It was a terrible thing, a horrible thing, a thing the likes of which had never been known before.
At any rate, the residents of Chamathunagar had never known anything like it.
For a town its size, Chamathunagar was remarkably free of serious crime. There were the usual petty graft and tiny larcenies, the con men and small-time rowdies. But the graft was an accepted part of life, and the con men could only cheat those willing to be conned; the tiny thefts didn’t really hurt anybody too badly, and as for the rowdies, one encounter with Jaggu Ram was usually enough, because, obese though he was, the policeman had a big stick and no qualms about using it.
But this was something completely new in the experience of the people of the town, something they had hitherto thought only happened in the urban jungles of Kuttagarh or Magarmachchpur, or further afield in the distant and fabulous mega-cities of Delhi or Bombay. It was something that struck them where it hurt most, in their wallets. Quite literally in their wallets.
It was the summer that the Pickpocket Plague hit Chamathunagar.
They were very, very efficient pickpockets. They could remove a person’s wallet, steal the money inside, and replace it in his pocket, and he wouldn’t know it till he had to pay for something. They could steal wads of money from the inner pouch under his belt, and he wouldn’t know it. Women weren’t exempt either, with more than one lady getting on a bus wearing a gold necklace and getting off without it – or with a fake instead, which was even more of an insult.
Even the likes of Jarnail Singh weren’t spared. The old man never left his truck stop restaurant if he could help it, and thought himself secure. But he turned away for a few moments to speak to a customer who was complaining loudly about the quality of his food, leaving half a day’s takings on his desk ready for sending to the bank – and turned back to find it gone. In the middle of the restaurant, and nobody had seen a thing.
In vain people came crowding to Jaggu Ram. “What can I do?” he asked, flustered and sweating. “Do you expect me to be everywhere all the time? Take better care of your belongings, why don’t you?”
“Take better care of our belongings,” Jarnail Singh snorted. “I’d like to see you do it.”
He was to have his chance sooner than he’d expected, because the next day Jaggu Ram’s own pocket was picked. There had been a minor fracas at the market, where a disagreement over change had progressed almost to blows. Jaggu’s arrival had put a stop to the quarrel, to the disappointment of the crowd which had gathered to enjoy the proceedings; but when he’d sent the opponents home to cool down and waddled off to Vijay’s Tea Shop to cadge a well-deserved samosa and some tea, he discovered his wallet missing.
“This,” Jaggu Ram pronounced, standing with his hand on the empty hip pocket of his khaki uniform trousers, “will not do.”
Vijay watched with trepidation as Jaggu Ram’s face turned slowly purple. “Jaggu,” he said, “Jaggu, take it easy. You’ll have a stroke.”
Jaggu Ram ignored him. “We are going to have to do something about this,” he whispered. “These bastards are not going to get away with it.”
Vijay looked uneasily around. Nobody was close enough to call for help if Jaggu Ram suddenly collapsed in an apoplectic fit. “Listen, Jaggu,” he said, “sit down, why don’t you. You’ll think more clearly if you have a samosa or two. And tea, lots of masala tea. How about it, eh, Jaggu?”
Jaggu Ram’s bloodshot eyes focussed on him. “You’re trying to bribe me with food and tea, is it?” he asked, dangerously softly. “Is that what you’re trying, hah?”
“No, no, Jaggu,” Vijay said hurriedly, recognising the danger in time. “I just meant you should rest yourself so you can think better. Here, sit down.”
Glaring muddily around, Jaggu Ram sat, muttering balefully under his breath. Vijay could just hear enough to be glad that he wasn’t the target of the fat policeman’s wrath. “Was it a lot of money they took, Jaggu?”
“Lots?” Jaggu Ram asked. “No, luckily I’d only had a couple of hundred rupees in it. But it’s the principle of the thing. Stealing from me.” He thumped his chest. “From me! Seeing as how I’m a symbol of law and order it’s an insult to the nation itself. Right?”
Vijay goggled at the thought of Jaggu Ram being anyone’s idea of a symbol of the republic. “I’m sure you’ll get them, Jaggu,” he said soothingly, pushing across a plate of samosas. “Here.”
“Oh, I will, don’t worry,” said Jaggu Ram, biting into a samosa moodily. “I will.”
But the days went by, and nothing happened. Nobody was arrested.
“What are you doing, Jaggu?” people asked.
“I’m trying, I’m trying,” Jaggu would reply, such a forbidding expression on his face that everyone knew not to ask again.
But there didn’t seem to be anything he was doing. Once or twice people saw him talking to that ne’er-do-well ragpicker, Pillu, who was too poor to have a wallet to be picked, and who was therefore called lucky. But of actual action there was no sign, and the pockets continued to get picked.
A vigilante team of citizens sprang up, determined to end the scourge. Their leader was Balram Yadav, a former student politician with a police record as long as it was lurid. Yadav thought this was the perfect opportunity to put himself in the public eye; with elections to the state assembly due in a few months, he could use all the publicity he could get.
He called it the Pickpocket Prevention Programme, and recruited from among the young toughs of the town – people who were glad of any opportunity to use violence, anytime, anywhere. They roamed the markets and boarded buses armed with wooden staves and knuckle-dusters, looking for pickpockets to lynch.
They did not find any. After a few completely innocent citizens had narrow escapes from being battered to death, though, people began to arm themselves with their own staves and knuckle-dusters; not to use against pickpockets, but to defend themselves against the PPP. It was then that many of the vigilantes began to have doubts about the wisdom of their actions and decided to quit.
Then it was Balram Yadav’s turn. He’d just visited a “donor” – a businessman who preferred to keep all options open – and was coming home with a fat envelope of money in his shirt pocket. He didn’t own a car – he couldn’t drive and didn’t mind taking the bus anyway, since nobody ever dared ask him for a ticket. So he was waiting for the bus, his mind on what he was going to do with the money, when his eyes fell on one of the posters his own PPP had put up.
BEWARE, it proclaimed, in big black letters on bilious yellow paper, A PICKPOCKET IS STANDING BESIDE YOU.
Balram Yadav snorted. “I’d like to see what a pickpocket could do with me,” he said to himself, and patted the pocket of his shirt, which he’d buttoned securely closed. “I’d like to see how one can ever take this.”
Just then the bus arrived. It was full, but Balram Yadav clambered aboard, elbowing and kicking people out of the way without any compunction. He’d been doing it for years, and anyone who knew him knew better than to protest. Today he didn’t go so far as to kick somebody off a seat, but that was only because he was feeling so good about the money. Swaying among the crowd, he daydreamed about more donations, almost dozing off.
At last his stop came around, and he elbowed and kicked his way to the door. “Pickpocket next to me, indeed,” he said, as he got off the bus. “They might have got the better of anybody else – but they won’t get the better of...”
He stopped, his mouth open, as he caught a glimpse of his reflection in a shop window.
When he’d got on the bus, he’d been wearing a denim shirt, with the envelope of money buttoned in one breast pocket. Now he was wearing someone’s dirty, torn kurta top.
That killed the PPP, of course. Even Balram Yadav couldn’t live that down. But it didn’t solve the pickpocket problem.
The plague went on. And on.
Pillu was the only person in Chamathunagar who didn’t have a thing to worry about from pickpockets.
This was, of course, because Pillu had no money and no chance of ever getting hold of enough to make it worth stealing. Nor did he usually ever set foot on a bus or walk among crowds. So, though people did notice and comment on Pillu’s immunity from being robbed, they didn’t suspect him of being a pickpocket. They thought he was too stupid anyway for something like that. Pillu knew it, and wasn’t bothered. As long as he had enough for himself and Raja to get by, he was content.
Therefore, when a young man stopped him in the street as he was carrying along a load of salvaged plastic bottles, Pillu didn’t think it was anything to do with the crime wave. He was just surprised that a stranger should want to talk to him, that’s all.
“Hey, you,” the young man said. “Come here. I have a little proposal.”
“Proposal?” Pillu blinked at the word. “What does that mean – you have a job for me or something?”
“You could put it like that,” the man agreed. He was completely nondescript, from his short, thin build to his small moustache, from his darkish complexion to his oiled hair. “I’ve been watching you.”
“You have?” Pillu replied, surprised. “What on earth for?”
“I’m looking for a good assistant,” the man said. “A magician’s assistant.”
Pillu shook his head. “You’ve got the wrong man. I’ve never –“
“Wait,” the young man snapped, holding up a hand. “As I just said, I’m looking for an assistant. A magician’s assistant. I’m a magician,” he added superfluously.
“I don’t know anything about magic,” Pillu said shortly. “Now if you’ll excuse me...”
“If you’ll only listen to what I have to say...” the young man leaned close to Pillu, close enough for the ragpicker’s nose to twitch at the smell of hair oil coming off him. “I lead a...team of magicians. Have you ever watched a magic show? You know how things disappear? Our act’s like that – we work at making things vanish. The assistant’s job is just to collect the things we make disappear, and keep them hidden until the end of the act. That’s all that he has to do – he doesn’t need to know anything about magic, himself.”
“That’s all? And you’ll pay for it?” Pillu frowned doubtfully. “If you don’t mind, then – why me?”
“We pay well,” the young man confirmed. “As to why you, well, I’ve been watching you for some time, and I think you’re the perfect person for the job. You’re hard-working and honest, and besides you need the money.”
Pillu rubbed his chin, considering. “Suppose I take you up on your offer, when do I start?”
“We’ll just need you for one day,” the young man said. “The fair’s to be held day after tomorrow, you know about that, right?”
“Yes, of course.” The annual fair of the god Sarvagunasampanna was Chamathunagar’s one big annual bash, when the whole town went into festival mode. It was held on the fields near the river, and just about everyone came to it. While the adults crowded the stalls, the children swarmed over the rides and ate huge amounts of pink cotton candy. From where Pillu was standing, he could see the skeleton of the giant Ferris wheel, almost complete, silhouetted against the sky. “I never thought they had a magic turn there, though.”
“Well, they will this time. You go there to the fair too, don’t you?”
“I do,” Pillu said. The fair generated a lot of trash, much of which was saleable. It was incredible what people threw away. “I never knew them to have a magic turn though.”
“They will this time.” The young man looked around quickly, and leaned confidentially towards Pillu again. “All you have to do is be there with some kind of handcart. You can get one, can’t you?”
“Yes, I have one. I’ll be taking it there anyway, to collect whatever I can find.”
“That’s what we thought. We’ll just bring the things we want to vanish and put them inside your cart, under the rubbish...I mean, your collection. Once the day’s over, we’ll take them back from you. Fine?”
“What do you want to make vanish? I mean, the cart’s not big, and can’t hold –“
“No, there won’t be anything very large. Don’t worry about that. And we’ll pay well.”
Pillu looked at him uncertainly. “So I just have to go to the fair...”
“And do whatever you usually do there. Nothing more. Is it a deal?”
Pillu nodded. “All right,” he said. “It’s a deal.”
The fair attracted people not just from Chamathunagar, but from other places, from villages such as Chullukipani and Dubkemaro, Gundakapda and Machchardani, whose people normally only came to the town to sell their products and buy what they needed. Unlike the citizens of Chamathunagar, they hadn’t learned to keep their money secure and under constant supervision; nor did they travel in defensive groups, each member watching the others’ possessions. Instead, they came in their best clothes, their women laden with gold and silver ornaments, their own pockets heavy with the proceeds of the sale of their produce.
They were, in other words, perfect targets, and Jaggu Ram was worried.
He’d called for reinforcements from the Kuttagarh police, and had received a couple of men – young junior constables who thought the whole thing was a lark and had no inhibition about saying so. They sneered openly at the fair, and told each other how small it was compared to those in the big cities – in Kuttagarh, for instance.
“Pickpockets won’t get much from here,” one of them said. “It’s hardly worth bothering with.”
“That may be,” Jaggu Ram said with asperity. “But as long as you’re here and under my command, you’ll do what I say. Now spread out and keep a sharp lookout.”
“That won’t be hard,” the second constable said. “Small-town pickpockets won’t have anything like the skills the big operators have.”
“If you think so,” Jaggu Ram said, “you’re stupid. Why, they didn’t even spare me.”
The constables looked at Jaggu Ram and then at each other, and had it not been for the reverence they naturally owed to someone like the older policeman, one might have imagined that they were trying not to laugh. “All right,” they said. “We’ll keep a lookout.”
“And try not to have your own pockets picked,” Jaggu Ram called after them. “It makes a bad impression on the force.”
Turning away, he patted his pockets to make sure he wasn’t carrying any wallet or money on him.
It wouldn’t do to get robbed again, at all.
Pillu – though he would never have admitted it – actually liked the fair.
He liked the lights, and the music, and the crowds which for once seemed to be oblivious of him. He liked the smells from the food stalls and the laughter of the children, and the strange things some of the shops carried, things so outside his experience that he had no idea what they might possibly be used for. He would linger long outside the handicrafts stalls, gazing at the carved deer and rhinoceroses, the striped shawls and bamboo lampshades, until the owners began to get fidgety. That he never had money actually to buy anything didn’t matter to him – he didn’t have any use for these things anyway, nor a place to keep them.
This time, though, he had no opportunity to gawk at the sights in his usual fashion. By the time he arrived, the fair had already started and elaborately turbaned villagers were walking around, their women, loaded down with silver jewellery, in tow.
The young man who had hired him as an assistant was waiting outside the gate to the fair grounds, shifting impatiently from foot to foot. “There you are,” he snapped. “I thought you were never coming.”
“You didn’t tell me to be here at any particular time,” Pillu pointed out. “If you had, then I’d have been here earlier.” But the young man didn’t wait to listen. He leaned over to inspect the handcart.
“Put some of those old cardboard boxes in it,” he said. “We need the things to be hidden.”
Shrugging, Pillu picked up the flattened corrugated cardboard boxes and stacked them in the cart. He’d have normally been salvaging them anyway, but only at the end of the day, not at the start. “That’s enough,” the young man said, when Pillu had only loaded about half a dozen. Gesturing impatiently at Pillu to follow, he turned away towards the fair gate.
“You stay a little distance behind me,” he said. “We’ll be putting things in your cart from time to time. Make sure they stay well-covered, otherwise the magic will be spoiled.”
“All right, but I need to know how much...”
“No questions. Just follow me and don’t wander off.”
Shrugging, Pillu took up the handles of his cart and trundled it after the man. At this hour, only mid-afternoon, the crowd wasn’t thick, so it wasn’t difficult to keep him in sight. Pillu even managed to look around a little, and he was wondering what an object with a smooth black plastic case and a flexible corrugated pipe growing out of it could possibly be when a girl rushed up to him.
“You’re the carrier, aren’t you?” she demanded.
“Huh?” Pillu wasn’t used to strange women talking to him, even if they were completely nondescript young females in yellow and green salwar kameez and spotty complexions. “What carrier are you –“
“He talked to you, didn’t he?” The girl glanced at the young man, who was sauntering behind a group of villagers. “You’re to hide the stuff.”
“Oh yes, the magic –“
“Magic,” the girl snorted. “I like that.”
“So do I,” Pillu explained. “Only I’ve never before been part of the act.”
“Oh, you’re part of it, all right,” the girl said. Swiftly, she reached into Pillu’s handcart and pushed something under the cardboard. “I’ll be back,” she said over her shoulder, and vanished like a puff of smoke.
Pillu looked a moment after her and then back at the young man again. He was still strolling around and all this time hadn’t once even looked back at Pillu. For a moment the ragpicker wondered if he’d even forgotten all about him. Then, remembering the payment he had been promised, he picked up the handcart handles, and with a last glance back at the mysterious mechanism – which a shop assistant was running over a piece of carpet, to the accompaniment of a whining noise – he followed.
Throughout the afternoon, and after the lights began flickering over the stalls as darkness fell, Pillu followed the young man. At irregular but frequent intervals people would dart up and stuff things into the cart. Sometimes it was the young woman. A couple of boys, one dark and the other fair, came thrice each. And another woman, this one older, plumper, and in a blue sari, came four or five times. But mostly it was the girl.
“You’re doing a lot of magic, aren’t you?” Pillu asked her once. “When do you make the disappeared things come back?”
“Don’t worry your head,” she said, grinning with stained teeth. “We’ll take care of all that.”
Through all this, as the Ferris wheel turned overhead and the fair filled with the people of the town, the young man himself didn’t do a thing except walk around. Sometimes he would stop and look at somebody, apparently in deep thought, and then move on. Once he walked past Jaggu Ram, so close that Pillu thought he was going to shake hands with the fat policeman, but then he hesitated a moment and moved on. Not once, as far as Pillu could see, did he try to work any magic himself. It was boring to follow him.
It became so boring to follow him that in spite of his orders, Pillu’s attention began to wander. There was in any case more than enough to distract him, what with all the crowd, so when the magic trick came he almost missed it.
At that moment the young man was following a villager with a huge multicoloured turban on his head and a pair of immense white moustaches. Only minutes ago, this villager had bought a pair of heavy gold bangles from a jeweller’s stall and had put it in the breast pocket of his kurta. From the corner of his eye, Pillu noticed the young man gliding up to the villager as he stood distracted by a poster featuring a half-naked woman, and almost casually removed one of the bangles. If Pillu hadn’t been watching, he’d never have noticed it.
For the first time, the young man glanced over his shoulder at Pillu, just for an instant, and walked back long enough to slip the bangle into the cart. Nodding slightly, he strolled away. Pillu – who had just dropped a cardboard box – put it back in his cart, and followed.
A few moments later, all hell suddenly broke loose.
It began as an ululating scream from the middle distance, and grew to a shriek so loud that people covered their ears in self-defence. “Help!” the cry broke into words. “Help! Murder!”
“Stop!” the bellow was undoubtedly Jaggu Ram’s voice. “Stop that man. He’s a killer!”
The young man stopped dead, his head swivelling. An instant later, he began to walk swiftly away through the crowd.
He was just a little too late.
“I never knew you could move so fast,” Jaggu Ram admitted.
Pillu gestured modestly. “It wasn’t anything,” he said. “I knew I had to stop him, and you weren’t close enough. And he wasn’t expecting me to rush him, so he went down easily.”
“That’s right, he thought you would be looking around for the ‘killer’.” Jaggu Ram puffed out his cheeks. “To be honest, I was beginning to think it wasn’t going to work out. Most of the evening was gone, and you still hadn’t given the signal. I was getting tired of waiting for you to drop something and pick it up again.”
“He was careful,” Pillu said. “Really careful. He left the small-scale stealing to his friends and waited for the big chance. That villager’s bangle was the big chance. And even then...” he hesitated.
“You remember that I told you he only took one of the bangles? He could’ve taken both, but he left one. Why did he do that, do you suppose?”
“That’s simple,” Jaggu Ram said. “He thought if he stole both, the villager would notice that the weight in his pocket had vanished. If he only stole one, it was less likely that he would. And he didn’t – not until you gave it back to him.”
“And even then he insisted it wasn’t his until you told him to check his pocket.” Pillu shook his head. “Who was it you found to scream like that anyway? She must have the loudest voice in Chamathunagar.”
“You mean to say you didn’t recognise it?” Jaggu Ram grinned without humour. “Your old friend and lover, Sarita the fishmonger. Who else has the lung power to make herself heard over a market’s noise?”
Pillu winced at the memory. “She certainly managed to make herself heard to our magician and his people. He really thought someone had been killed.”
“Why else would he have confessed to picking people’s pockets?” Jaggu Ram snorted contemptuously. “It was that or a murder charge – at least that’s what he thought. When I got him in the police station he couldn’t confess fast enough, and turn in his whole gang to prove he was telling the truth. But you know what really made my day – more than rounding up the whole gang of pickpockets?”
Jaggu Ram paused a moment, savouring the memory. “You know those young louts from Kuttagarh police headquarters? The reinforcements? They were shooting off their mouths about how stupid we were to be robbed by pickpockets. And...”
“What about them?” Pillu frowned. “You don’t mean...”
“Yes.” Jaggu Ram nodded happily. “Both of them had their pockets picked as well, you see.”
Copyright B Purkayastha 2013