Guna was eating alone a bun for lunch outside his class when Mano, his school mate one class senior, sat by his side.
“Guna, you seem to eat almost daily only bun or puffed rice. Doesn’t your mom give you idly, dosa or some rice item?” he asked with a friendly concern. Guna kept silent with his head bowed down.
“Hey, aren’t you hearing me?”he asked a little testily
“I heard you. We are poor and make food only in the night.Even this, mom gives with much difficulty,” replied Guna.
“Would you then like to make some easy money? I do and my purse is always filled with money”
“Do you work anywhere after the school hours? How do you make?”asked Guna innocently
“I work only for two hours after school in the evenings and the income is handsome. I can take you to my master. He will train you and take care of you. You can carry home daily a tidy sum. You can then have idly and dosa made by your mom. My master needs young boys like you,”Mano spoke in a tempting manner.
“Will the evening work be strenuous?”asked Guna
“Not at all. It will be exciting involving no physical strain. I see you run fast. That will help occasionally. You will get good dress and not appear poor as you are in your tattered clothes. Come with me this evening” encouraged Mano
Guna was fantasizing in the class totally oblivious to the presence of teacher about the happiness in her mom’s face if he were to give her money daily. His young mind could not comprehend how one can make money without work when his dad puts in hard labour.
Mano took him to an abandoned shed a few streets away. There were about a dozen boys of his age seated on the ground before the master who sat on a plastic drum. Guna did not like the look of him in a lungi and a tight fitting red T shirt with a black scarf around his neck. He had a thick bracelet on his right hand. When the master turned to look at Mano and Guna entering the shed, Guna found his face scarred. The man evoked more fear and dislike than respect when he smiled displaying his pan stained teeth.
“Is this the boy you were mentioning yesterday, Mano? What is his name? Has he agreed?” the master asked
“Guna, Sir. He comes from a very poor family. I think he will agree if master explains to him there is no risk involved and after training he will be fine”
“Guna, come near me” called master. The boy went near him with some trepidation. The master stroked the boy with warmth and asked “You look hungry. Have you eaten anything?”
He took a 500 rupee note from his underwear and asked one of the boys to get dozen packets of biriyani.After the boy left, the master asked him to show his hands. He examined the fingers and threw a cigarette packet on the ground asking Guna to pick it up with two fingers as fast as he can. When Guna accomplished it easily, he put an old purse that slightly protruded in the hip pocket of another boy and asked Guna to lift it in the wink of an eye. Guna initially fumbled and did it successfully only the third time. The master repeated the test with various objects. The nimbleness with which Guna lifted after a few trials elicited a sabash from the master.
“Practice for three or four days before you accompany others. I will teach you how to divert attention, the use of blade to remove buttons from the pocket and also make a tear on the pant without anyone being the wiser. In a fortnight you will become very adept. Keep a smiling and never an agitated look”
All of them ate biriyani with gusto and the boys went out leaving Guna behind with master. Master gave him 100 rupees and said” You will earn daily much more. Do not be afraid. I have contacts. No harm will come to you from the conductors and drivers as I know most of them. Whatever you lift, quickly pass it on to one of the four who would accompany you. Never hold it in your hand if there is slightest commotion. If you cannot pass, just drop it a little away from where you stand. Will you do it?”
“I am afraid I may get caught. If my amma or appa comes to know of it, they will kill me” Guna said
“The fear will go in a week. Tell amma you are helping in book binding shop, pasting stickers and in dispatching pamphlets, etc. Do not tell the truth. If you do not like the job, I will allow you to leave” he said in gentle manner caressing his hair.
When Guna gave his mother the hundred rupees telling her the work he did in a book binding shop, she hugged him in great joy and pride and told him “Do not ever tell daddy. If he knows, he will take this money too for alcohol. Do not neglect studies because of this work”
Guna could not sleep that night and he knew it was wrong and that he may be caught one day however careful he were to be. But the poverty in the house and sadness on his mother’s face blinded him to the criminality of the act.
Even as he was being trained, he found the other boys returning happily with the day’scollections.The purses and bags were put in a basket kept centrally. The boys thereafter picked at random the purses one by one and emptied the contents in the presence of master. The collections were kept aside. The purses were thrown away and not allowed to be retained. Depending on the day’s collection the master paid the boys some amount equally before they left for homes. Some festival days and holidays fetched them much more.
That was to be his first day after the initiation. Seeing him sweating profusely the master put his arm around him before telling “Be natural and calm and do not attract attention. Being the first day, you can return after you get one purse. Good luck.”
The bus that .Guna with three others boarded was overcrowded. With sharp eyes the boys were looking for potential victims.Guna luckily was behind an old man with thick glasses and a dangling hearing aid.Unluckily for the old man, he had not pushed his thick wallet deep into his hip pocket. It was protruding making it a light work for Guna. As he could not see the other boys, Guna got down in the next stop and walked back to the shed. There was no one and by 7pm all the boys were back.
Master on entering asked, “Guna, any luck on the first day?” The boy produced the thick wallet. Looking at the stuffed notes of Rs 500 denomination, master let out a shriek of joy and said “Though short in height and small in build, you are big in luck and skill.”
With all purses in the basket, the boys picked one at random. With excitement running high, Guna picked one. When he opened it to remove the contents, he got the shock of his life when he saw a faded picture of a couple. On a closer look, it was his daddy and mom. Someone of the boys had relieved his dad of his purse with his meager earnings after a day’s back breaking work. Tears swelled from his eyes at the thought that only the poor and not the well to do travel by public buses and these thefts hurt them most.
He decided then and there what he should do but remembered what Mano had confided once that despite master’s initial assurance, he never let go the rebels alive. He ensured their permanent silence for his safety. But this did not deter Guna.
“Guna”, he heard the master calling and telling “You have done a great job. It was a big kill on day one. I have given everyone Rs300 but give you Rs 500 being the first day and in appreciation. “
He saw the tears in the boy’s eyes and said “Why are you crying? Happy at being successful, is it?”
Guna contrived a faint smile. He did not walk back to his home but trudged his way to the railway station to go to an unknown big city to work his way up honestly. The thought of his mom waiting for him hurt him but did not deter him from his determination. He will make her happy one day, he thought.