Monday, March 31, 2008

See pocket, will pick

Former child pickpockets, rescued from a life on the streets, are slowly developing a moral sense, even as some miss the excitement of their former profession

By Shevlin Sebastian

“One day, my father was having a fight with a man,” says Anand Raju, 10. “The man hit my father with a rod and broke his leg. This happened in front of our house. I was watching and suddenly I noticed that his purse was sticking out of his pocket.”

Anand quickly stepped forward and deftly took the purse without the man knowing about it. “I felt immensely happy that I could immediately take revenge for my father’s beating,” he says. “But I also felt bad for my father.”

With the assailant’s money, Anand took his father to the hospital to get treatment. Unfortunately, the leg had suffered irreparable damage. Even today, his father walks with a limp.

Anand, from Ukkadam, Tamil Nadu, learnt how to be a pickpocket from his friend, Vadivelu. He would pick pockets near a cinema hall, K.G. Theatre, and showed Anand how to do it.

So does Anand remember his first victim? He nods and says, “He was a dark man, who was drunk and had come for the matinee show. As he walked, his purse rode up till it was near the entrance of the trouser pocket. “I was able to take it easily,” he says. Anand gave the money to his mother. When she asked him where he got the money, he said he had found it on the ground.

Anand has picked pockets outside buses, crowded market and cinema theatres. “The best place is at the cinema because there is a lot of rush,” he says. Most of the time, he says, men put their purses in the hip pocket. But there are some who prefer to put it in the front pocket of the trouser, but as they walk, sometimes, the purse rides up the thigh. “I am able to take it easily,” he says. “I did this for three years.”

Sure, his luck did run out. Once, at a bus stand, he had picked the purse of a passenger but was caught by a policeman. The policeman gave him a slap and returned the purse to the owner. An angry Anand, who was walking beside the policeman, noticed that his purse was sticking out of his rear pocket. Anand managed to take it off without him knowing. “It was one of the biggest thrills in my life,” he says, as he bursts out laughing, and claps his hands.

Anand’s uncle saw the path that he was on and knew it would inevitably lead to a life of crime. So, he told his parents about the Janaseva Sishubhavan at Aluva, Kerala and they decided to bring him here. At the Sishubhavan, Anand is talkative, lively and smiles all the time.

When asked whether he gets the urge to pick a pocket when he gets on a bus, he gives a goofy grin and says, “Yes. I used to enjoy that work.”

When Jose Mavely, 57, the founder-president of the Janaseva Sisubhavan, hears about this, he feels apologetic. “It takes some time for a boy to get rid of the tendency to rob,” he says. At the Sisubhavan, counsellors place an emphasis on studies, games and morality lessons of what is right or wrong. “Slowly, the boys develop a moral instinct,” says Mavely.

For M.D. Vishnu, 8, it was his mother who taught him to steal purses. “When people are in a rush trying to get into a bus, my mother would lift me up and I would open the bag which hung from the shoulders of the ladies, take out the purse and tuck it under my shirt,” he says. Then his mother would put him down and he would run away. Later, he would take the money and throw the purse away.

Sometimes, his elder brother, Arun or his younger sister, Kausalya, would steal the purse, give it to him and he would run away.

They would also operate on trains, usually in the afternoons, when people tended to drift off to sleep. “My brother and I would sit on either side of a male passenger,” he says.

When the man drifted off to sleep, Vishnu would take the purse and, behind the man’s back, he would pass it to his brother. Arun would empty the purse and give it back to Vishnu who would slip it back again into the hip pocket, so that the man did not suspect anything. Then they would go away. “If I did not do this, my parents would beat me,” he says.

Standing next to Vishnu is Raju Kottan, 7, who learned the tricks from his mother. He lived in Kalady in Kerala and used his fore and middle fingers to pick a pocket. But when he tries to take out counselor Bibin Jose’s purse, who is standing nearby, he is clumsy and takes a lot of time.

“It is a thick purse,” he says, with a sheepish smile. Raju’s enduring memory is of the police beating up his mother when she was caught stealing a purse. “It was very painful to see,” he says.

The youngest is Sathyavel Raju, 5. He says his father taught his elder sister, Sumathi, and him the trade. “I would pick pockets on buses,” he says. “When I did not get a purse, my father would get angry with me.”

Meanwhile, on the distaff side, Essekey Muthu, 10, from Tamil Nadu, learnt the trade from her parents. “Suppose a woman is traveling on a bus and she is holding the rod with one hand,” she says. “Usually, the bag will be hanging from her shoulders.” So, she would throw a dupatta over the bag and cut it open with the help of a blade and take out the purse. Sumathi, 8, and Parvathy Raman, 7, were taught the same method.

All of them narrated their stories with a mix of pride and shame. “These children have felt insecure for a long time,” says Bibin Jose, 26. “On the streets, they feared the policeman and in the house, they feared their parents.”

At the Sishubhavan, he says, they have gradually let down their guard and become friendly with the other inmates. “After a few months, they are able to get on the right track,” says Bibin. “Eventually, we want them to grow up and become responsible members of society.”

Janaseva Sisubhavan
Caring for the hopeless

The Janaseva Sisubhavan, set up in 1999, looks after 300 boys and girls. The aim of the organisation is to rescue destitute children and provide them shelter and a meaningful life full of love and affection (

Asked how the children arrive, founder President Jose Mavely, 57, says, “Sometimes, people will notice some children wandering about in their areas, and they will call us,” he says. “We will inform the local police station and file a petition from the court and after getting the go-ahead we bring them here.”

On other times, well-wishers will bring them and sometimes, when children have been brutalised, they are forcibly taken away, with the help of the police.

Sometimes, the children arrive on their own. “M.D. Vishnu’s elder brother, Arun, came to Janaseva one day and said that he needed to be saved,” says Mavely. “He said his parents were forcing him to be a pickpocket and he did not want to do it anymore.” The Sisubhavan accepted him, along with Vishnu and sister Kausalya.

Meanwhile, recently, Maveli announced at a press conference that the Sisubhavan is in debt. “We have an income of Rs 9 crore but our expenses are as high as Rs 10.5 crore,” he says. Part of the reason is that new buildings are being constructed and he has launched a public appeal for funds.

He also said that the State Government had denied the organisation a grant and the Sisubhavan has been unable to get a certificate under the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (FCRA).

“We need this certificate from the Centre to be eligible to receive foreign donations,” says Mavely. “To get that, we need a No Objection Certificate from the state government, but we have not got it.” Ministers have come and seen the work and shown their appreciation, he says, but there are some bureaucrats in the Social Welfare Department who are putting up roadblocks.

C.K. Raghavan Unni, 47, Joint Director of the Social Welfare Department says the Sisubhavan is doing commendable work. “However, it has not been completely following the guidelines laid down by the Juvenile Justice Act,” he says. “Hence, it will be difficult for the Sisubhavan to get the FCRA certificate.”

(Permission to reproduce this article has to be obtained from The New Indian Express)

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