STRANGE THIEF

Chapter 1

This is also one of those stories that my uncle told us one stormy night when we plunged into our blankets, and sit close to each other for two reasons. The kitchen portion where we used to sit after the dinner had roof made of tin, which became hot during the day, especially in summer, and cold during the winter. However, the monsoon rain kept the temperature so low at times that we couldn't sleep without blankets. So that was one reason for sitting close to each other. The other reason was that some of the horrors stories of witchcrafts, and spirits.

Most children listened to the tails told by their grandmas or some other elderly ladies, but strangely enough, we used to listen to stories told mostly by our uncle. My mother had only one brother, and since he lived next door to us, most of time he with his whole family would sit with us after dinner and either about various matters arising from daily life, or when we forced him, he would tell stories. However, most of his stories were true stories.

So the story goes, there was a thief, who used to visit different restaurants for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and if necessary, for the afternoon tea. The whole day, he would wander in a good locality, not necessarily a rich locality, but which he would guess a good place for his stealing project, and he was very good at it because he would spend hours sometimes just watching how much money a particular restaurant is making. He would occupy a suitable place and order tea or a meal depending on the time of his visit, and carefully watch the type of people coming to eat or drink in the restaurant. He would even take a newspaper and pretend reading, but he would stealthily throw a casual glance at the man sitting at the cash counter to assess his business.

Those who live in Mumbai may have a fair idea about small restaurants. Those days, most of these restaurants were run by Iranis, Chilyas, and Malabaris. They looked tidy and posh from the front, but deep inside beyond the kitchen, they looked like a junkyard. The supplies whether edibles or drinks, were supplied in cardboard or hardboard cartons, and some stuffs were supplied in plywood cartons. These cartons were stored right at the back of the kitchen, and that area even during the day used to be dark, where one couldn’t even walk without a light. These restaurants would open early in the morning, some at 5:30 in the morning during the summer, and close late at night around 11:30 to 12 midnight. Before they close, the cleaning boy would sweep and clean the floor, and with the help of waiters they would stack the chairs on one top of the other, and sometimes put on the tables or in a corner.

These were middle class restaurants, and they used to hire one or two waiters, depending on the size of the restaurant and business. Every such restaurant would hire two to three “Baaharwalas,” i.e. outside-waiters who took orders for tea etc. from shops nearby the restaurant and serve them in their shops. They were hired on temporary basis and worked on commissions. In the morning each of these waiters would be given counters for 10 rupees or 20 rupees at a time. They would pay the owner of the restaurant by these counters when taking tea etc. for the customers. At the end of the day, the left over counters would be surrendered to the owner of the restaurants in exchange with cash. These outside-waiters were so expert that they could carry in their hands about a dozen teacups with saucers; and walk up to 100 yards to supply tea to the outside customers, and the service was very efficient.

Normally, the owner would close his cash and put the money in his safe in the restaurant. In those days, they would not carry cash home to deposit in the bank. Â In fact, most of them kept the money in the safe, whether at home or the shop where they did business. Very few people would keep their money in the banks. This would also facilitate them in saving income tax. Besides, they would not carry the money home to save themselves from pickpockets. For them their restaurants were safer than their homes.

In Indo-Pak subcontinent, newspapers, broken and worn-out crockeries, any household articles or articles of personal use, old umbrellas, even the empty bottles whether small or big can be sold to junk dealers. So, not only money, but also anything that thieves can lay their hands on, will disappear swiftly and the next day you can see them in the market called “Chore Bazar” the thieves’ market. This thief, however, was very different from others. He would pick up only valuable items of reasonable size. He would spend hours and sometimes days to pick his target restaurant. He would watch during the day all the places in the restaurant where one could hide himself, making note of every details, the time of opening, the time of closing, and the number of people working, and the convenient places to slip in or out between the cabinets used for storing bakery products, and small swinging-doors. My uncle used to say that when a thief enters a place, he makes sure that he has an easy way out.

 At the time of closing, mostly in the late night especially when a restaurant was located in the vicinity where there were lots of cinemas — Mumbai was full of cinemas even when we were quite young — he would enter and sit in a place which he had already chosen during the day making his plan. He would then look for an opportunity to slip into the kitchen, and rush to the place at the back of the kitchen that was used for dumping cartons and boxes. There he would lie down quietly until the restaurant was closed.

One day, he chose his restaurant and first went early in the morning to have breakfast, although he spent almost a full week visiting this restaurant on and off to collection information useful to him which he did a week before. As usual he ordered mince and bread. In Mumbai, most people love to have “Qeema” and “Burun” i.e., mince and a white bread round in shape with a crispy crust and soft in side. This, like most people, was his favorite breakfast. I still like it. After he finished, he went to the washbasin which was very close to the kitchen. He walked into the kitchen and told the cook that the mince was delicious. He admired his cooking. He then gave his order to him directly for a cup of tea with cream on it. The cook was pleased with his remarks and immediately served him with tea. He stealthily took a quick glance inside and taking his cup of tea he returned to his table. He always chose his seat from where he could see most inner side of the restaurants where kitchens and storage area is located.

He had a good observation and imagination power, and could visualize a plan very well. After finishing his tea, he sat down and noted the number of customers coming in for about an hour and then left. He always constantly worked on his plans. He would go over and over again even after finalizing. That was the reason that he never failed or faced any problem while on his stealing mission. He spent his time visiting various shops and then entered a restaurant he did not visit before. It was 10:30 a.m. and it was his teatime. He ordered for a cup of tea, and just as he was about to go through the sketch of his plan for the night, he noticed that the kitchen area was too easily accessible without being noticed by the customers as well as the owner who was sitting on his cash counter that was located between the two doors for entering and exiting the restaurant. He noted down this restaurant in his diary as his next target. He memorized the kitchen area completely.

He returned to the previous restaurant which was his target for stealing mission that night, and had lunch there. As usual, he kept an eye on the number of customs as well as the employees. Â There were two waiters, and two in the kitchen inside; one for supplying tea and the other for the food. Again, he looked at his rough sketch and in his mind he visualized as to how he was going to slip from behind the cake and pastry cabinet on to the kitchen area when the two men stood inside the kitchen. There was a small and narrow passage between the wall where the washbasin was affixed and the kitchen counter itself. This passage led to the storage behind the kitchen. The only moment he could pass through the kitchen counter on to the passage was when both of them were busy with their faces towards the stove alongside the wall. This, he thought, could only be done at the peak time when people came to dine at early hours of the night. The best time was 8:30 pm, because 2nd show of the cinemas ended around that time, and others would also eat about that time. By 9 o’clock there would be quite a crowd and around 9:0 pm it would be peak hours for customers coming in and going out. He needed that time when there were lots of customers’ movement, because the owner and the waiters kept their eyes on the customers, and the two kitchen staff would be busy serving tea and food. Most people would ask for the tea immediately after they finished their meal, because they would be in a hurry to leave and catch the bus or the local train.

Everything happened exactly as he thought. When he came back at 8:30 that night for dinner, the restaurant was almost full. People were still coming in, and finding no place they waited near the kitchen and tea counter to grab a seat as soon as someone left. By 9:00 it became fully crowded. He was looking for an opportunity when he could slip through that narrow passage that he saw that morning. He stood up and went towards the basin to wash his hands. After washing he stood near the kitchen counter almost in the narrow passage. He saw someone occupying his seat, and that’s what he wanted. The waiter who was serving him asked him what he wanted. He told him that he finished his dinner and went to wash his hands, but someone took his seat; and he hasn’t finished yet because he wanted to drink tea. The waiter was very busy and turned to other persons waiting for seats. In the meantime, he told the waiter to fetch a tea for him and, like people do in a situation like that; he would drink the tea while standing. This was quite usual for people to stand near the counter and drink tea. As soon as the waiter turned to another customer, he looked at the two kitchen staffs busy with their work, facing towards the stove. Grabbing this opportunity, he swiftly walked pass the kitchen counter through the passage and headed straight to the storage area. In stores like that the light was always dim for the reason that they would not use high power bulb, and the bulb was covered with dust. He quickly walked behind one of the cartons, and sat down. For about five minutes he remained calm. Then he thought about a better place to hide. He moved a couple of cartons to make a place to lay down, and then moved some junks in front of those cartons so that no one would bother to come that side. He made sure from where he spread the junks to look at the place he made for himself to hide. After making sure that he would not be seen from there, he came to his hiding place and sat down until the time the restaurant closed. He had to wait for two hours when he heard one of the staff who came to pick up the broom. He thought to himself that the cleaning boy will start sweeping and cleaning the floor, and other staff will be preparing to close the restaurant now; and surely the owner had left. The light there was hardly enough to look at his watch, but he guessed it was about 12 midnight. He was tired and it was good for him to take a nap, because seventy percent of his job was completed.

He must have slept for two hours when he got up. It was dark all over; even the store light was also put off. He quietly stood up and sneakily crawled towards the passage and carefully peeped from behind one of the tables. The streetlights were slightly helpful to him in finding the cash counter and the safe. He opened his small bag in which he kept his tools to open locks. He was an expert in cracking safes. It was an ordinary safe which took two different types of keys to open. He struggled for forty minutes and finally opened the safe.

He was overjoyed when opened the safe. There were twelve hundred rupees in the safe. It appeared that the owner had not deposited his money since couple of days. Twelve hundred at time was considerably a large amount of money. He had never got that kind of money before. He put the money in his bag of tools, and securely chained to his waist belt. He then went near the entrance/exit door. He knew the exact place where to hide. There were two folding doors on each side. There were two pillars on each side of main door. Due to his experience, he waited near the left pillar, under the table behind the cabinet, because he knew that the right side of the door will open first and it then the left side of the door. The cash counter was near the right side of the door. The person who opened the door, pushed the right side of the door and tied it to the hook near the pillar; and then he went to open the left side of the door. He tied the door again to the hook near the left pillar. After tying the door securely, he went towards the cash counter and making sure that everything looked okay, he cleaned the area. The thief lifted his head and peeped to see where the mad had gone. He was cleaning the cash counter top and started dusting the lower inside portion of the counter. This was opportunity that he always used to look for. He swiftly came out from behind the cabinet and walked out of the main door, and walking effortlessly he went towards the other side of the restaurant. On the opposite side of the footpath, there was the bus stop. He crossed the road and stood in the queue for a bus.

When he reached home it was only 7 a.m. He took a heavy breakfast and a large cup of tea, and went to bed. When he woke up it was almost 3:30 in the afternoon. He took a shower and changed his clothes and came out for a walk. In a nearby small restaurant he ordered a lunch, and picked up the evening paper lying on the other table. The news was there in the headlines.

- END OF STORY.

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