Archive | 4:10 pm

To Catch A Thief

18 Sep

a.k.a. How OJ Got Her Groove Back

Sapna Govind Jadhav stole my phone. At 18, her unlined face is the picture of innocence, and her eyes well up in half a blink. She came into my office on Tuesday, to interview for the post of school attendant, accompanied a local maid who procures help for employers in the area. When she left, so did my phone and its case, although I didn’t miss either until a good hour later. Sapna Govind Jadhav, whether stupid or desperate, came back the next day. To work at the organization she had stolen from. I showed her around her duties, watching her carefully. When she was occupied with my staff, I called my mother and asked her to bring in the police.

“Bhau chi shapath,” she swore, insisting she hadn’t taken it, while staring at the floor and twisting her fingers into pretzels. A quick 2 minutes later, she admitted to “picking up” something that had fallen on the floor. That was lie # 2.

“Let me go,” she begged in Marathi, “I’ll get it for you tomorrow.” (#3)

“You aren’t leaving my sight until I have my phone back,” I said calmly, while the policewoman chided her about how her little brother would be all alone at home, were I to press charges. “I’m not filing anything,” I said, “Just give me my phone back.”

Many convoluted stories about how she had been a mere accomplice to how the person with her didn’t know she had taken it to how she didn’t know there was a phone inside the pouch (# 4,5,6) later, she was marched off to the detention room for questioning, while I intently studied the two-way transmission system of the Malabar Hill police station.

On the drive to her suburban shanty, more tales followed between bouts of weeping (# 7,8,9,10). About how her parents died, about how she and her brother have no one in the world, they’ve been living alone for 3 years now and this is her first job, about how she would be shamed if her neighborhood got wind of this act. And my bleeding heart mother melted at this vision of misery, assuring her we (including the plainclothes policeman) would pretend to be people from her workplace as long as she handed the phone back.

Ghatkopar is not the prettiest place I’ve been to. And the dark, winding, drain-lined, claustrophobically narrow alleys of her slum, let’s just say I’ve seen better. With her in the lead, the cop and I following close on her heels and my mother bringing up the rear with her recently operated foot, muttering sadly about “abject poverty” against a background of loud television soaps, we wound through what appeared to be unending gallis before we realized she had brought us to her uncle’s home. Yes, now there was an uncle. Who lived exactly 10 seconds from where we had begun our journey 15 minutes ago. Who, of course, had no knowledge of the phone being stolen and had believed her when she said she had found it lying around.

“My phone,” I said, extending my hand. I closed my fingers tightly around it and checked that it was mine. All good, except for a missing sim that was cancelled anyway. Now for the cover. “Please, Didi,” she begged, “you wait here, I’ll go get it.” For some reason, she was extremely reluctant to hand back the cover. The policeman intervened and we were marching along in single file, through even darker, filthier alleys with my mother’s mutterings about abject poverty floating ahead. In her almost-60 years in this city, my South Bombay born-and-bred mother has never visited a slum and was horrified in equal parts at the squalor and the fact that I appeared to be immune to it due to teaching in similar areas in my teenage years.

We reached a cul-de-sac, where she called out for a key. One promptly appeared and we were following her up the steepest ladder I’ve climbed. Even as I pulled myself up, I couldn’t help but remember that my feet were shod in what would be 2 months’ salary for Sapna Govind Jadhav.

Up in the little makeshift kitchen, she climbed onto a stool and pulled my cover out of a plastic bag containing a blanket and some scraps of cloth. My lemon yellow Amish county quilted cover with its little pink and blue flowers looked like a rag. A rag with a big splotch of blood on it. Puzzled, I turned it over to examine it further. “Give that to me,” said the cop and snatched it away in a hurry. It went into a plastic bag that had housed potatoes until half a minute ago.

Descending the ladder, I noticed the zipper of my bag open again. Really, I’m not a careless idiot. And I know I didn’t leave it that way. A quick check affirmed the presence of my bag’s contents and I firmly tucked it under my arm from then on, while my mother’s mutterings now included “nimble fingers” and “survival”.

After the policeman had completed his inquiry procedures that included questioning all the four sisters (have you been keeping count of what # lie we’re on? I’ve lost track), we headed back to the car, where my father waited patiently.

Driving back under a large moon at almost midnight, I learned that Sapna Govind Jadhav’s parents died because they were HIV positive. Her brother, who is 12, also has the virus. The other sisters have married and though they live in the area, refuse to provide financially for him. It has fallen on Sapna Govind Jadhav, 10th standard pass and all of 18, to work as household help and rent out their own kholi to pay for his treatment. Both the policemen who assisted us through the evening were helpful enough to explain how they looked for chinks in her armor and inconsistencies in her story. Made a ton of sense too, and was very, very interesting to learn. But even as I drove away from that Ghatkopar slum, through Dharavi and Kurla, toward my South Bombay life, Sapna Govind Jadhav’s 18-year-old face refused to leave me. I doubt our paths will cross again, and I wish I could’ve helped her, but I did send up a prayer for her tattered body and soul that night, and thanked the powers that be for my life’s riches, that extend way beyond a snazzy cell phone.