Thieves Strike the Village at Midnight – My Childhood Nostalgia Series – Chapter:9
Updated on November 7, 2014
“Thieves have struck at Gundu Sir’s house last night!”
In a village, news spread faster than wild fire. The moment we children finished the customary morning cocoa drink (cocoa power added to hot milk) this news came to us as early as 6:30 AM in the morning. Gundu Sir (meaning ‘the fat teacher’) was our school’s 3rd standard teacher and the care-taker of our elementary school.
I (aged about 11) could not control my curiosity to make an immediate visit to Gundu Sir’s house to see what happened; somehow, my father too had the same curiosity and we went together. Gundu Sir’s house was the last one in our row of houses, adjacent to the Perumal Temple and after his house, there were only paddy fields.
When we reached the spot, almost half of the village men folk had already gathered there, all speaking almost simultaneously in excited voices and conveying the news with more and more exaggerated details to the new on-comers.
“The ‘Thotti Poottu‘ at the front door has been broken” (I did not know what Thotti Poottu meant, though I knew Poottu means lock. Later I came to know that such a lock had a solid rectangular sliding latch that enters into a cavity on the wall )
“Only a couple of Brass utensils are missing — no; a couple of silver vessels too; How about gold?”
“No! The thief did not attack anybody”
“Gundu Sir woke up hearing sound; he shouted “who’s there” and the thieves ran away…”
” No, no. Nobody in the house knew what happened till they woke up and saw the shit right at the middle of the mutram“
While all these loud conversations were going on, I could locate Janaki, the forth daughter of Gundu Sir and a class-mate cum friend of my elder sister sitting at an unobtrusive corner of the hall of the house and nonchalantly sipping a cup of coffee. I thought it best to approach her to hear the first hand version of the story.
Janaki was always a jovial and a happy-go-lucky type of girl.
When I went near her, she nodded at me, smiled broadly and said “Thieves have struck my house and see, I am celebrating it with a hot cup of coffee with an extra dose of sugar!”
“Are you not afraid?” I asked her with wonder.
“What’s there to be afraid of? I am only afraid if mom will ask me to wash themutram where the shit lies”
“You didn’t see? My father told me this morning that there is an old belief among thieves that if they urinate and excrete in a house where they steal, they will not get caught. This thief has really dirtied the mutram with a pot-full of urine and shit. Chee! Dirty fellow!”
Ah! I learned a new stuff about thieves to add to my list of fears about what thieves do! From Janaki’s authentic source of information, it turned out that the thieves did not get anything substantial from the house except for a few brass utensils; they had indeed broken open the front door; perhaps they thought nobody was there in the house, by mistake. By the time Gundu Sir could wake up hearing the sounds and shout, they could lay hands on only a few petty things and then ran away. It meant they had finished their ‘rituals’ first before getting into their job; or the thief must have been suffering acutely from troubled bowels! Who knows?
I don’t really understand whether the fear of thieves and ghosts ran in the blood of children of my age at that time or it was something that parents and elders fed the children with. In my young days, when children in a village sat together and had freewheeling chitchats, there were four subjects that would get the attention of all — Thieves, ghosts, cinema and school teachers! The first two, none of the children had opportunity to come across; the third (Cinema), only a few lucky children of affordable parents get to go once a while and the forth (teachers) are the real ones they come across at schools on a daily basis!
Once the subject of thieves come into discussion, it would sideline all other discussions and used to go on and on. Boys and girls would vie with each other to describe thrilling and fear-filled stories of thieves striking at the houses of their relatives, the weapons they carried, how they threatened people, how they were dressed, how some lady’s chain was so forcefully removed that she ended up with a slash in her neck and so on. The stories usually were highly exaggerated, fuelled solely by the capacity of the imagination of the narrator; the scarier it was, the better!
A typical mutram (open courtyard inside a village house)
Particularly if the discussions took place at nights, my fear of thieves would grip all over me for the rest of the night. One peculiarity of the village houses where we lived was that they invariably had a couple ofmutrams at middle of the houses that were open to the sky. Generally, village houses were built with shared common walls with adjacent houses. Hence there was no scope of having windows for ventilation at the sides of the houses. Hence, the major source of light and ventilation inside the houses could only come throughmutrams.
A typical village house of Tamil Nadu with earthen-tiled roofs. The platform outside is the ‘Thinnai’ where people sleep at summer nights. The bright area seen inside the house is the ‘mutram’. Thieves can climb over the roof and land there!
In south Indian villages those days, most houses where roofed with ‘Nattu Odu‘ (meaning village tiles — tiles curved in shape, which are baked earthen tiles, rows and rows of them assembled skillfully to cover the entire roof slopes). It was indeed possible for anyone to get into any house if he climbed over the roof from the backyard, walked over the roof tiles and jump-landed into the mutram. Cats would coolly walk over the roof tiles casually and travel from one house to another.
Curiously, unlike most other houses in our village, our house( in which we lived for 15 long years) had a steel rod grills covered over the main mutram and also the secondary, smaller one (our night urinal and plate washing area). It means, even if a thief cameto our house over the roof, he could not gain entry into the house, unless he opted to bend the steel rods. But that security was not good enough for my imagined fear of thieves!
After dinner, I would refuse to go to the plate-washing area (the second mutram at the middle) alone. I would demand someone to accompany me. My elder sisters would make thorough fun about my fear saying “Come on! What valuables are you carrying on your body that the thief can rob? You have nothing to offer except your dirty knickers and tops. Fearing the burden of washing them, he would run away from you!” No. None of their jabs would deter me away from clutching on to my pet fear!
Whether a man walks or a heavy wild cat walks over the roof, people with sharp ears can easily hear “Krrk, krrk” sound coming from the tiles that get disturbed in their positions. Of course, if it were a heavy man or someone lacking the knack of walking over tiles, one could hear a louder “katak” sound, indicating the breaking of a tile!
My fear of thieves was so thorough those days that when a wild cat walked over the roof overhead, I would wake up and with pounding heart and watch the movement of the sound going from one direction to another. ‘Is it a thief? Has he walked close to the mutram? Am I going to hear some sounds of his attempt to bend and break the steel rod grid next? Should I wake up my parents?’
My mother was one who was equally fearful about thieves like me. Rather, it must be she who should have have been instrumental in instilling the fear of thieves in me through her breast milk or through her fear-filled narrations of encounters with thieves! At some nights when “krrk” “krrk” sounds from the roof are heavier than normal, I could hear a shivering voice from my already-woken-up mother prodding my father “AaL” (A man). After a moment I could hear my father mumbling half-asleep “Hmm?…It is wild cat; sleep; sleep”.
Cat-walks on the roof!
I could not really count the number of nights at which I had nightmares of my encounters with thieves coming from roof tops. I would dream something like I had to go to the Mutram alone and I look up and there was a thief threatening me with a dagger in hand! Or I would be forced by elders to go to the back yard at night to bring something from there against my will, where there was one last open mutramwhich had no grills. Thieves would be waiting to catch me there!
My nightmare hero!
It was mostly in summer nights that the sudden arrival of thieves would get reported at mid nights through the loud and shrill cries of ladies and the excited shouts of gents from adjacent houses. The whole village would virtually wake up and come to the streets. Why summer nights? It was because the summer nights were so warm and sultry that, in the absence of the luxury of ceiling fans or table fans those days, most men folk would sleep outside the houses either in the frontthinnais or by putting rope cots in the open, right on the streets.
Poor womenfolk had to remain alone in-house, undergoing the suffering of sultry nights with disturbed sleep. Perhaps most of their thief-alarms were wrongly triggered on account of sounds of the cat-walks!
But at least on two occasions, I vividly remember in my childhood that the arrival of thieves were genuine. On one occasion, Kittumani, a bold middle aged person living at a few houses away from ours chased a thief by running behind him across the street but unsuccessful in nabbing him.
The second incidence happened a couple of years later and was the one in which I finally saw a real life thief ‘in full’!
It was another mid- summer night. This time, it was a poor thief who was rather content in stealing cocoanuts lying at the backyard of one of the houses. At dead of the night, with a torch in hand, he was picking a few ripe cocoanuts. The falling of a coconut from his hand with thud and his torch light had caught the attention of the house-owner Kirthivasa Iyer, who happened to visit the backyard to relive his bowel at that odd hour. He was bold enough to catch the thief red-handed.
There was immediately lots of shouts “A thief has been caught!” and as usual the entire village woke up and was on the streets. The thief was brought with hands tied with his towel and presented right opposite to my house – to the Miller’s house front yard. (Miller is the nickname of the richest, and by virtue of it, the most powerful personality of our street, who got his name on account of his owning a rice mill in the town). This front yard of Miller’s house had a huge pandal (shed) covering the street in its front, with tube lights fitted for illumination.
The thief was looking just like any other impoverished villager.
Somehow, on that night, I had the courage or rather a very overwhelming curiosity to see how a thief really looks like. I waded my way through the crowd and stood right in front of the thief! What a disappointment for me! He looked just like any other ordinary, partly impoverished village laborer, about 55 years old, slightly stooping,baldheaded, with an unshaven and featureless face. He wore just a dirtyveshti (dhoti) and his top was bare as his upper piece of cloth had been utilized to tie his hands. He was subjected to interrogation by Kittumani and Kirthivasa Iyer, the two most bold men of our village.
“What’s your name?”
He mumbled something.
“Where are you from?”
“Veliyoor” (From outside, not this place) he mumbled.
“Where else did you steal? What else did you steal?”
Kittumani eyed at his waist. There was a bulge in the veshti there. Normally village folks would judiciously tie money and valuables by skillfully folding their veshti and tucking them around the waist. (Poor people hardly wore shirts with pockets those days).
In a swift and unprecedented move, Kittumani pulled the thief’s veshti . No one including the thief was prepared for the shock. He was not wearing a loincloth(which people normally do in villages) around his private part and he stood stark naked!
That was the first time I had the ‘vision’ of a grown up man’s private parts, that too in such a close quarters!
From the loosened knot of the dhoti, a pack of beedis, a matchbox, a packet of tobacco, and a few betel leaves fell on the ground.
“Eay! Kittumani, moodu, moodu!” (Cover him up) shouted some elders, shocked to see the thief standing naked. Kittumani hastily wound the dhoti around the thief’s waist with a visible sense of guilt and embarrassment.
“You rascal! Can’t you even wear a loin cloth? Shame on you!” shouted Keerthivasa Iyer.
The thief said softly “I had a family-planning operation recently. I can’t tie it tight”.
There was a deafening silence for a while.
If I remember right, the thief was not handed over to police though some people were suggesting so earlier. If I remember right, my fear of thieves receded considerably after this encounter with a real life thief, that too in full nudity!
After I grew up a few years more, I could decipher why there was a sudden silence when the thief mentioned about the family planning operation. It was a period in India when large scale government sponsored family planning drive was going on in full swing, as a genuine bid to curtail the population explosion of India. The Government was giving lots of incentives (like giving a few kilos of rice, cash compensation, free food during the brief stay in hospital etc) for men who came forward to undergo the operation and commissions to agents who bring them. Stiff targets were set at Panchayats and municipalities on the number of vasectomies to be done in every quarter. It was widely rumored in those days that vasectomy operations were performed even to aged people by doctors in connivance with agents and officials in order to meet the targets and pocket some of the financial incentives.
This thief must have faced such an acute poverty that he had undergone vasectomy at a rather advanced age for the sake of getting some money and a bag of rice as compensation. This fact must have sunk at the hearts of our village folks and that was why they must have left him free without handing him over to police.
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