more important than just money. Spreading happiness is what he called it and then he seemed like the greatest of philosophers. You too would reach that stage one day when you are regarded as a man amongst thieves. The store dummies with bells on was where my lessons happened. When I graduated from here to practicing on the street with him, I had done very well.
Laila was the typist who worked in a Xerox centre nearby and would normally wear Punjabi suits. Maganlal this month was out to his native place in Rajasthan for three weeks and I was in charge. She would be my third blouse of the month. The previous two had yielded Rs.62 in all. As she approached the shop and the counter she said "blouse silaaney ka hai, master kidhar hai?" (Where is the master tailor got to stitch a blouse)? I told her I would do it and cased her from head to toe. A pert nose on flashing eyes and slim shapely but top heavy figure and I moved in with my tape. Casually started talking to her and taking the measurements.The tape around her, holding it with my arm had bent down to look at the number. Our store rat at that very moment chose to make its appearance. She jumped forward with a half scream, I found my nose jammed right in her 34C’s and knew for sure there was no purse here. Blessing the rat in my mind I kept my arms around her and reluctantly removed my nose from its newfound fleshy scabbard, till she stopped trembling, “Arrey chuhey se darti ho?”(Scared of rats?) She nodded, “Ghabraana nahi, Main Hoo Na” In my best SRK impersonation as she laughed. Pressing my advantage, cockily remarked “my nose was in the grandest of places a few moments ago. “Dhatt, badmaash”, and I knew my education with Maganlal in all aspects was complete. “Kub milega?” “The blouse after one week but I shall meet you tomorrow outside New Talkies. Ayegi na?” I had till then only heard the line in movies but never in person as it popped out from her lips “Tum badey woh, ho” And saucily nodding went out.
Maganlal would always remind me, never ever do a job because you need to. The job is an art where your gut will tell you this is the mark and don’t ever ignore your gut. People get caught because they don’t study their marks or listen to their inner voice. This was precisely what I had slipped up on when I saw the notes flashed in front of eyes. My gut had warned but greed and lust had overridden it away. Had followed the mark from the front and casually had relieved it from his pocket at the bus stop.My study of the area had not been complete though. The man hadn’t realized it, no one else was around the bus stop except an old lady waiting for a bus and she saw me. She screamed at the man as I had walked away and turned into a gully. Hearing the footsteps and “Chor Chor” behind me had vaulted a wall of a house and the lone pursuing footsteps, slipping down the culvert to where I was with a dead rat at my feet.
Counted the notes, it was a rich haul of Rs.9200, no wonder that man had chased me so, must be his salary. Dropped the purse in the muck & transferred the notes to my pocket. Then changed my shirt inside out (It was stitched that way) from a flashy green to a creamy white, fished out a basketball cap and slipped out from the other side to meet Laila and her 34c’s at New Talkies.