Neyyarinkara was a small village. Everyone in the village knew everyone else. Raghu was one of the most ‘popular’ men in his village. He was popular for all the wrong reasons. Householders and shopkeepers were uncomfortable when he was around. Women quickened their pace as they passed him. This was not the case with the village children. They adored him, for them he was a hero. Raghu was the village thief.
Destiny played a crucial role in Raghu’s life. He was named Raghavan Nair and his was a normal, happy childhood. That is, for the first seven years, when his grandfather was alive. After his grandfather’s death, Raghu’s father splurged his family inheritance on liquor and friends. Once the funds ran out his ‘friends’ left. Next his wife left him and was never heard of again. When Raghu’s father died of alcohol induced liver complications, the boy was still in school. With no one left to take care of him, Raghu was moved to an orphanage. From that day onwards, people knew him only as Raghu.
The Sisters at the orphanage taught the children different skills. Skills of a more practical nature like book-binding, embroidery, basket-weaving and candle making. Raghu remained in the orphanage for seven years. When he turned fourteen the Sisters asked him to move out of the orphanage. The rules were clear. The orphanage only provided shelter for boys till the age of fourteen. Girls were luckier and got to stay till they were nineteen. It was assumed by that age, they should be able to fend for themselves. For the second time in his life Raghu was orphaned.
For the next couple of years, he tried his luck surviving through honest hard work. He worked in a hotel as a part-time dish washer and full-time sweeper. Business was bad and the hotel downed its shutters and put Raghu back on the streets.
Next, he went to the city and worked in a garage. It helped him learn how to operate machines. He learnt how to dismantle and fix broken gadgets, vehicles and machines. He realized he was good at this type of work. The garage owner took a liking to the young hardworking boy. The garage owner had a son whose main occupation was wasting his father’s hard-earned money.
One day some cash went missing from the garage owner’s safe. It was money he had kept aside for his daughter’s wedding. A part of the money was recovered from a locker where Raghu kept his belongings. Raghu denied having taken it but no one listened to him. The police men mercilessly trashed him in an attempt to get him to confess to the crime. Raghu’s denials fell on deaf ears and he was thrown in jail.
Three months into his sentence the remaining money was recovered from the garage owner’s son. The boy unwitting blurted out stealing the money while in a state of intoxication. He also confessed having planted the money to get rid of Raghu. The confession got Raghu out of jail. Once he came out of jail no one wanted to hire him and he returned to his village.
His first step into the world of crime was by accident. He was travelling on a jam-packed bus. The passenger next to him got up and left. In his hurry he dropped his wallet. Raghu who saw the wallet fall, put his feet on it and hid it from view. Later when no one was watching he pocketed it. The wallet contained a thousand rupees. He was about to throw the empty wallet away when he saw it had a concealed pocket. Inside that he found a driver’s license and credit cards. Raghu thought for a moment and made up his mind. He would return the license and cards. He was not in the business of destroying others lives. He took an envelope and on it wrote the name and address showing on the driving license. Next, he placed the cards and license inside the envelope and added a small note. ‘I only needed the money. Sorry.’ He sealed the envelope and posted it.
Two days later the local newspapers reported about the ‘Thief with a Conscience’. Raghu like that caption. He decided that he would target only the rich, like the robber whose story the sisters told him as a child. The one who stole from the rich and gave to the poor. There was a problem with this idea though. In Neyyarinkara there were no rich people. Everyone was equally poor, some were poorer than the others. Raghu slightly modified his rules to adjust to the conditions. He decided never to rob people from his village. He decided he would targeted tourists, people who came to visit his village.
As a village there were few sights that attracted visitors to Neyyarinkara. One of them was the village temple. The temple had an interesting story behind it. The story was from a time long before the temple was built. A prince was being chased by some ruffians. The prince’s life was saved by a shepherd who showed him a place to hide. Not able to find the prince the ruffians went away. The prince emerged from his hiding place but was not able to find the shepherd. The prince was convinced it was God who had come down to save his life, disguised as a shepherd. He vowed to build a temple on the spot. Years later when he became the King he fulfilled his vow. The story was hundreds of years old and it attracted tourists. This was the crowd that Raghu targeted.
Every morning at ten the first tourist bus would arrive. The buses came and went till five in the evening. This time period between ten to five was Raghu’s ‘office hours’. He did not steal much. A purse here, a gold chain there. Just enough to meet his immediate needs. If he got anything extra he would drop that in the temple donation box. Raghu liked to keep his life simple. Too much money would attract a lot of attention. His profession required anonymity.
One day Raghu saw a young couple get of a bus. They looked like a couple of newlyweds. They had that casual, do-not-care-about-the-world attitude of the rich. They were holding hands, smiling and giggling a lot. The woman had a carry bag slung on her shoulder. Her husband carried a small pouch in his hand. Raghu walked closer to them.
“See that tree? That is where the king hid,” said the husband.
“How do you know? Did he tell you?” said the wife and she giggled.
“Yes, I was one of his bodyguards,” said the husband.
“For now, you concentrate on my body. The King will take care of himself.”
Raghu winced. This was the type of silly conversations one heard in the movies. He tried not to hear what they were saying. Instead he focused on the bags in their hands. He noticed that the man had a firm grip on his bag. The woman walked as if she was not bothered about her carry bag she had slung on her shoulder. Raghu devoted his attention on the small bag in the man’s hand.
Entry into the temple was through a narrow-carved stone door. The door was only five feet high and required a person to bend to get through. It was meant to signify that an individual had to bow to enter in the presence of God. The crowd had to squeeze through the door to get in. Raghu positions himself right behind the couple and while they were busy trying to get in, he slit the lower portion of the bag. A small pouch fell down. He picked up the pouch and instead of going into the temple he got out.
“Raghu, what are you doing in the temple?” said Unni, a tailor, whose shop was right outside the temple.
“Why? Am I not allowed to enter the temple?” Raghu said. He held one end of his dhoti is such a way that the pouch in his hand was hidden from view.
“I was joking. Off course everyone is welcome here. This is God’s house. Who am I to restrict entry here.”
He laughed and Raghu joined him.
At a distance from the temple, Raghu reached a desolate road. Ensuring that there was indeed no one around Raghu took out the pouch. As he opened it he almost let out a shout of joy. Out tumbled a thick gold necklace, a couple of gold bangles and a gold ring with some colored stone embedded on it. Raghu was no expert in evaluating gold, yet he knew that what he had in his hand would be worth a lakh in rupees. This was the biggest hit he had ever made.
For a brief moment, he felt bad for the couple from whom he had stolen.
“They looked wealthy. They can easily buy more jewels,” he said and consoled himself.
Raghu had a few ‘friends’ in the village who helped him dispose of his ill gained riches. For this situation he knew just the right person – a jeweler. Since everyone in the village knew him it was not possible for him to go in through the main door. He used a back door to enter the shop.
“This will be worth at least one and a half lakh if sold legally,” said Sarath, a jeweler and Raghu’s friend.
Sarath knew it was a gamble dealing in stolen gold. It was the heavy bargain that he made on each deal that made him do it.
“I need seventy-five thousand rupees,” said Raghu.
“Ten thousand.” said Sarath.
“Nonsense! Sixty-five,” said Raghu.
“Twenty” said Sarath.
Finally, they agreed on forty thousand.
Sarath took the gold inside and came out with the cash.
“Now disappear before someone sees you. “said Sarath.
That evening Raghu was in a country liquor bar. He had to celebrate. It was the biggest hit of his career and he wanted to enjoy his success. He was not a drunkard and he never exceed his limit of two pegs. A middle-aged man came and sat down next to him. The man had previously been sitting at the other corner of the room. He had been to the loo and after coming out forgot where he sat previously! The waiter brought the man’s glass over.
“You know this money is for my daughter’s fees” said the man without an introduction.
“My wife asked me to deposit the money at my daughter’s school,” he said and laughed, “I say what use is it to teach girls? One day she will get married and for the rest of her life she will wash dishes.”
“You are that truck driver joseph’s son, aren’t you?” said Raghu.
“The truck driver died years ago. I am still alive,” said the man.
“What class is your daughter in?” said Raghu.
“Seventh or eighth standard. She is a student in the Little Flower convent.” said the man, “They will throw her out of school if they fees are not paid. That will be the best result for all of us. Why waste money studying in a costly school? I told my wife the government school for girls is good enough. There she can learn for free. Again, why even go there? What is the use…”
Raghu did not answer. He finished his glass and walked out of the bar. That night he could not sleep.
“I do not need all that money. The fees are just a small amount. It would not make a difference to me. I would still have a lot remaining.” He thought as he tossed and turned in bed.
Early next morning he went to his old orphanage.
“I want to meet Sister Stella,” he said.
“Wait here,” said a sister, “and don’t take anything from here.”
“As if there is anything worth taking in this place” said Raghu.
“What did you say?” said the sister.
“Nothing. I just said that I wanted to meet Sister Stella.”
“Raghu! what brings you back to the orphanage son?”
Sister Stella loved all the children in the orphanage equally. It did not matter to her that Raghu was a thief now. For her he was someone who could be reformed through love.
“Sister! I need your help. Do you know anyone in the Little Flower school?”
“Little Flower? Yes, the principal there was one of my students.”
“That is great Sister. This is what I need you to do for me….”
Coming out of the Orphanage, Raghu walked to the bus stop. It was time for the tourist buses to arrive. At a distance he spotted something which made him stop. It was a police jeep. Police Inspector Gopalan was standing near Unni’s shop. Raghu could see Unni talking to Gopalan and vigorously shaking his head. Raghu slid away from there.
Raghu realized he had to keep low for some time. He had to keep low and at the same time keep out of Gopalan’s radar. He walked towards the river bank. He must have hardly waked a few steps when he heard someone shout in pain behind him. He turned and saw an old man had slipped on the road behind him. Raghu ran over to help.
“Can you get up, sir!” said Raghu.
“I think I broke my leg.” said the old man.
The old man was wearing a saffron colored dhoti and had a shawl of the same color covering his upper body. A string of rudraksha beads were hung around his neck
“Can you move you toes?” said Raghu.
The old man tried and cried in pain.
“Let me get you to a hospital.”
Raghu saw a taxi at a distance. He knew the driver. He had repaired the taxi once when he worked at the garage. He hailed the taxi and together they carried the old man to village clinic.
“It is not broken. You have twisted your ankle. There is nothing to worry. I will write you some pain-killers but it will heal with some rest.” said the Doctor, “Did you come to visit the temple?”
“Visit? Yes, I came here for a week. I am staying at my son’s house. My son works here,”
Raghu settled the old man’s bills at the counter and left. Earlier he had paid the car driver the fare as well. It was good to have money in your pockets. It was bad that it was running out fast. Raghu checked his pockets. He still had about thirty thousand left with him.
“Enough good deeds for the day,” he said to himself.
He began planning what he would do with the remaining. He could do with some new clothes. Nothing fancy, just a new set of shirts, trousers and a pair of dhotis. That would cost about two thousand rupees.
He was planning on what colors he would buy when he felt a firm hand land on his shoulders.
“You thought you would escape and make us look like?” Inspector Gopalan along with two of his constables caught hold of Raghu.
Before he could say anything in his defense he was bundled into a jeep and rushed to the police station. There the remaining thirty thousand came out of his pockets and then there was not much to say.
By evening the news of Raghu’s arrest had spread in the village. People were discussing it everywhere. Inspector Gopalan was gloating in his office. He had heard about a thief in the village. There were doubts about Raghu but there was no evidence. Now he had the man in his grasp. He began writing out his report when one of the constables came into the room and saluted him.
“Sir! There is a Sister from the orphanage here to meet you.”
“Send her in,” said Inspector Gopalan.
Sister Stella came in. She smiled and for a moment even Inspector Gopalan smiled back.
“Please sit-down Sister. How can I help you?” he said.
“Inspector. I heard you have a man in your custody.”
“There are a lot of men in custody. Who are you referring to Sister?”
“Raghavendran Nair, you may know him as Raghu,” said Sister Stella.
Gopalan stiffened. The smile disappeared and he began twirling his moustache.
“Sister he is a thief. I caught him red handed with a lot of money. Thirty thousand rupees to be exact. Why are you trying to protect him?”
“That is my money. I gave him the money to start some business.”
Gopalan almost fell out of his chair.
“What do you mean you gave him the money? Where did you get that money from?”
“That is the church’s fund. We have a fund to help our children set up business ventures of their own. He grew up in our orphanage.”
“I don’t believe you Sister.”
“Ok then you will believe what this woman has to say,” said Sister Stella and turned her head and called out, “Janamma can you come in.”
A middle-aged woman came into the Inspector’s office.
“Janamma can you tell the Inspector what you told me.”
“Sir, Raghu used two thousand rupees from the money the sister gave him to pay off my daughter’s school fees. This is a fee receipt from the school.”
Janamma placed a receipt for two thousand rupees from the Little Flower Children’s School on the Inspector’s desk.
“Perhaps you would believe this man then,” said Sister Stella and two more men came in. One old man and the other a young man supporting him.
“I slipped and fell on the street and Raghu took me to the hospital. He took me there in a taxi. There he paid the bills and cleared all my dues. This man helping me was the taxi driver.”
The taxi driver nodded his head, “Yes sir! Raghu paid me the money for the taxi.”
“Why should I believe all of you?” said Gopalan.
He was getting irritated by this parade of Raghu’s supporters.
“If you wait for five minutes you should get a phone and then maybe you would believe us,” said the old man.
“I do not understand. Why would I get a phone call?” said Gopalan.
He wanted to say something more when the phone on his desk started ringing. An angry Gopalan picked up the phone.
“Hello, Neyyarinkara Police Station,” he said gruffly.
Then a transformation happened as he listened to the voice on the other end.
“Yes Sir! said Gopalan, “Yes Sir! Right Sir. Yes Sir” he kept on repeating.
“4723,” Gopalan shouted.
Inspectors had a habit of addressing constables by their serial number. The constable came running and saluted Gopalan.
“Set Raghu free.” said Gopalan.
The constable was surprised.
“Sir! what about the report we are drafting for him?”
“Just listen to what I say. Throw that report in the dustbin. Set Raghu free.”
“Inspector, can I have the money back. The money you got from Raghu. That is the orphanage’s money,” said Stella.
As Sister Stella, Janamma, the old man and the taxi driver came out of the police station, a surprised Raghu followed them.
“I do not understand how this happened. Sir how did you know that a call would come on the Inspectors desk?”
The old man laughed and said, “That was my son. I told him how you had carried me to the hospital and also paid for my treatment. He has asked me to thank you.”
“That was nothing. I just did my duty towards a fellow villager, but I still don’t understand why did the inspector listen to your son and let me go?
“Oh! my son is the deputy superintendent of police for the district. He is Gopalan’s boss. Gopalan has to listen to his boss.”
The old man laughed. He got into the taxi driver’s cab and they drove away.
Janamma thanked Raghu for paying her child’s fees and she went her way.
Only Sister Stella and Raghu remained.
“Sister, I do not know how this happened. He also handed back the money.”
“When you came to me and asked me to pay the child’s fees I had my doubts about the money. When you were arrested I became sure of what had happened. Doctor Krishnan at the medical center met me and told me how you had brought the old man there for treatment. We both knew he taxi driver, your friend. With the drivers help we contacted the old man who agreed to come and speak for you. Janamma was more than ready to come with us when I asked her. I was only trying to find people who could create an alibi for you. It was a coincidence that the old man’s son was a senior police officer. That was not something that I had planned. May be that was God playing a role in helping you.”
“Sister the money… I got it by selling the gold…” Raghu could not complete his sentence as Sister Stella interrupted him.
“My story did not end there. I may be living in a convent but I do know what happens in this tiny village. I know all about your friend Sarath the jeweler. He told me everything. I will give him back whatever money is remaining. The money you have already spent is my price to keep quiet. Sarath is ok with that. He has returned the gold ornaments back to the young couple. They are not filing any charges against you now, because they do not want to spend time in courts. Now let me come to you. What is the matter with you?”
Raghu stood with his eyes down cast. He could not look at Sister Stella.
“Son, you have a good heart, you help people who are in need. Why can you not do something good with your life. This time you were lucky God saved you. That might not be the case the next time. Now, I leave it up to you to decide what you want to do with your life.”
Sister Stella walked towards the orphanage leaving Raghu standing there. It was getting dark. He looked down the road. On one end of the road was the bus stop where the tourist buses came every morning. In the opposite direction it led to the orphanage. He thought for a moment and then started walking towards the orphanage. He was going to meet Sister Stella. He knew what he was going to do. He was going to teach the children at the orphanage how to repair machines.
Along with the broken machines he decided he would repair and rebuild his own life.