Was checking out Atanu Dey's blog and came upon this, and a four-year-old memory just came back to me.
I was walking down a narrow pavement, from Lower Parel station to the Mid-day office, manouvering between shoppers, shopkeepers, commuters rushing to catch the evening locals, hangers-on, fisherwomen... and there was this crowd blocking my way - about fifty people gathered round something I couldn't see, their backs turned to the street.
I almost crossed the road to bypass the crowd... almost. But I didn't. I stopped. (I still haven't figured out why, because I am not in the habit of checking out mini-mobs on already mobbed streets). When I finally elbowed my way into the centre of the circle, I found that a little girl of about seven was being slapped out of her senses by two grown men.
She was crying - howling and screaming, really - but I couldn't hear her screams because this mini-mob was collectively louder - the buzz of whispers was deafening as it egged on the men - 'teach her a lesson'.
Somehow, I have no recollection of the next few seconds. there's a memory lapse after which I remember being on my knees, holding the girl, and being stared at by half a dozen very surprised men.
One of them was talking to me. "You don't know these children... she's a thief. Don't go by her innocent looks."
Another spoke up, "They're trained to do this sort of thing."
I remember barking back, "What sort of thing?"
"She's a thief, I tell you."
"What did she steal?"
"An item from my gift shop.. I saw her."
I looked at the child. Her clothes were - or had been - torn almost off her body. Tears running down... she cowered and shrank away even from me, as if I was about to hit her next.
I asked her, "Did you take anything from this man's shop?"
She just howled louder and shook her head.
The men started their buzzing roar of whispers again. "She did... she did... I saw her."
One of the men reached out to drag the child away from me, and began to slap her again.
Again, there is a slight memory lapse; I have no idea what exactly happened, but this time I was standing and holding the girl very tightly by the wrist.
The men were angry with me now. "You leave this to us, madam... we will sort this out."
"By beating her?"
"She deserves it... she's a thief."
"So what if she is? She is a little child."
"Madam, this is not your business... You have no right."
"You have no right either... this is not your daughter, for you to teach lessons to. Save your beatings for your own children."
"Madam, get out of the way. We don't want thieves around here..."
"Alright then, why don't you call the police?"
"What? The police?"
"Yes, call the police. I will hand over this girl to the police."
The men exchanged glances. Frm somewhere in the back of the mob, I heard a small voice, "It wasn't worth that much... you'll have to give mor to the police to register a case."
"Isn't worth that much? But it is worth enough beating the life out of this girl? Or were you just having fun doing it?"
Finally, one by one, the crowd dispersed. There was just the girl. And me. In a sudden silence.
The girl was still crying and I was still holding onto her wrist.
For a long time, I did not know what to say. Finally, I asked her, "Did you take anything?"
She shook her head.
I tried again, "I'm not going to call the police. But did you steal?"
This time, she just kept crying quietly, neither admitting it, nor denying it.
"Do you have somebody here, in Bombay?"
"Yes, my father."
"Do you know the way home?"
She was beginning to strain away, but I was still holding on firmly. I considered my options, briefly - calling the police, calling some NGO, calling the government shelter for homeless kids, calling a helpline, calling my office...
Then, I gave her a cursory one-line lecture - 'Don't do it agin, ok?' - and I let go of her wrist.
But I knew she would do it again. Even at the risk of her life.
It can't be easy, stealing for a living, when mini-mobs begin to thrash you... It can't be easy. But she'd do it again.
I don't recall feeling particularly brave. In fact, I felt guilty - as if I had been responsible for getting the child into that horrible situation. As if, in some collective sense, it was my fault as much as anyone else's. As if we were responsible for this one, and all others like her. I had only just salvaged my pride, by stepping in when I did.
I also remember thinking, "Perhaps she should go to an NGO... but I remember pinching colourful pencils when I was five. I didn't get beaten up... Mom just collected all the pencils in my bag which she didn't recognize and gave them back to my class-teacher... I didn't need to steal, but I did. And I didn't go to a juvenile home. I didn't get arrested. I was not taken to a shrink. I wasn't handed over to an NGO.... I was five. She is seven now, eight maybe... maybe all children steal. Maybe..."
I had convinced myself that the girl deserved to stay at home, with her family, and if she needed to steal to stay alive, well then - so be it!
But after all this time, I'm wondering... whatever happened to that little girl?