The Green Blazer stood out prominently under the bright sun and blue sky. In all that jostling crowd one could not help noticing it. Villagers in shirts and turbans, townsmen in coats and caps, beggars bare-bodied, and women in multi-coloured saris were thronging the narrow passage between the stalls, and moving in great confused masses, but still the Green Blazer could not be missed. The jabber and babble of the market place was there, as people harangued, disputed prices, haggled, or greeted each other; over it all boomed the voice of a Bible-preacher and, when he paused for breath, from another corner the loudspeaker of a health van amplified on malaria and tuberculosis. Over and above it all the Green Blazer seemed to cry out an invitation. Raju could not ignore it. It was not in his nature to ignore such a persistent invitation. He kept himself half-aloof from the crowd: he could not afford to remain completely aloof nor keep himself in it too conspicuously. Wherever he might be he was harrowed by the fear of being spotted by a policeman: today he wore a loin-cloth and was bare-bodied, and had wound an enormous turban over his head, which over-shadowed his face completely, and he hoped that he would be taken for a peasant from a village.
He sat on a stack of cast-off banana stalks beside a shop awning and watched the crowd. When he watched a crowd he did it with concentration. It was his professional occupation. Constitutionally he was an idler and had just the amount of energy to watch in a crowd and put his hand into another person’s pocket. It was a gamble, of course. Sometimes he got nothing out of a venture, counting himself lucky if he came out with his fingers intact. Sometimes he picked up a fountain pen, and the ‘receiver’ behind the Municipal Office would not offer even four annas for it, and there was always the danger of being traced through it. Raju promised himself that some day he would leave fountain pens alone: he wouldn’t touch one even if they were presented to him on a plate: they were too much bother – inky, leaky, and next to worthless if one could believe what the ‘receiver’ said about them. Watches were in the same category, too.
What Raju loved most was a nice, bulging purse. If he saw one he picked it up with the greatest deftness. He took the cash in it, flung it far away, and went home with the satisfaction that he had done his day’s job well. He splashed a little water over his face and hair and tidied himself up before walking down the street again as a normal citizen. He bought sweets, books and slates for his children, and occasionally a jacket-piece for his wife, too. He was not always easy in mind about his wife. When he went home with too much cash, he had always to take care to hide it in an envelope and shove it under a roof tile. Otherwise she asked too many questions and made herself miserable. She liked to believe that he was reformed and earned the cash he showed her as commission; she never bothered to ask what the commissions were for; a commission seemed to her something absolute.
Raju jumped down from the banana stack and followed the Green Blazer, always keeping himself three steps behind. It was a nicely calculated distance, acquired by intuition and practice. The distance must not be so much as to obscure the movement of the other’s hand to and from his purse, nor so close as to become a nuisance and create suspicion. It had to be finely balanced and calculated – the same sort of calculations as carry a shikari through his tracking of game and see him safely home again. Only this hunter’s task was more complicated. The hunter in the forest could count his day a success if he laid his quarry flat; but here one had to extract the heart out of the quarry without injuring it.
Raju waited patiently, pretending to be examining some rolls of rush mat, while the Green Blazer spent a considerable length of time drinking a coconut at a nearby booth. It looked as though he would not move again at all. After sucking all the water in the coconut, he seemed to wait interminably for the nut to be split and the soft white kernel scooped out with a knife. The sight of the white kernel scooped and disappearing into the other’s mouth made Raju too crave for it. But he suppressed the thought: it would be inept to be spending one’s time drinking and eating while one was professionally occupied; the other might slip away and be lost forever ... Raju saw the other take out his black purse and start a debate with the coconut-seller over the price of coconuts. He had a thick, sawing voice which disconcerted Raju. It sounded like the growl of a tiger, but what jungle-hardened hunter ever took a step back because a tiger’s growl sent his heart racing involuntarily! The way the other haggled didn’t appeal to Raju either, it showed a mean and petty temperament ... too much fondness for money. Those were the narrow-minded trouble-makers who made endless fuss when a purse was lost ... The Green Blazer moved after all. He stopped before a stall flying coloured balloons. He bought a balloon after an endless argument with the shopman – a further demonstration of his meanness. He said: ‘This is for a motherless boy. I have promised it him. If it bursts or gets lost before I go home, he will cry all night, and I wouldn’t like it at all.’
Raju got his chance when the other passed through a narrow stile, where people were passing four-thick in order to see a wax model of Mahatma Gandhi reading a newspaper.
Fifteen minutes later Raju was examining the contents of the purse. He went away to a secluded spot, behind a disused well. Its crumbling parapet seemed to offer an ideal screen for his activities. The purse contained ten rupees in cash and 20 in currency notes and a few annas in nickel. Raju tucked the annas at his waist in his loin-cloth. ‘Must give them to some beggars,’ he reflected generously. There was a blind fellow yelling his life out at the entrance to the fair and nobody seemed to care. People seemed to have lost all sense of sympathy these days. The 30 rupees he bundled into a knot at the end of his turban and wrapped this again round his head. It would see him through the rest of the month. He could lead a clean life for at least a fortnight and take his wife and children to a picture.
Now the purse lay limp within the hollow of his hand. It was only left for him to fling it into the well and dust it off his hand and then he might walk among princes with equal pride at heart. He peeped into the well. It had a little shallow water at the bottom. The purse might float and a floating purse could cause the worst troubles on earth. He opened the flap of the purse in order to fill it up with pebbles before drowning it. Now, through the slit at its side, he saw a balloon folded and tucked away. ‘Oh, this he bought ...’ He remembered the other’s talk about the motherless child. ‘What a fool to keep this in the purse,’ Raju reflected. ‘It is the carelessness of parents that makes young ones suffer,’ he ruminated angrily. For a moment he paused over a picture of the growling father returning home and the motherless one waiting at the door for the promised balloon, and this growling man feeling for his purse ... and, oh! it was too painful!
Raju almost sobbed at the thought of the disappointed child – the motherless boy. There was no one to comfort him. Perhaps this ruffian would beat him if he cried too long. The Green Blazer did not look like one who knew the language of children. Raju was filled with pity at the thought of the young child – perhaps of the same age as his second son. Suppose his wife were dead ... (personally it might make things easier for him, he need not conceal his cash under the roof), he overcame this thought as an unworthy side-issue. If his wife should die it would make him very sad indeed and tax all his ingenuity to keep his young ones quiet ... That motherless boy must have his balloon at any cost, Raju decided. But how? He peeped over the parapet across the intervening space at the crowd afar off. The balloon could not be handed back. The thing to do was to put it back into the empty purse and slip it into the other’s pocket.
The Green Blazer was watching the heckling that was going on as the Bible-preacher was warming up to his subject. A semi-circle was asking: ‘Where is your God?’ There was a hubbub. Raju sidled up to the Green Blazer. The purse with the balloon (only) tucked into it was in his palm. He’d slip it back into the other’s pocket.
Raju realised his mistake in a moment. The Green Blazer caught hold of his arm and cried: ‘Pickpocket!’ The hecklers lost interest in the Bible and turned their attention to Raju, who tried to look appropriately outraged. He cried: ‘Let me go.’ The other, without giving a clue to what he proposed, shot out his arm and hit him on the cheek. It almost blinded him. For a fraction of a second Raju lost his awareness of where and even who he was. When the dark mist lifted and he was able to regain his vision, the first figure he noticed in the foreground was of the Green Blazer, looming, as it seemed, over the whole landscape. His arms were raised ready to strike again. Raju cowered at the sight. He said: ‘I ... I was trying to put back your purse.’ The other gritted his teeth in fiendish merriment and crushed the bones of his arm. The crowd roared with laughter and badgered him. Somebody hit him again on the head.
Even before the Magistrate Raju kept saying: ‘I was only trying to put back the purse.’ And everyone laughed. It became a stock joke in the police world. Raju’s wife came to see him in jail and said, ‘You have brought shame on us,’ and wept.
Raju replied indignantly: ‘Why? I was only trying to put it back.’
He served his term of 18 months and came back into the world – not quite decided what he should do with himself. He told himself; ‘If ever I pick up something again, I shall make sure I don’t have to put it back.’ For now he believed God had gifted the likes of him with only one-way deftness. Those fingers were not meant to put anything back.
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.