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.

35 Responses to “To Catch A Thief”

  1. D September 18, 2008 at 5:09 pm #

    I lost my cell phone some time back in my office and never found it. The irony is that there were no needy, hapless people around who could justify stealing a cell phone if theft can be justified at all.

    In all probability, it was stolen by one one of the many students present there, all of whom were enrolled for their one year course which costed them some 80,000 rupees. It was shocking and disappointing at the same time. I only could sympathise with myself.

  2. Aunty G September 18, 2008 at 8:06 pm #

    Oh my goodness gracious me!
    Turn into a gnome, did she?
    Blood on the cover
    Intrigues us further
    Sigh, so much for someone’s poverty!

  3. Aunty G September 18, 2008 at 8:17 pm #

    >>D — with your permission, OJ.

    Our son too lost his cell-phone
    When an interview he went to hone
    His course too cost a lac
    So, fellow-attendees had nothing to lack
    All we could do was grunt and groan.

  4. Twisted DNA September 18, 2008 at 10:36 pm #

    I am glad you got the phone back and all that. But it is sad to read about the conditions these people live in. It is scary because in India the gap between the poor and the rich (yes, like you) is widening. And such crimes will become more and more prevalent. That’s what will happen unless the entire society is uplifted not just a segment of it. Similar trend is going on in most parts of the world, most notably in Mexico and to some extent in the US.

  5. ??! September 19, 2008 at 2:16 am #

    I wish I could’ve helped her
    You could have.

  6. Manju September 19, 2008 at 10:46 am #

    You told the story very well, righteous indignation on one hand, the culprits life story tugging at your heart on the other. As long as poverty and abject conditions like this exist in this world, we all are guilty, however remote and removed we are from the situation.

  7. dipali September 19, 2008 at 3:39 pm #

    If she’d been caught stealing by someone not as
    kind it would have been the end for her!
    However much sympathy one may have for the thief, the act of being robbed leaves one feeling violated(:

  8. Aunty G September 19, 2008 at 10:05 pm #

    Pretty beads all in a row
    So colourful and all a-glow
    Some plastic, some glass
    Some wooden, some brass
    And, how come, today, to reply, you’re slow?

  9. Piper.. September 19, 2008 at 10:59 pm #

    did you ever find out why there was blood on the cover? just wondering…
    somehow the whole narration has left such a sad note OJ..

  10. Orange Jammies September 19, 2008 at 11:45 pm #

    D: Yes, the poor are condoned their follies because they’re motivated by unfulfilled desires. We’re harder on those who have no apparent justification for their actions. I sympathize.

    Aunty G: A regular Pinochhio she was
    Lying without a pause
    I was prepared to be kind
    As long as we could find
    The phone stolen with little cause

    TD: While urban poverty is essentially a 20th century phenomenon in India, the chasm between the haves and the have-nots has existed for centuries. I don’t believe it is widening as much as I think aspirations have soared based on the economic boom around us. And while there is an economic definition of a poverty line, I don’t believe there is one for wealth, so the term “rich” is relative. If you’re comparing me to Sapna Govind Jadhav, yes, I’m rich. As is anyone reading this. But if the benchmark is my gym owner who spends Sundays aboard her yacht, I’m dirt poor and should drown my sorry self.

    ??!: You’re new around here, aren’t you. Welcome.

    Manju: True. Guilty is one thing, culpable entirely another. So glad to have you visit. 🙂

    Dipali: Thank you for understanding, Dipali. Violated is exactly how I felt. More so because I hadn’t dropped the phone on the street or lost it in a cab. It was taken from my table in my office from right under my mother’s nose, which is a mentally safe space. Not fun.

    Aunty G: It’s called having an offline life. 😉

    Piper: I asked her right then and she said she had used it to wipe blood where she hurt herself. And then pointed to the supposed spot that was as unblemished as a baby’s bottom. I am very aware the narration leaves sad feelings. I consciously wrote this piece giving her actions and responses plenty of concessions while downplaying my point of view. It’s interesting to see how many people bought into it. 🙂

  11. Dadoji September 20, 2008 at 5:31 am #

    I am glad you got your phone back.
    I take it you don’t think she deserves to be helped. Otherwise, you still can.

  12. Orange Jammies September 20, 2008 at 3:43 pm #

    Dadoji: Thanks. I’m glad too. Would you like to hire her? I have her contact information. Let me know, I’ll pass it on. The one agency I tried said they check for a criminal background and she now has a record.

  13. Dadoji September 21, 2008 at 11:24 am #

    That is a retort – not a confirmation.

    Just so you know, been there done that but the outcome was unfortunately not positive. Our maid’s daughter she was.

  14. Anamika September 21, 2008 at 8:27 pm #

    You encompassed all the contradictions inherent in being sensitive and privileged in India today. We don’t want to let people get away with theft, and at the same time we are so much luckier than them that somewhere it makes us feel almost petty for demanding what is ours.

    Interesting how different commenters picked up different aspects of the story!

  15. Orange Jammies September 22, 2008 at 2:03 pm #

    Dadoji: A confirmation of what? Don’t get all defensive now. And you still haven’t answered my question. Would you like to hire Sapna Govind Jadhav?

    Anamika: Bingo. And this subtle resentment toward the privileged lurks in most of us, so we must constantly look around before we whine about what was taken from us because at least we had it to begin with. It’s the same logic that doesn’t permit movie stars to be miserable, because why, with what they own, they should compulsorily be delirious!

  16. damnhobsons September 23, 2008 at 10:04 am #

    All I can say is that I am glad you got your phone back and no one was hurt. I am not going to read more into this.

  17. ??! September 23, 2008 at 1:17 pm #

    The point, perhaps, is this.

    You were justified in getting the phone back. And she wasn’t in the right to steal. I’m not denying either of those points

    But given her circumstances – or rather, given the circumstances as you presented them – it is understandable why she would be tempted to take your phone. Yes, it would have been far nobler if she had tried to earn that money by working honestly for you, but given the hand that life’s dealt out to her, it’s not that difficult to see why she could have felt justified to try and ease things a bit for herself – and her brother.

    I don’t any of us here can quite understand, or even truly appreciate, the desperation that someone like her must be going through.

    And now that she’s left with a criminal record, as you point out, who’s going to employ her? And what options does that leave her with?

  18. Orange Jammies September 23, 2008 at 3:28 pm #

    Damnhobsons: Thank you. I’m very glad too. A gift often takes on the specialness of its giver and this one was truly special.

    ?!!: All valid points and none I disagree with. Now suggest alternative ways to help. An employment agency and a young women’s vocational outfit refused and Dadoji above won’t give me an answer.

  19. ??! September 23, 2008 at 4:16 pm #

    To which question I would ask – Would you give her a second chance? Tell her that you understand why she did what she did, but you’re willing to overlook that this once and help her on her way?

    Also, nobody’s asked this, but was there any chance of trying to get the phone by confronting her and threatening to call the cops, rather than involving them directly?

  20. Dadoji September 25, 2008 at 10:34 pm #

    OJ, darling, it is you who is being defensive. Observe that you haven’t yet confrmed my statement ‘I take it….’.

  21. Orange Jammies September 27, 2008 at 1:45 pm #

    ??!: Again, valid questions, ones I asked myself. A second chance was well on its way before she tried to give us the slip at the slum itself and then spun yarns about not having a prior criminal record. There was no question of the cops not being involved because a missing phone report had already been filed and they did not require my consent to access her directly.

    Dadoji: Your statement “I take it” implies an assumption on your part prior to checking facts with me. And while I certainly see no reason to correct every erroneous assumption readers make, your answer was right there in the comment following yours. I wouldn’t have tried contacting an employment agency (or a women’s technical training institute subsequently) had I not believed she deserved to be helped. Now for the third time: will you hire her?

  22. Dadoji September 28, 2008 at 3:38 pm #

    But you did feel the need to retort. IOW, you did not ‘see no reason…’.

    The point I made was that you need not use the words ‘I wish I could help her’ because you still can. Better to be forthright as you usually are and say ‘now I do not want to help her’. Crocodile tears from you look quite misplaced even if they are in the eyes of the beholder.

    Coming back to your question, I thought I told you a few posts ago that when we had the need we did do something of the sort. (And, to that. you said I was being defensive.) With that experience, I would prefer to take my good intentions someplace better e.g. look up Prerna and their concept of aftercare.

  23. Orange Jammies September 28, 2008 at 4:31 pm #

    Dadoji: See? 🙂 You’re being defensive again, viewing my response as a retort. About whether it’s better to say something one way or another, guess who decides that? And notice I’m not asking for writing advice.

  24. the mad momma September 28, 2008 at 10:03 pm #

    OJ darling. I know you. And I know you’re a kind old soul. But I also know you are no fool. While we’re all ready to offer second chances and help etc – the truth is that we’re as human as the maid with different compulsions.

    she is compelled to rob because she has nothing. you are compelled to have a maid because you go out to work and need to have a maid. you’re not a social service org.

    and as such you need to have someone at home you can trust. And she has proved she isnt worthy of trust. this time its the phone – the next time it will be something you wont even miss for ages and then it will be hard to trace it back to her once she’s sold it and moved on.

    we all want to be nice – but then there is also sanity and practicality to look at. I personally wouldnt leave my home open to a thief twice. that is not kind. that is foolish. and you’re the wise OJ in neon pyjamas.

    and yes i hope she gets a second chance – maybe someone else. and i hope she learnt her lesson and doesnt lose out on a good home again.

  25. the mad momma September 28, 2008 at 10:17 pm #

    PS: Sue (,
    Ro ( and
    Parul (
    have all written about the growing divide and hostility.

    the point is we’re all middle class people who’ve just risen above it in this generation – ours. every rupee we earn is very precious to us. we’ve known want and need. maybe not like them, but this is hard earned money – not khandani wealth.

    which is not to say that i dont understand where they are coming from. they’ve known only want. and now as they see us doing well its hard on them.

    but the answer is elusive. I dont know what it is. what i do know is that placing temptation in their path is not the answer and neither is living in fear.

  26. Orange Jammies September 28, 2008 at 11:05 pm #

    MM: All hail the Mad Momma! I hereby pass on my Wise Pyjamas to you. Err, that didn’t quite sound right. 😳 In all honesty though, I did try to help, but the options were limited, given her actions. But of course, that doesn’t stop self-righteous folks from stopping by and offering free advice, including telling me how to phrase my posts.

  27. ??! October 1, 2008 at 5:12 pm #

    (Late response to your reply)

    Fair enough.

  28. Orange Jammies October 1, 2008 at 8:43 pm #

    ??!: Better late than never, in this case. 🙂

  29. M October 2, 2008 at 8:23 pm #

    Poignant tale: this is a situation where no matter what you do, it is hard to come out ahead. You have gone above and beyond your call of duty in trying to help her: most would not have even tried. Since that did not work, would it be possible to find some help for her brother instead? Wasn’t clear from your story whether the part about her brother being HIV positive was accurate or not. If it is, is there any charity group that would offer him help with his treatment? How about help with his schooling? She is backed against a wall and will only resort to more criminality if something does not change for her: what other options does she have, especially now that she already has a criminal record and legitimate employment will be hard to come by.

  30. Dadoji October 2, 2008 at 9:39 pm #

    OJ, you are only proving my point though you may not realise that. Anyways, I am off for a week now.

  31. Orange Jammies October 2, 2008 at 10:24 pm #

    M: Thank you for your empathy and excellent suggestions. The HIV story was told to the cop by Sapna Govind Jadhav’s uncle. Now whether that was a ploy to gain sympathy or a genuine fact, I wouldn’t know. I will research organizations who might be able to help him. Do let me know if you happen to be aware of any that work specifically with HIV-affected persons.

    Dadoji: To patronize someone else? Yay! Bye-bye!

  32. rajni October 6, 2008 at 11:30 am #

    There is a home for kids of HIV positive kids whose parents are dead or dying called Ashray at Bandra west.Just near the Bandra police station & BMC H ward office.Just in case.

  33. Orange Jammies October 7, 2008 at 1:27 am #

    Rajni: Thanks a whole bunch! 🙂 I’ll speak with them.


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