Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Round Up The Usual Suspects

This morning an elderly neighbor called to ask if I could help her find a new maidservant, someone to wash the floors and do the dishes. The old one, she said, had been stealing from her. A gold chain here, a pair of earrings there.

"You mean you caught her in the act?" I asked.

"Oh no," she admitted. "But I know it's her. Who else could it be?"

Who indeed?

Several years ago, we had a break-in at Latika Vihar. I called the police to file a report and they came down to survey the scene of the crime. They stomped around importantly, asked a few questions and made a few notes. Then, as they were leaving, they said to the two of our staff who had discovered the theft: "Come to the chowki this evening at eight."

Raj and Ganga Ram went pale.

"Why do you need them to come at eight?" I asked.

"Madame, no need for you to worry. We'll talk to them ourselves."

"You can talk to them now," I insisted.

"Just come at eight," they said again to Raj and Ganga Ram.

"I'll come too," I said. "And I'll bring my husband."

"Madame," they said urgently, drawing me aside. "Don't you want us to beat them up?"

I stare at them blankly before I respond. "No I don't want you to beat them up," I say as if speaking to morons. Ganga Ram is like a younger brother. Raj could be my son. No I do not want you to beat them up.

Where do I begin? I am actually speaking to morons.

For the past eight weeks, Padma, who works for us during the day, has been doubling as a night nurse for Masiji who had a fall and needs help getting to the bathroom at night. The first few nights, her son dropped her to our house. On Day Four, she asked if I would mind picking her up in the car. Her son, she said, was getting hassled at the police post on his way home.

I stepped in soon enough that he didn't - in fact - get beaten up, but other boys his age were not so lucky. Nor were old men heading home after a day's work. In fact, anyone on that particular road - as long as he was poor and unimportant - was fair game. Those boys and these men were returning home via Vasant Vihar, the city's "fancy" neighborhood and it was safe to assume they were up to no good. A little pro-active beating would show them just who was boss while reassuring the gentry that the police had their interests at heart.

Except that all of them had just done an honest, hard day's work. Some of the boys were kabari-wallas, collecting trash that no one else would touch and recycling it down to the last possible scrap. They keep our city cleaner than any of us do. Some of the men were sabzi-wallahs, bringing fresh vegetables to our doorsteps to save us the trouble of going out to the market to buy them. How we welcome them when we need them. How instantly we forget their existence once they are gone.

It sickens me that the first people we think of when crime is the issue are the ones who are least likely to commit it. Not because they are more virtuous than anyone else but because they have so much more to lose AND because they know they will be the first ones suspected. It's a vicious, evil circle and we should hang our heads in shame if we ever set it in motion. The call to "round up the usual suspects" should send us all to the mirror.


Joe said...

Very nice post Jo, Thanx. Unfortunately, after more than six decades of Independence; the Laws of 'free' India apply only to the people of 'Other India' - Bharat! While the number of poor in this country is 'decreasing'; the gap; between the reach and the poor is increasing! Thanx to the 'poverty alleviation' program statistics. You have rekindled the memories of my childhood.

chicu said...

interesting, Jo. I sold my (embarrassingly large) stash of bottles to a raddi-wallah today. Rather than carry the bottles all the way down, I called him up to the balcony. The landlady reprimanded me in a stage-whisper,'these people will steal'
'but aunty, i was there all the time'
'you don't know how they are. and they note all the entrances for later'.
I am not sure what made me more uncomfortable, the attitude or the fact that the bottle-wallah was standing three feet away all the time.