Friday, February 22, 2008

Red-handed

He begged me not to tell, but I told anyway.

Aliyah was out for a morning run when our newest servant (after Shukti's return last week from a long, muddily-explained absence, we have two servants), knocked on the door. The 12-year-old boy handed me the three newspapers we subscribe to. Then he held up a straw broom.

"Cleaning?"

I nodded, motioned him inside, and walked back to my desk. On the way, I noticed (with a minimum of consciousness) that my wallet was sitting on top of a chest of drawers in our living room.

The boy started taking out the trash and I got back to work. I padded away at the keys and the boy piled dirty clothes on the couch. Then, hunchbacked, he started sweeping.

I was writing a complicated story for the law magazine about rules for foreign investment in India's retail market, and, in between cluttered thoughts, I took a deep distracted breath and looked up. My wallet was no longer sitting on the chest of drawers.

I must have made some kind of a noise. Because the boy's wide-open eyes peeked over the top of the couch and met mine. He tried to bob his head casually, but he looked scared. Then he ducked behind the couch again. He was about seven feet away from me, a wobbly brown couch the only thing preventing me from seeing what he was doing.

I sat still for a few seconds and wondered if I could have made a mistake. In the meantime, I heard paper rustling behind the couch. I got up and walked behind the boy. He was crouched forward on the ground, dirty sweepings at his feet, my open wallet in his hand.

I knew exactly how much money was supposed to be in my wallet because Aliyah had, just an hour earlier, declared that I was rich after she borrowed 100 rupees from my wallet. So I had counted the bills inside (there was 800 rupees, about $20) and announced that I was definitely not rich.

Now, shaking, the boy handed me my wallet. The correct amount of money was inside. I wondered again if I might have made a mistake.

Then the boy incriminated himself. He began blubbering in Hindi. He bowed low on the ground and pressed his forehead onto the tops of my bare feet, his small hands tightly gripping my ankles. I didn't understand the words he said, but the message was clear. He was begging.

Still a bit shocked (We liked this boy! We had given him extra money and sweets! We were the liberal Americans who had treated kindly and respectfully a boy unfairly born into servitude! What the hell sort of repayment was this for our self-righteous benevolence?), I pulled the boy up. His cheeks quivered and his eyes were afraid. He pawed at my shirt and rattled on in apologetic Hindi. His little voice choked as he made clear with pantomimes that he would be beaten if I told. I remain confident that our landlords are not the sort of people who would beat a servant for any reason, but the prospect still unnerved me.

The uncomfortable begging continued, and I didn't say much. I didn't know how to react. Finally, I told the boy to leave. He stood in the doorway for a moment, silently pleading. Then he left.

I started thinking, and remembered that twice in the last two weeks I'd looked in my wallet and found a sum lower than I expected. Nothing much, maybe 500 rupees (less than $13) each time. Both times I had fleetingly considered theft, but had quickly chalked up each instance to me having had too much to drink the night before and simply losing count. I was no longer so sure.

Aliyah returned a few minutes later. "We have a problem," I said.

Obviously, we didn't want this poor boy to be punished too harshly or kicked out of our landlord's house. His life sucks enough as it is, and we have always prided ourselves on trying to treat everyone, but particularly those in lower castes who are unfairly persecuted here, with respect, and on trying to make the lives of people like this boy a little better. The last thing we wanted was to contribute to making this boy's life even harder and lousier than it already is.

Well, the second-to-last thing, I guess. Because it turns out that when it comes down to it, the last thing we want is for a proven thief -- no matter how young or downtrodden he may be -- to have ready access to our home. We realized we'd never feel comfortable leaving the house again unless we told our landlords what had happened.

They were understanding and concerned. They swore up and down that he'd never be allowed in our house again and never be allowed anywhere near a key to our house (which the servants must retrieve from and return to Mrs. Aggarwal when it's time to clean and Aliyah and I aren't here). Mr. Aggarwal let slip that there's a debate in his family about whether to keep Shukti or the thief-child. Mr. Aggarwal said he's for Shukti, even though Mrs. Aggarwal prefers the boy burglar because he's a better cook. I put in my pitch for Shukti.

Shukti came and cleaned our house while I wrote this. He's done a helluva good job since he returned last week. He's been doing it all -- scrubbing the bathroom, washing the dishes, and even scraping the grime out of the inside of the garbage can in our kitchen. Bonanza!

I don't know what will happen to the poor little crook, nor do I know what I hope will happen to him. I'm not really angry at him for stealing a few bucks from me -- inarguably, he needs it more than me. But I do begrudge him putting me in a situation where I was forced to break the code of the schoolyard.

2 comments:

Sami said...

I wouldn't feel bad for telling your landlords at all. If you hadn't, someone else would have caught him eventually and he probably wouldn't have gotten off so easily. Plus I heart Shukti. :)

S Goldsmith said...

you're a bad person