A branded full-sleeved shirt delicately tugged inside the denim black trousers; a matching, glittering leather waist belt; polished shoe; a thin spectacle frame, expensive wrist watch, and an impressive laptop bag slinging down his right shoulder: precisely the attire of Rohit every time he boards the air-conditioned bus during the peak hours: office timings – in between nine o’clock to half past ten, morning.
He can easily dupe anyone into believing that he was another corporate employee on his daily march to office- but he was a pickpocket. His fair, tall and sharp-looking features further accentuated the impression that he wanted to deceive the on-lookers with.
His modus operandi: board the costlier air-conditioned buses ( not the conventional ones) where he could find gullible prey in abundance and much deeper pockets to dig. The office hours are his most preferred time of operation, because the buses are usually crowded and not a single seat is vacant for occupation, with a sizeable crowd standing and clutching to whatever support they could hold on to. And he unmistakably always give the impression that he is one of them- a corporate employee in a hurry to reach office, or an imperative meeting to attend. On rare occasions, even if any seat was free to be occupied, Rohit would still stand near the door of the bus- the ideal place for his master-stroke, to be executed just at the time the passenger is about to dismount. By the time the victim realized that his pocket had been picked, the bus would have already left.
But that day was the fourteenth day in the month of February- his birthday. Rohit told himself-
“Birthday must be off day- no business today!”
“Be helpful to somebody today” – another pledge he keeps every birthday.
He had a faint awareness that the same day of the year is celebrated as Valentine’s Day –the day of the year, he presumed, when lovers spend time in mutual company, exchange gifts- professing love for their beloved. But he was convinced that such an occasion was not meant for him.
He boarded the bus as on every birthday he visited the Shiva temple; his monthly bus-pass always comes in hand. But the route was the one he last traveled more than a month ago: he never frequented a particular route lest his face should become familiar with the on-boarders.
Despite all the precautions and tribulations that he took to elude being caught, he was trapped ‘in the act’ when initially into the trade – thrashed mercilessly, and even ended up being in police lock-up to be released in a day or two. Experience, however, turned him into an ‘accomplished hand’ and ensured he evaded detection and even failure- almost always.
And on that day he looked for a relatively less-crowded bus, entered it, and quite uncharacteristically, seated himself comfortably in an unoccupied seat by the window: relaxed. A few minutes after the bus left from the stop from where he had boarded, a ruffled young lady, boarded the bus and hurriedly placed herself in the aisle seat next to Rohit. The lady seemed to be too occupied in her thoughts and hardly anything around seemed to bother her other than an occasional furtive glance hither and thither-and then again she seemed to be occupied in her thoughts and exploring her cell phone.
A few minutes had elapsed and the conductor came asking for ticket. She had not bought the ticket yet and apparently searched her carry-bag, and eventually a glum and despair descended on her face.
“I forgot my money-purse!” she exclaimed in desperation.
The bus-conductor did not seem amused-he took her agonized outburst with a pinch of salt.
“Please dismount madam….I come across passengers, every now and then, who claim to have forgotten their wallet at home,” the conductor’s face had insolence written all over as he uttered those words.
The initial despair on her face, as Rohit noticed, soon gave away to embarrassment. The nearby passengers looking at her-few with suspect and few with sympathy- did not help the precarious situation that she found herself in. She remorsefully got up from her seat and proceeded towards the exit door as the conductor whistled the bus driver to stop abruptly.
Rohit, who had been a keen spectator of the events unfolding, spoke out as if in an impulse-
“Will you mind if I pay for your fare?”- Rohit had the so-called ‘gift of the gab’, but this poured right from his heart.
“She must be the one I am intended to help today: Godsend,” he told himself.
The lady, who seemed to be least conscious about Rohit’s presence, suddenly turned around just as she was about to alight the bus.
Rohit confirmed her with an assuaging smile (He meticulously picked up the manners of the so-called gentlemen as that helps him in keeping his ignoble way of making a living under the wraps, besides helping him in his profession)
With the conductor making hurried gestures to the lady to get down after the bus had stopped, she, as if in daze, accepted the offer. Pointing her finger towards Rohit, she asked the conductor to collect the fare from him.
Rohit kept his words. Thanking him profusely, the lady again placed herself in the previously vacated seat next to Rohit.
Having the belief that his heart was in the right place, Rohit started the conversation-
“Going to your office?”
“Yes, “-the lady acknowledged with a meek smile-apparently the sense of humiliation seemed to hover over her.
“Where do you work? What is your name?” – He added in the same breathe.
“Srishti,” she smiled,” I work for an IT MNC as a Software Engineer.”
“And you?”-she asked almost immediately.
“I am into the Sales of my organization….” – Rohit retorted quickly: he deliberately ‘picked’ up a different work profile so that he doesn’t face uncomfortable questions regarding job which might land him in tight situation; his brain works lightning fast on such occasions.
“And I am Rahul,”- the name that occurred to him at that instant.
Gradually they got into conversation. They unearthed every topic they thought could have been of mutual interest for their discussion: the menacing traffic, the weather, movies, music and even shared occasional jokes or two.
The slow moving, and sometimes stagnant, traffic ensured that they had a reasonable time together. Rohit was never in a hurry, and now the lady also seemed to be at peace.
Their eyes occasionally met and every time that happened Rohit lost himself in her.
Rohit never took notice of the fairer sex before as they were not his prospective ‘victims’ either in bus or on road-he was not a bag snatcher after all.
“I missed out on better things in life in pursuit of pockets…. bigger pockets,” he rued.
But he loved the experience of talking with her; he could not recollect the last time he had such a conversation which brought about the gentle, innocent, blissful aspect of him; and he wished that it goes on and on….he was not rude fellow but life, it seemed, was tough on him. The lady, who just a few minutes ago, seemed utterly oblivious of him, barely looked at him, is talking to him now as if they have known one another for long: the power of a helping hand…of listening to one’s heart- he had hardly experienced that before!
A sudden vibration of the cell phone in the lady’s bag came in as an interlude. She hurriedly reached out for her mobile handset and picking up the call, spoke in a very hush-hush tone: hardly audible to Rohit.
But as the call kept on extending, with each passing moment, a gloom gradually descended on his face. Rohit was not sure why- he had never experienced similar emotion before. And when eventually the lady got over with the call, he exuded a sigh of relief.
“So what are you doing today? It’s Valentine Day, right…” the lady recommenced after a brief pause, smiling.
“Hmm..,” he did not actually know what to say.
“Are you married?” she continued.
“You have someone special in your life?” –she asked quarrying further.
“Well…ha…yes.., I mean,” he muttered undecidedly.
“What is her name?” asked the lady suddenly getting excited.
Just as he kept mumbling, Srishti herself came to his rescue-
“I guess I am getting too far, it is only our first meeting after all,” she added with a semblance of regret.
Rohit managed a smile.
Soon the bus was about to reach the stop where Rohit was planning to get down. Because near the stop was the Shiva temple and on every birthday Rohit bows down his head in front of the Lord seeking redemption for all his misdeeds, particularly for all the pockets that he had picked.
He wanted to ask the lady her cell number; he wanted to talk with her- talk with her every day. But he held himself back- how could he forget that his way of earning forbade him to nurture healthy relationship?
“I need to alight at the next stop; my office is near the bus stop,” he said rather sadly.
He picked himself up from his seat, and on reaching the exit he looked back: his beautiful companion was smiling at him waving him goodbye.
He returned that with a smile of acknowledgement.
And if he ever despised his way of making a living it was at that very moment …for he knew he would rather not keep in touch. And the thought of not being able to lead a decent life and maintain a dignified friendship tormented him for the first time.
Dismounting the bus, Rohit confronted those tinges of feelings which were hitherto unknown to him and the thoughts seemed extremely pleasant. He was smilingly effortlessly. He never wanted to get out of it-if he can remain there for eternity, he thought. The hullabaloo of the busy street hardly pestered him.
Soon he reached the temple. Bowing on his knees in front of the Lord , he remembered that it is time to bring out the one rupee coin and deposit it at the feet of the Lord: the price that he pays to enable Shiva grant him salvation. Digging his hand inside his back-pocket he could not feel his wallet…it was empty!
He might have cleaned so many pockets, but this was the first time that he found his own pocket empty.
“Had I not brought my wallet…no how that can be…I paid for the lady’s bus fare, I displayed my own bus-pass,”- his first thoughts.
“Did I lose it on my way from the bus to the temple? No, it can’t be …”
Scratching his head, and rewinding the events since he ascended the bus, he was soon open mouthed in disbelief: he recollected how the lady had bent forward to fix her shoes (so she pretended) while he was passing across her seat.
“I had applied the same tactics myself, so many times! She must have picked my pocket on her way up; how can I mistake it.”
And then he realized that as the lady had unzipped her carry bag to get hold of the ringing cell phone, there were notes- tens, hundreds. He happened to see it by the corner of his eyes.
“How it did not make me suspicious?”
“And just like I am not Rahul…she can’t be Srishti”
Bewildered, he looked straight at the Lord Shiva’s face- it was calm as ever: in deep meditation. And suddenly he felt calm inside- for he was convinced that the Lord has granted him salvation: for all the pockets that he had picked, his pocket was picked once.
Lord has chosen his day so well, he thought, “on my birthday!”
“It was a pleasant Valentine’s day also…” he blushed, muttering to himself.
“Only that my pocket got picked,” he told himself.