I WAS THAT age when I was bathing in the season’s first rains without shame or concern for the holes in my underwear. Together with my first cousins V and S, and S’s friend R, I was enjoying a downpour on the front lawn, sliding and muddying the slippery floors of the verandah, not listening to the half-dozen elders living in my mother’s brother’s small house where we spent every summer vacation.
That evening I saw kachindo the first time. V pointed at it and yelled the word in alarm when he saw me squatting next to a chameleon in the bushes. I turned around and noticed the brown, very still, twig, which suddenly produced two round roving eyes. Kachindo! An ancient-looking meditative reptile. A curious little dinosaur camouflaging in the bush, focused on the newly born winged black ants. Our Gujarati name for chameleon stuck with me. An impressive name for an impressive animal that had the ability to simultaneously be in a place and be invisible. I observed it attentively as it charged on an ant, swallowed it and then disappeared.
Jump cut to an image of we four kids playing peek-a-boo next, under that evening’s overcast sky. I am in the bushes again, hiding, wary of but fascinated by the chameleon, and wondering if it is hiding like me too, if it is looking at me right now. Lifetimes pass in that bush. I know V, S and R are afraid of kachindo and they will not come near the bush to search for me. If I am patient I will win.
The sun set, the clouds remained, and darkness fell. The heavy downpour muffled to a light drizzle. Then I saw something. Something that made that evening stand out from all the others that summer.
THE HOUSE NEXT door was Raju Kaka’s. He owned one of the most renowned photo studios in Ahmadabad. He was a rich and intelligent man, and I loved him for his warm smile and friendliness. He was one of the few adults who would not scold us or instruct us in general, who would simply allow us to be, even if we were playing cricket on his compound dangerously close to his Maruti 1000 car. That summer I was yet to see him as he had gone with his family on a pilgrimage to Kedarnath in the Himalayas.
While hiding in the bush, I was marvelling at the richness of his bungalow, one of the only two-storeyed houses in our neighbourhood. The architecture was modern, with big glass windows. A balcony on the first floor, the size of a small room, was where his younger son practised taekwondo, kicking at a hanging sandbag. The white marble stairways rose from the central hall on the ground floor to the terrace, visible from our house through a slim but long rectangular glass panel. He had an artificial waterfall at the corner of his lawn. The bungalow looked majestic. It was a house of rich and happy people living a prosperous life, very different from ours.
It had gotten very late, for we were being called in by one of the women of the house – my mother or my mother’s sister (my masi), or my mother’s mother (my nani) – to dry ourselves and drink hot milk. Just as I turned to leave, I noticed that the lights of the stairway next door were on. Were they on when we were bathing? I asked V. He didn’t know. Were they on when we were bathing? I asked R and S. They shrugged. If they were on when we were bathing, I thought, they must have been on the whole day, and the whole day yesterday, and the whole week, but this was the first time we had noticed them. Therefore, the lights must have been switched on by someone only that evening? R’s eyes grew curious.
I was only a child, no older than ten, but the pleasure of something untoward happening already occurred to me. I ran and broke the news to the house. It was the correct thing to do. It was my duty. There could be someone in that rich and empty house, the house I loved. The house of a family all of us liked.
Yes, sure I was concerned for Raju Kaka’s belongings, but also I was sparked by the significance of what I had to tell the adults. They would have to listen to me then act on what I told them. Would it have been okay if V or R or S had declared the news? Absolutely not! It had to be me, my clever brain that had to be appreciated.
Everything my masi and my maa used to do, they used to do in accord, and my nani always backed them. When they heard my report, the three of them at once went to inspect. From our verandah they too could see the zig-zag stairway bathing in white. They too could not figure out why this would be, unless there was a robber who had switched on the lights for his convenience. Fearing the worst, they asked V to fetch my uncle from the tobacco and paan kiosk, the galla.
IN MOST CITIES and towns of Gujarat, there are townships and colonies that have a small shopping centre – an array of five to ten shops – followed by a volleyball court-sized empty space. This space, usually next to a galla, is enclosed by stone benches. Men from the neighbourhood sit there and gossip about politics, cricket and local issues, usually after dinner, as they chew tobacco or paan, drink soda, smoke cigarettes – all or some of that simultaneously. This, however, I learned much later. To me, a galla at that time was a very adult and forbidden place, where grave matters were debated passionately and from where it wasn’t uncommon to hear profane words such as ‘sisterfucker’ and ‘daughterfucker’. To where you were only permitted to go to call your adult relative, and that only in moments of crisis.
I don’t know what V was told to convey to my uncle, but in a matter of minutes Raju Kaka’s bungalow was surrounded by ten to fifteen men from the galla. They inspected the locks of the two doors, checked all the windows and were exploring the premises for clues. One of the men climbed on a parapet and from there to a porch and peeped into the house through the transparent, rectangular, slim and long glass panel of the stairway. My uncle asked his best friend to dash to our terrace to see if he could discern any activity from up there.
Since ours was a one-storey building, as were the other neighbours on the other side and behind, if the thief or group of thieves had entered Raju Kaka’s bungalow from the roof, there was no way we could confirm it. After the initial check, my uncle entered our drawing room and dialled the phone. We kids followed him and lurked, listening to every word.
‘Hello? Haan, saheb, aa amara baju wada ghar maa hoi shake chor awyo hoye, saheb. Ghar saav khali che saheb, baddha gharwala farwa gaya che, ane aaje ekdum light chalu dekhandi amne, jaatej. Haan, saheb, address che...’ (‘Hello? Yes, sir, there is probably a thief in my neighbour’s house, sir. Sir, the house has been completely empty for days, the family has gone on a vacation, but today, we found the lights in the house automatically on. Yes, sir, the address is…’)
Not half an hour ago we were bathing with abandon in the monsoon’s first shower. And now, police were coming on the basis of my observation. Police! I had never seen police up close. Only in Hindi movies had I seen them – as corrupt, brutal villains or valiant, patriotic heroes; always full of action. My uncle is quite an authoritative man and to listen to him address someone as ‘sir’ already got me excited. I looked at my cousins and could see they were enthused like me.
We followed my uncle out and were astonished to see the sheer size of the gathering. Many more people had arrived – strangers standing outside the gate, conversing in private groups; those who knew either of the families well, standing in the premises of the two houses. All wanting to be part of the occasion. How did the word spread? We climbed the shared parapet of the two houses to get an unimpeded view. That parapet was a row of contiguous semi-circles, every two semi-circles separated by a pillar. I remember clearly that V climbed first and occupied the privileged base of the pillar and R and I were on either side of him, placing our hands on his shoulder for support, focusing on balancing ourselves. S was given a hand by us and only then she climbed up. Any other day, an elder would have asked us to jump down, but today there were better things happening.
It was as if as soon as S perched on the parapet, the police showed up. Their entry, simple and silent, without the sirens and red lights of their jeeps, disappointed me. And when a constable with a wooden baton and an old tired-looking officer without guns or revolvers emerged from the jeep, my disappointment increased. But their presence stirred things around. Within a matter of minutes, more than – what? fifty? one hundred? – onlookers had gathered outside Raju Kaka’s house. They were shouting slogans like Get out, thief, we won’t do you any harm! or Come out now, you don’t have any options left! or Come out or we will find you and beat you! None of it worked, of course, but it was incredible how all these people burst out of their houses and had become a crowd, a singular mass shouting slogans in unison.
At this point, V got excited and said, Look! The thief! The thief!
Where? Where? I asked, reflecting equal excitement.
There! he pointed. Oh, no, he just hid.
I had no idea what he was pointing at, all I could see were the large shadows of two ashoka trees (made by a street lamp?) on the building’s facade. But earlier he had pointed at a twig and exclaimed kachindo and, sure enough, there was a chameleon.
I joined in. Yes, he is there! I said. I see him! Of course, once V and I saw him, R and S saw him too. A group of young men, whom I now think wouldn’t have been older than twenty years, heard us and became interested. The information circulated; from the vantage point of the semi-circular parapet I practically saw the information circulating, rallying the crowd. I am not sure how much they – the adults – believed us, if our sighting carried any weight, but then one of those young men signalled at me: ‘Aa chokraoae joyu ho koi ne. Hamnaj!’ (‘This boy has spotted somebody there. Right now!’), and three or four more people approached us – all men. The gathering must have been all men. They sought more information: What exactly did we see? Where? I answered – I was, and still am, always eager to answer – and my cousins interjected in agreement. What did he look like? Two round eyes. Where was he? Behind those curtains. Wearing clothes of the same colour as that of the curtain. What was he doing? He was still, very very still.
THE VERY FACT that I uttered those answers made me believe their veracity. I was asked the questions seriously and so I took my testimony seriously. And I was not alone; all four of us were together and firm in our narration. The logic in my child-brain ran like this: if we are being believed when we say we have seen the thief, we must have seen the thief!
I took to the all-important role of a soldier on guard, vigilantly waiting for the thief to manifest again behind the same curtains. And I did see him: in movements behind the same curtains; as a shadow, crouched in the balcony, camouflaged; as a masked head popping up on the terrace; and I exclaimed: Look! He is on the terrace! Now he is in that other room! Look! My cousins agreed unquestionably with me and invented sightings of their own in turn. It was a game and tacitly we knew its rules.
We did not know or care anymore if there was a thief; we wanted him to be there. We had invented him and now we wanted this fantastic creature to exist just as we fabricated him. And it was important to fabricate – to fabricate and to dish out the fabrications as observations. As long as there was a single person on the planet to hear me, I would have held on to my stories and I would have believed them myself.
Did I already know that if I didn’t believe my lies nobody else would?
Next in the broken narrative of that night in my head, in the assortment of flashes, glimpses and dialogues from the subsequent ruckus, the fat constable is breaking open a big metallic lock with a hammer, a swarm of people shouting, ‘Bahar nikald, oye, bahar nikald!’ (‘Get out, you, get out!’) and bolting after the constable into the drawing room. Of course I wasn’t inside the house, but I have memories of the throng thinning into a queue as it squeezed through the door and, like a snake slithering from room to room, shouting slogans and sniffing places – bathrooms, beds, empty spaces under beds, behind doors and almirah tops; the terrace and the stairway; finally exiting from a second door.
NO THIEF WAS found. And it was confirmed that nothing of value was stolen. The two main bedrooms had separate locks and they were intact, the almirahs were unopened – things seemed to be in their place. The thief must have panicked, people concluded. He had the whole night for his operation, might not have begun stealing yet. The consensus in general was that the thief must have merged with the crowd and escaped. Nobody would have been able to identify him in such a large gathering with so many unknown people. Only the police should have entered, they realised in retrospect.
All these speculations were happening in the almost vacant, almost calm premises of my uncle’s house, after the police had installed a guard and left. Only the men from the galla remained. To them, the possibility that there might not have been any thief in the first place was bleak, for nobody talked about it much. From the womenfolk to my uncle and his best friend, I do not remember anyone caring much about the no-thief-at-all scenario. How can I say this with certainty? Because they remember the evening differently. When I asked about it last summer, they said with quiet assurance and indifference: There was a thief. He was seen. Was he? Wasn’t it that they too had wanted the thief to exist as much as us kids?
That night, what mattered in the end was that no valuables were stolen, a guard was installed for the next two days until Raju Kaka could return, and the light in the stairway was switched off. We had done the best we could have as good neighbours.
At my uncle’s house in the summers, we always slept on the terrace, under the stars, the only way we could accommodate ten people staying in a two-bedroom house that did not have air conditioning. It wasn’t bad. Nights were quite cool and breezy; we would wash the terrace in the evening so that the floor too remained cool. I would join beddings with my cousins and we played games or shared jokes even as we resigned to sleep. But it had rained heavily that evening; we had no choice but to lie in the hall and the kitchen. I must have slept that night with my thoughts alternating between Raju Kaka’s house and kachindo, or so I would like to believe, because I had ventured to occupy a place in the kitchen from where I could sight a portion of the ransacked house, through a window behind a pitcher.
TWO DAYS LATER Raju Kaka and his family returned. We informed them what took place in their absence. There were no cell phones in those days – Raju Kaka had learnt of that summer evening only then. I wanted to see the expression change on his face. And I wanted to be available; he might have questions and I could apprise him of the full story. After all, it all started with me. So I stood right next to my uncle as he narrated the sequence of events in much detail. And I waited to see Raju Kaka’s face animate. A show of panic or concern or astonishment.
But Raju Kaka abruptly stopped the recital by flashing his hand.
‘Na, na, ee to switch kharab che. thai jaye light chalu jatez.’ (‘No, no. The light switches on sometimes by itself. The switch has some problems.’)
He looked at me and smiled, looked back at my uncle and asked about his health, and left, just like that.
I was jolted. Even if that man knew that the light had switched on automatically, he did not have to tell us! He could have joined us in this great fantastic story – the story of the uncaught thief in his house. He could have lied and said some of his stuff was stolen, and then the story would become a legend recalled in gatherings of friends and relatives for years to come.
But he chose to be uninteresting. He chose the truth or the simplest explanation, which wasn’t fun at all. He chose to leave. Even if he was sure there was no thief, it was an eventful evening; at least, he could have taken an interest in the narrative. Surely everybody else I knew would have wanted to learn more, even if just to pass the time. Raju Kaka was content to play it down, change the topic, enquire about things more usual like my uncle’s health. This act of his was the equivalent of an admonishment to the nascent drama-seeker in me.
It was maybe that there were things he had to attend to. He may have taken an interest in the story later, at the galla. The explanations can be many, though I have an image in my mind of him peering into my eyes through his spectacles. Why he would do that I can’t imagine. For me, that singular image – which is to say that singular moment, fictitious or real – was very significant (did I shiver?) because it was as clear to me as the cloudless sky of that morning: I was lying, to everybody and to myself. The awareness and acceptance of the lie did not induce guilt or defence. It aroused awe. I wasn’t a liar; I was in fact a decent kid and so were V, S and R. Why would we make up things like that and pretend it was the truth?
Over the years, grander, more exciting and bizarre evenings have come to pass. The memory of that night, however, has served to warn me about this incomprehensible drive in us which makes us want to say – believe – things at the expense of what is. I have failed often. I have not learned the lesson fully. If only remembering taught me how to stand guard against this tendency, and to overcome it.