Bombay Boom Box

Police Inspector Javeri placed his riding crop under his left arm and removed the glove on his right hand before reaching to shake my hand. His clipped black mustache punctuated the white expanse of his smile beneath serious green eyes set in a thin, brown face. Every inch an officer of the British Raj ("rule"), even to his short pants and knee socks, his appearance belied the fact that the Raj had been defunct ten years, since the British government departed India's shores in 1947.
"I am most dreadfully sorry that you have been robbed in my country," he said in a faintly disdainful tone suggesting he disliked foreigners in general and perhaps Americans in particular. "A radio and a camera and a typewriter, I believe?"
His haughty gaze darted around my humble room like a hummingbird. There was a balcony hanging above the street, from which I had a grandstand view of the busy Bombay neighborhood where I lived. Standing in the corner was the low table on which I slept with a pebble-stuffed pillow for my head, in the Indian style. There were a plain, weathered table and chairs, and steps up to a kitchen only an Indian woman could possibly understand how to use.
"Was your servant here at the time?" Javeri asked.
Intimidated, tiny Mira, wizened and of indeterminate age, immediately disappeared from view by bending behind a high-backed chair to pick at a line of ants on the march toward the balcony.
"The lady serves all the apartments on this floor, Inspector," I replied, "and is only allowed in here when I am at home."
He shrugged. "May I ask where you kept the items, sir?"
I opened the armoire which served as my clothes closet. I knew better than to use the clothing hooks on the wall. In the rainy season, pants or a shirt hung on one overnight would be green with mold by morning. A bucket of lime in the armoire absorbed the excessive moisture. There I also kept my one pair of leather shoes, for the same reason, also shaking them out regularly to make sure no scorpions had taken up residence in the toes. The footgear I actually wore were rubber sandals without socks, like most everyone else in Bombay except businessmen who rode in cars or the police who sloshed through the omnipresent puddles and street swamps in jack boots.
"In here," I gestured. "The lime helps keep them dry. Moisture is hard on the radio's battery and on the camera's delicate moving parts."
"What sort of camera, sir?"
"An East German Zeiss I got in South Africa," I said, "which is irreplaceable here."
"But for which there is doubtless a good market," Javeri added. "And the radio?"
"It was American, a Bulova, very small, the latest thing."
"How small?" he asked.
"About so big," I offered, squaring off my fingers to indicate a size equivalent to a small box of chocolates.
His eyes widened. "A radio that small?"
I nodded, secretly pleased to have impressed him at last."Yes, as was the typewriter, an Olivetti Lettera 22, which is my right arm. It's not much bigger than the radio. Weighs five pounds."
"The typewriter was your right arm?"
I grinned. "An American idiom, Inspector. I'm a writer. The typewriter's the tool of my trade."
"A writer?"
I could see that he was now profoundly impressed. In his mind, I had been promoted from a patchouli-sniffing Yank slumming around his country to an artist living in the lower depths to absorb his culture.
He sighed and spoke with obvious honesty. "I am doubly sorry about this catastrophe, sir. I assure you we shall give it a go, but I doubt we shall ever find these things. Bombay is a city of millions, with millions more living in the streets. The black market for stolen goods is a major industry. I shall personally keep you informed of any progress made."
When he left, I was sure I'd seen the last of him, but the following day, he surprised me. I stood in front of the fruit-seller's shop, which was one of several open-front stores on the ground floor of my building. Generally sitting cross-legged on a riser, the friendly shopkeepers dispensed their wares to the client in the street.
While I negotiated a low price for a bunch of tiny bananas, called "five fingers" for their clusters of that number on the stalk, and a custard apple, known as "papaw" in the American south (or as chirimoya in tropical Latin America), I saw Javeri buying a hand-rolled-while-you-wait cigarette from the tobacconist whose shop was located directly beneath my room. Lighting it, the inspector inhaled deeply while gazing upward thoughtfully at the sturdy drainpipe running from my kitchen sink to the street. Sanitary facilities in the area of Teen Butti, named for the "Three Streetlamps" that lighted the hairpin curve coming down Malabar Hill, were not fastidious.
I walked up to him with a cordial greeting.
"Ah," he said, "the writer is home! May I ask you, sir, to come with me? I have good news. We have your man in custody."
We walked to the nearby police station, where everyone stood at attention when we entered, except for an abject youth - dark, tousle-haired, painfully thin, perhaps 19 or 20 years old - hanging by his armpits between two massive Sikh cops with pink turbans and black beards. They held him aloft with his bent knees just clearing the floor.
The inspector spoke harshly to him in Gujarati, the regional language of Bombay. The young man hung his head and burst into tears.
Javeri turned to me. "Look at him! I have told him you are a writer. He is so ashamed! He had no idea anyone other than common folk lived in a place like that. He claims he thought he was stealing from a thief. His brother is a professor at the University of Poona, not far from Bombay. He has great respect for intellectuals. A sad case! But he is a criminal nonetheless."
"How did you find him?"
"A piece of remarkable luck! A policeman saw him walking down the street with the radio booming loudly against his ear, an unusual sight as we have no such portables in India. My man noticed the radio matched the description of your stolen property. He arrested him on the spot, and we found the other items in his room. It would appear that he climbed up the drainpipe to your balcony the other day while the shops were closed for a religious holiday, when the procession carried a statue of the elephant god to Chowpatty Beach. People were scrambling everywhere for a better view. Thus, no one noticed him. Your balcony door was ajar. He slipped inside and gathered your things into a bag and climbed back down into the crowd."
"What will happen to him?" I asked.
"He is a first-time offender," Javeri said, "but the judge could still be harsh, perhaps five or ten years at hard labor."
"And if I do not press charges?"
He looked at me as I'd gone daft and exclaimed,"Good God, man, we....we would have to let him go!"
At that moment, a distinguished gentleman came into the station. The inspector introduced him as the thief's brother, the professor from Poona.
"I presume you are the American from whom my brother has stolen valuable goods?" he said. "He is a disgrace to our family! He deserves a prison term. He always lagged behind the rest of us. We are a family of achievers, and he has dared to drop out of university! He is what you Americans call a loser."
So much for brotherhood! I believed that losers were made, not born. I did not like this man. I realized the tears flowing from my thief were of terror, not remorse. He had suffered a lifetime of emotional pain at the hands of his family. From a foreigner, what could he expect but worse? It was time he saw another aspect of a cultivated mind - charity.
I turned away from the professor and spoke directly to Javeri. "I refuse to press charges. Tell those Sikhs to let him stand on his own two feet. I want him to go free."
I walked over to Javeri's desk, picked up the radio and presented it to the youth. "It is my karma to give this to you. Hindus say that your personal actions determine who you are. I believe you are better than a common thief. Good luck to you."
A month later, I invited friends to celebrate Thanksgiving. All vegetarian Hindus, I dared not offer a turkey dinner. Mira prepared Indian dishes instead. In the midst of the festivities, my erstwhile thief knocked at the door. He bowed, telling me he had traded the radio for school books and had returned to his university. I invited him to join us. It made Thanksgiving real. We even became friends.

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1998 Brockman Morris