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Short Story First Prize 2009
 

PLATFORM TIMES

By Sandeep Shete

 
urchins
Tingu, the 'thekbaaz', who was all of thirteen, liked his victims male and between thirty-five and forty. His partner Usman, the 'machine', a year older and three inches taller than Tingu, preferred the low-hanging fruit instead. Upper class women toddling down the footbridges dragging gargantuan shopping bags along. Harried salesmen pleading over cellphones, always too distant from the crowds they jostled in to recognise the dangers that lurked within them. And other such types. For him, even doddering old men, who would be lucky to just make it through the brutal Mumbai commute alive, were fair game.

Challenges never gave Usman a high. Like Tingu, he got his highs from the daily fix of ganja they smoked before going to bed every night. A tattered yellow polythene sheet spread underneath a staircase on Bandra station’s platform number two served as their bed. Some nights, the ganja played bizarre games on Tingu’s mind, making it stretch, reach out and try to touch the things that preceded his arrival on the platform seven or eight years before. On such occasions, Usman loved to engage his friend in a perfunctory dialogue over his past.

“Faces, places, names, shames...do you remember anything at all?” Usman would ask.

“I think I remember a face.” Tingu would say, his eyes crinkled against the haze of milky smoke, his head resting on a folded arm. “I mean, I don't remember the face. Only that there was one before I came here.”

“Man or woman?”

“Baba, I think I called that face. Maybe abba. I'm not sure.”

At times, Tingu spoke of a hand, a heavy one, crashing on his cheek, his lip splitting over his teeth spilling liquid salt on his tongue. But he was quick with the disclaimer that perhaps that wasn't baba's hand after all.

“And then?” Usman would ask.

“Nothing. Then it was here. On this platform. Just here...” And the way he would utter those last few words, Tingu would briefly sound like a stranger to Usman.

There had been a time, a year or so earlier, when Usman had appeared a stranger to Tingu in a way that had frightened him. Made him wonder if they would remain friends for much longer. That was when Usman had begun to shoot up like a sycamore. When his voice had started sounding like it were coming from the bottom of the dry water tank atop the decrepit lavatory on the last platform. When he had started looking and behaving so unlike the fellow Tingu had known for six years that Tingu had even contemplated running away, finding a new refuge, a new ustad, on the Central Line. Or maybe even the Harbour Line. Change terrified Tingu almost as much as darkness did. For the platform is a veritable carnival of ironies, where things change every minute without anything changing at all. Where there's scarcely a moment of darkness ever and yet it makes for a tenebrous place to live on. Tingu stopped looking forward to their night-time conversations. He worried most about sleeping next to Usman. Although they ate the same unwholesome meals of vada-pav washed down with cutting chai day in and day out, Usman had somehow, all at once, become a lot stronger than Tingu. And Tingu knew what the bigger, stronger boys did to the weaklings, even within their own gangs. He began to mention Gafoor a lot more during their conversations.

Gafoor, their one-eyed ustad, their handler, had been in the business longer than Tingu and Usman had walked the earth. He was the man with the big picture. Every night, while his boys enjoyed their ganja and chit-chat under the staircase, Gafoor, squatting in his nearby shanty, used his one good eye to count the takings from their two day shifts. Their profession had fallen upon tough times. He had realised that a long time back. Beating up the boys was no solution either. Real cash was getting real scarce what with wallets and purses these days packed mockingly with those shiny little plastic cards. Gafoor knew they could buy anything in the world but that somehow they would never work if he tried using them. It was something the owners did soon after realising they had been robbed. Black magic perhaps. In fact, those cards were a professional hazard. Only hard cash was their friend. Everything else, trouble. “Make no mistake, everyone else is getting richer but us,” Gafoor, pulling on a beedi wistfully, sometimes lectured his boys. “Just that they're also getting more careful. Still, we must keep our eyes peeled and our fingers oiled at all times.” What option do the boys have? he asked himself sometimes. If you don't possess a single skill to create anything of value for this world, the only way to make a living is by taking what you never created.

~*~

The end of Tingu's anxieties regarding his partner had come in a way that had made him laugh like kids his age are supposed to. Soon after the aforementioned physical changes manifested themselves in Usman, Tingu found him disappearing between shifts. He used to be gone for hours and he never told Tingu where he went. Sometimes he returned just before the afternoon shift to find Tingu pacing the platform in a state of great agitation. In those moments, Tingu would feel justified in punching his buddy in the side a few times. Usman, who otherwise carried a famous temper, would never retaliate; he’d only laugh and try to wiggle away, adding to Tingu's suspicion that he was up to no good.

One day, just like that, Usman asked Tingu to go along with him on his afternoon excursion. Tingu frowned, feeling uncertain, a little scared even. Then, curiosity got the better of him. They jumped on to a twelve-coach rake from Bandra, hanging out the door all the way up to Dadar.

“Where are we going?” Tingu kept asking.

“You'll see,” Usman replied every time, grinning. They took their time crossing over to Dadar East where they boarded a Thane-bound local. Tingu broke a sweat; this was alien territory.

“We get off at Sion,” Usman instructed him. “That's where the surprise lies.”

Tingu heard his stomach growl as they waited on platform one at Sion. The aroma of fresh vada-pav being prepared at a stall somewhere close by tantalized him. But Usman would hear none of it. “Don't you budge, Tingu. If you miss this today, it won't happen again until tomorrow,” he pleaded and Tingu was at once intrigued. Shortly afterwards, the 11.35 am CST Slow arrived on the station. Usman's eyes twinkled as the ladies compartment came to a halt right in front of them. Out came a gang of Khalsa College girls, giggling, bantering, asking for attention even while displaying a studied indifference to everything around them.

“That one is mine,” Usman declared, proudly pointing to a buxom Punjabi lass sporting a bosom that heaved and fell with each step. She was dressed in a red halter top, her skin-tight blue jeans slung miles below a cavernous navel. “Just see how her hips jiggle as she walks. Nice, hmmm?”

The young women drifted towards the exit, leaving behind them a wake of roiling fragrances, the gazes of Usman, Tingu, and countless other men following them till the very end. Usman turned to Tingu.

“Which one did you like?” he asked, in the manner of a salesman asking his customer to pick a cellphone model. There, perhaps for the first time in his life, Tingu blushed.

“That one,” he said laughing, pointing with his chin towards no girl in particular.

“Which one?” asked Usman earnestly.

But it didn't matter. The only thing that mattered was that Usman could be trusted. That Tingu could sleep beside him under the staircase every night. That they could continue to live their life of fast crime and illicit gratification without personal suspicions or professional differences getting in the way. But while Usman was no threat to Tingu, a similar threat had later arrived from where it was least expected and Tingu had no choice but to surrender before it.

At this point in the story, and in view of what is going to happen next, it is worth mentioning that the two little thieves actually followed a compromise formula as they went about their business of relieving commuters of their cash: Tingu selected their targets during the morning shift, Usman in the afternoon.

~*~
                                                                                               
Present Day. Vile Parle station: 10.45 am. The short paunchy man shuffling beside the chai-pakora stall on platform number three could have been on either side of forty. Shiny strips of oil-soaked scalp shone from underneath his frayed mattress of black-dyed hair. Dressed in a green half-sleeve shirt, darkened under the armpits, and beige corduroy trousers that shone brightly in the late morning sun, he was sweating buckets. Mopping a worry-lined brow every now and then with a soggy handkerchief. Constantly fidgeting with his cellphone without placing or receiving any calls. Mumbai does that to many. Look how he perks up each time the disembodied voice announces the trains over the public address system. How indifferent he seems to the hernia-like bulge in his trouser's front left pocket. That bulge has already caught the attention of our intrepid duo. Contrary to the widespread notion among honest folks, the back pockets are actually harder to pick than the front ones. “Remember, people with money can almost always feel it sliding up over their butts.” Gafoor had tutored his boys well. But the front pockets? “Laddoo hai,” grinned Usman as they inched closer to their target. Piece of cake!

The 10.51 am Borivali Slow lumbered into the station loaded more than usual for its time. In the beginning, the oily-haired man seemed intimidated by the crowds billowing out of it. He glanced right, then left and hurried towards a coach further ahead. Like all of Mumbai's suburban commuters, he too wasn't immune to the delusion that the coach next to the nearest one would somehow be less crowded. Watching Tingu and Usman stalking their man, a polio-afflicted newspaper seller shook his head, blew his nose into his hand and wiped the phlegm-covered fingers on the underside of his handcart. Next to his newsstand sat a row of boot-polish boys tuk-tukking on their shoe-rests with the wood of their brushes, beckoning passers-by to come, shine their shoes. At the end of that line of five sat Kallu. Until four months ago, he had been Tingu and Usman’s partner in crime. Then, one afternoon, he was caught by a bunch of commuters. Kallu had never walked upright after that day although some would say he actually started walking upright only after the thrashing. As Tingu hurried past him, Kallu whistled loudly. Tingu spun around, his eyes armed with menace. Kallu laughed, made a loose fist with his hand and punched the air three times. Boy, you're screwed today! Tingu wagged his middle finger at him and spat. Then he followed Usman into the second-class coach. The target had been acquired.

The insides of the coach were engorged with the stench of a thousand perspiring men. At least four were pressed together on each one of the sixty-four benches and a few were standing too, fists curled loosely over the support brackets hanging like handcuffs from the ceiling. Tingu disliked boarding these trains. Standing in such close proximity to grown men made him acutely conscious of his puny stature. Passengers often turned away from him, not wanting to rub their bodies against that of an unwashed urchin. A body covered by filthy undersized garments and reeking of tobacco, snot and destitution. Sometimes, they even asked him to get off the train at the next station. He had ‘Ticketless Traveler’ written all over him, if not ‘Pickpocket.’ Still, for the sake of dhanda, he climbed aboard everyday. Twice. Except on Saturdays, their weekly off.

Their target was a regular; that much was clear. He had positioned himself near the leading edge of the door, just behind the outermost ring of bodies. A stance highly recommended for stepping off the train without much trouble at the next halt. The army of incoming passengers there would mount their attack on the trailing half of the door, thwarting the efforts of anyone trying to disembark from that end.

Usman found a gap just behind Oily. Wordlessly, he showed Tingu four fingers. They had four minutes. That’s a lot of time. Tingu slid through the other passengers like a draught through a window-crack, positioning himself right next to Usman. As a thekbaaz, distraction was Tingu’s stock-in-trade, a skill that went largely underutilized inside local trains. The noise, the relentless discomfort and the obligation to keep shifting one’s coordinates all the time were sufficient to take people's minds far away from their pockets. The nine-coach rake jerked forward, picking up speed furiously, the wheels clanging over the rails with a vengeance, the compartment rocking from side to side like a dinghy on choppy waters.

There's a rule in pick-pocketing – a rule Tingu always broke, as on this occasion. Never ever look your target in the face. It takes the focus away from your goal. Worse, it could even invite a reciprocal glance. And that could mean a few rough weeks inside the lock-up if your victim decided to report the matter.

But now Tingu’s gaze has already shifted to Oily's extruding pocket. How much could he be carrying? Tingu wonders. Enough to meet their day's target, he hopes. Enough to eventually convince Gafoor not to transfer them to the dangerous Churchgate-Mahalaxmi segment where newcomers get beaten up and flung onto the tracks by the entrenched gangs. Tingu shudders. Enough, he prays, to pay the new constable Kartar Singh of the railway police his hafta tonight so that he wouldn't have go with that dirty man inside the empty goods trains in the desolate marshalling yard. How he despised those goods trains filled with a thick glutinous darkness that Kartar Singh playfully stabbed with his torchlight. “What's the fun if I can't watch what I'm doing,” he would laugh. And Tingu didn't know what he hated more: the fear of the darkness or the shame of the torchlight. 

Now watch. Usman's fingers are twitching in preparation for the performance, drumming an invisible tabla in the air. He throws one last glance in Tingu's direction, the way a paratrooper might at his buddy before jumping off for a sortie behind enemy lines. Then, like a serpent striking its fear-frozen victim, two lightening fingers stab the gaping mouth of Oily's trouser pocket. A tug. A shake. And a warm chestnut-coloured wallet is scooped out from within. It is teleported instantly from the fingers of the machine into the waiting hands of the thekbaaz who tucks it under his shirt between his trouser and his belly and turns around to face the opposite door. The train is slowing down already. The yellow board announcing “Andheri” in three different languages glides past. The partners are out in a trice. They're weaving through the crowds now. Darting up the staircase three steps at a time. On the footbridge, panting, running like antelopes across five platforms. Down the last staircase and into the parking lot on the east.

“Quick. Let me see it,” ordered Usman once they were safely crouched between rows of two-wheelers. Tingu fumbled around under his shirt and then leaned back grinning, holding up the prize. Usman counted the notes, wetting his thumb on his tongue, his mouth opening wider each time. Three thousand five hundred and eleven rupees! They laughed out, loud and long, hysterically glad at having survived yet another day on the platform. Then Usman walked away with the cash, warning Tingu to throw away the empty wallet quickly. He was already looking forward to the broken-toothed smile on Gafoor’s face, the proud gleam in his good eye. And of course their cut.

~*~

Tingu opened the wallet again, searched the various pockets. It was his lucky day too. He found what he always looked for in wallets after plundering them: a picture. It was of a boy, not more than five or six years old. Had Usman been there, he might have seen in his friend's eyes a fleeting forbidden luxury: Hope. Tingu studied the face in the picture for a long moment and then turned towards a mirror on a motorcycle. Almost immediately his eyes turned professional once again. He snorted, shook his head and tossed the wallet, along with the picture, into the nearest gutter.

~END~

Glossary:

Thekbaaz: Person who assists a pickpocket by diverting a victim's attention

Machine: The person who actually picks the pocket

Ganja: Cannabis or marijuana

Ustad: Trainer or handler

Vada-pav: Cheap Indian fast food, very popular in Mumbai; consists of a deep-fried potato mash patty (batata vada) served in a salted bun (pav) with savory condiments

Beedi: Thin Indian cigarette made of tobacco and wrapped in a tendu leaf

Chai: Tea

Pakora: An Indian fried snack made from spinach, soft cheese or onion

Laddoo: Popular Indian sweet made of flour and other ingredients formed into balls that are dipped in sugar syrup

Dhanda: Colloquial for business

Keeda: Colloquial for infection

Hafta: Colloquial for protection money

Tabla: Indian percussion instrument similar to a drum