Bapu was slow for a bhantu

Bapu was slow for a bhantu. While he learned the business, my grandmother tried to make up the shortfall caused by Dada’s retirement. Dadi had been trained by her father but Dada had not permitted her to work until now. Wearing a new skirt and dupatta, she walked about the bajar in Moradabad. She brushed up against men—when you are older, you will learn that men do not mind this—and pulled out coins from secret pouches sewn into their dhotis. Dada later told me he was ashamed to let Dadi press her body up against men. ‘We are bhantus, not berias, who let their women do immoral things with men they wish to rob!’ Dadi herself did not mind; she would have preferred to steal from women, but women hide their coins deep inside their blouses, where a hand cannot reach. Also, a woman never has more than five or six annas. Whenever Dada raised the matter she silenced him by saying, ‘My youth has already been given to you, and we have a son of fourteen to show for it. These men get no more than an old hag of thirtyone or thirty-two, and receive their punishment when they are about to buy a necklace for their wives and find their money gone.’

Sometimes Dada and Dadi would work together. He would finger a gold bangle at a shop counter and begin to quarrel with the shopkeeper about the price. While the two were busy, Dadi would lean over the display case and  slip a few trinkets into her bodice. They got by like this while Bapu learned the trade. But where Dada had dug up hundreds of rupees from kitchen floors,
Dadi managed to steal a rupee or two. And there was the constant fear of the police, who could catch a bhantu even before he had stolen anything and lock him up in the mustard field.

Dada never told me anything about Bapu’s training. Whenever I asked, he would sigh and say, ‘Your bapu was a bhantu by birth but a habura by nature.’ Even at fourteen, Bapu did not have the courage to slip his hand into a man’s pocket. Dada decided to get him a bride, hoping the woman would put some spine in his back, and perhaps provide an additional hand. But which girl would marry a man who had stolen nothing, robbed no one and could not pay her price? The rate was more than two hundred rupees by then. So Dada resolved to come out of retirement to help Bapu do his first job. It had to be big, so Bapu could get a proper bride. Dada set his sights on the superintendent of police in Moradabad. No panchayat would question the courage of a bhantu who had robbed an English sahib.


At dusk one day, Dada walked to the SP’s bungalow and hid behind a hedge under the window. He had never stolen from a sahib, so he wanted to watch the house for one evening before having Bapu do the job. The SP, still in his police uniform, was seated at a large table with his wife. His khansama, who had come out of the kitchen carrying plates, slipped and fell, sending everything crashing to the floor. He and the khidmatgar began to clean up. The memsahib scolded them, then lashed out at the mashalchi for not keeping the kitchen floor clean. Dada had not known there would be so many men attending to the SP at his dinner. Perhaps they all lived in the sahib’s bungalow, which would make it impossible to enter the rooms without waking someone. Could they be brought over to his side if promised a share of the loot? Then Dada heard someone singing in the garden. The sahib’s mali was watering the rose bushes, advancing in his direction. Dada sprang out of the hedge and ran, reminding himself of his old pledge not to stalk nawabs and kings, and adding sahibs to the list.

Dada now settled on the sub-inspector in Bijnor, who was only a brahmin. It was the night of amavasya; there was no moon. On such dark nights Dada used a powder of cardamom, black pepper, camphor and a secret ingredient that I swore on Kali Ma never to name. If you go to the panchayat in Moradabad and tell them you are Sultana’s son, they will give you a packet of this powder, and you must hand over what remains of it to your son. Dada ground the mixture, added water and rubbed the paste round his eyes. Using this surma he could see clearly even in pitch darkness. At midnight, he shook Bapu awake and told him, ‘The passenger train to Bijnor is three hours late. We can catch it if we hurry. Slip your knife into your dhoti.’ He had to take Bapu along so the robbery could be added to Bapu’s account. As soon as the train left Moradabad station, Bapu began to shiver.

Dada ordered him to pluck up courage, but he complained that the night was cold. Furious, Dada let Bapu jump off at the first stop and return home, so it was he alone who stole into the sub-inspector’s house in Bijnor. A bhantu does not cover his face when entering a house—we would be no better than haburas if we did—but Dada needed everyone to think this was Bapu’s job, so he tied his turban around his face. No longer able to tackle walls, he found a gate in the back and picked the lock. He could walk as softly as a cat, and it was not until he was sitting on the bed with his knife grazing the sub-inspector’s chin that the man opened his eyes. He tried to sit