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The colourful thieves

Thieves possess an uncanny habit of turning up at the most unexpected places. In the 1980s, an Air Force Station on the outskirts of a town in Uttar Pradesh frequently reported missing bicycles parked outside the airmen’s billets, the main mode of transportation in the camp in those days. Our new Commanding Officer decided to bring an end to the menace and gave orders to mend the barbed fence and detail extra guards and patrols to find the culprits but the theft continued after a short break.

Outwitted, the authorities finally had to order the use of chain and padlock, in addition to the regular D-lock, as a second line of defence against those wily bicycle thieves.

More recently, missing hardware from the aircraft carrier Vikrant, being constructed at the Cochin Shipyard, triggered conspiracy theories and a national manhunt before ending in the arrest of a couple of sneak-thieves who wanted to sell those gadgets for scrap.

My encounters with thieves began very early in my life. In those days, our backyard had thickets of curry leaf plants and my grandmother used to say those were grown not just for flavouring our food but also as a deterrent against thieves lurking in the darkness. A slight movement among curry leaves is enough to set forth its sharp aroma, giving an early warning to the womenfolk in the kitchen. Inspired by grandma’s trap crop story, we children used to look out for elusive shadows on the stealthy prowl when dark settles outside.

The story of Jean Valjean and a loaf of bread, a lesson in my primary class, gave a new twist altogether to my understanding of a thief, stirring up empathy towards the juvenile delinquent. Years later, my friend and I were abused and nearly manhandled when we intervened to stop a boy accused of pick-pocketing from being brutally assaulted in a crowded Delhi Transport Corporation bus. When we tried to pacify the mob, an angry commuter retorted, “Don’t forget, the Bachcha will one day become Bada.”

Then came the “weirdest” of them all. There was this man who helped the CBI crack the infamous case of murder of a Kerala nun after three decades. They say he stopped by the nunnery for stealing copper wires on that eventful night.  We still prefer to call him an impertinent “areca nut thief”. The poor man, the prime witness in the case, stood his ground all these years notwithstanding threats, torture and alluring offers, holding up a dazzling mirror up to us, perhaps a little too bright for our eyes.

Thieves have always existed in all cultures and it seems stealing is an unsolicited byproduct of civilisation. The more I tried to understand their character the more they baffled me. At times, they appear as rebels against the accepted norms of their times. Thieves are rarely seen but often heard about. They are often poor and steal the rich under cover of darkness. The rich who rob the poor in broad daylight are seldom branded as thieves.  For the high and mighty, our languages have a different set of accommodative vocabulary. If it is “corruption” for those in power, the fugitives who loot and scoot are scamsters or merely economic offenders.

Even after being convicted of stealing and awarded a jail term, some lawmakers could still be worth a state funeral, whereas outlaws like Robin Hood and Kayakulam Kochunni have to wait for centuries to become legends and folklore heroes! Comic irony, at its best!

harichitrakootam@yahoo.com


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Printable version | Jul 24, 2021 8:20:37 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/open-page/the-colourful-thieves/article34737885.ece

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