I have been cruising around rural India for the past month now – a month which happens to correspond with months 7-8 of my wife’s pregnancy, I mention somewhat sheepishly. I have done this with the purpose of gaining some sort of intuitive understanding of the Naxal movement – the Maoist insurgency that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh described in 2006 as the single largest threat to India’s internal security. In a nutshell, so as not to bore my massive readership too greatly, my research looks at the determinants of rebel movement expansion, focusing particularly on the economic ways in which rebel-held territories and (more importantly) the lands surrounding them are incorporated into the wider economy. India is an interesting and tractable case study because it has a number of different states that all grapple with the issue in different ways, have differently integrated rural-urban economic linkages, and (very important) keep tallies of various economic and violence statistics, which most African governments do not.
Right, back to the story. So anyway, I had been trekking with a few friends through the Western Ghats of Karnataka and the Eastern Ghats along the Andhra Pradesh-Orissa-Chhattishgarh borders. Yes we had experienced some travel difficulties – for instance, our rental car blew a head gasket in the Western Ghats owing to the fact that the rental company (i.e., this one dude) had rented us a car for a HOT MOUNTAIN TREK that had no oil or coolant, thereby forcing us to traverse the entire mountain range 100-500 meters at a stretch until the engine again puttered out to gasp and blow off steam for 30 minutes. But all in all, things were going pretty swimmingly. I had met with some Naxals in Karnataka. I had met with tribals who should have been Naxals but weren’t, in a remote valley in Andhra. Not scientific research, mind you, but stuff that would definitely inform any data analysis I wind up doing in the future.
Then, in the past ten days, it all went to pot. It started when my contact at the next destination – a rehabilitation camp for ex-combatants in the northernmost tip of West Bengal – called off my visit due to fears of election violence. The elections are a vast, complicated affair (or, rather, string of separate affairs) that the Indian government fears bungling so much that they have taken the extreme measure of holding the Indian Premier League cricket tournament out of India in order to concentrate security forces on polling stations. As it turns out, Naxals did indeed try to disrupt the elections, killing around 17 people (mainly poll workers), but overall failing to dissuade most people from casting their votes. The upshot for me was that I found myself in Kolkata, staying with my friend Siddharth at his uncle and aunt’s flat, with little to nothing to do until I could make my way to Patna in Bihar for my next case study. And, after seeing the Victoria Monument, we thought why not take a stroll in the Botanical Gardens?
Your answer in a word: preteens. In two alliterative words: pick-pocketing preteens.
Strange as it may seem, I have never been pick-pocketed before. During my travels to some of the world’s worst shitholes, I have found myself in the crossfire of a gun battle, nearly been run over by an armored personnel carrier, had my computer keyboard eaten by ants, developed dermal boils in 50-degree heat, and had dengue fever, which you treat by lying around delirious, half-hallucinating, feeling like you’re being disemboweled (which you kind of are), and praying it all ends soon one way or another and not really caring which it will be. But I have never been pick-pocketed. Libidinous college students in Cancun on Spring Break get pick-pocketed in alcohol-fueled orgiastic hazes. Overweight men – red-faced, huffing, staggering in pleated khakis, plodding in heinous walking shoes, glistening in the heat – get pick-pocketed at every tourist-trap landmark from the Taj Mahal to the leaning tower of Pisa. Wealthy women with large, open handbags swinging ostentatiously about as they window-shop get pick-pocketed. I don’t get pick-pocketed.
Or at least I didn’t. Then, towards the end (or so I thought) of a long day, as Siddharth and I caught sight of a tree filled with curiously iridescent beetles, a pack of preteens swung our way and gathered round us, jostling for a view of the beetles. To the extent I thought about them at all, I thought: (1) “Why don’t Indians understand the concept of personal space?” and (2) “Isn’t it terrific that these young men are taking an interest in entomology?” Both of these thoughts, you will notice, are thoroughly old-fogeyish. And old fogeys are just the sort of prey that pick-pocketers love, because… well, because they assume that kids give two shits for entomology, for starters, which they clearly don’t. Lesson learned, but a distressing one since I’m about to have a child of my own and would like to be able to guess at his thoughts, and a bit late, too, because by the time I realized my wallet and passport were missing, my naturalist friends had disappeared.
The search for a wallet and passport in that sort of situation is a frustrating experience. For one, you pretty much know you’ll never see it again, yet you keep thinking such nonsense as, “If I were a preteen pick-pocketer who’d just stolen a wallet and passport, would I just grab the cash and jettison the rest?” and “If so, where would I then jettison the passport?” I had already demonstrated that I had no inkling of how were thinking, so why bother to guess now? For another, any friend who’s worth his salt (and Siddharth is worth a lot more) will tell you things in that situation like “It may have just slipped out of your pocket when we sat down over there,” and “Even if it’s lost, things could be a lot worse.” These are the right things to say, because they are – at least hypothetically speaking – true, and they are meant to calm the mind. However in reality, at least for me, they serve as nodes around which torturously obsessive thoughts crystallize, and my stream of semi-consciousness ran something like the following:
“Of course things to be a lot worse. Worse is a relative term, so things could always be a lot worse. Or do humans have some sort of built-in limited capacity for suffering, such that we approach it asymptotically? Are we genetically incapable of infinite suffering? Boy, if I just caught that little shit’s hand when it was in my pocket, I would show him infinite suffering. I would probably break his finger bones Hammurabi-style. No wait, Hammurabi cut off thieves’ hands. I don’t have a knife, though, and cutting off a hand with Sidd’s pen knife would take forever. Yeah, I’d probably just break his fingers. Or would I? Would I – could I – be a bigger person? After all, this is India, the birthplace of two of the world’s great religions. From one we have the idea of karma, from the other, that of worldly detachment. Wouldn’t I honor India by admitting to myself that this theft is the thief’s bad karma, and not mine – I do not suffer unless I allow myself to suffer. Yes, that’s probably the more spiritually mature way to think about this. Still, though. Sucks. Maybe just a pinky.”
Anyway, by that time, the light was fading, so Siddharth and I hauled ourselves to the nearest police station to file a report. Now, I didn’t know this, but in Indian police stations, you don’t file a report. You file an application to have a report filed. Any application can, of course, be denied, and in my case, it was, due to the fact that I claimed my wallet and passport were stolen.
“How do you know they were stolen?” the police officer asked. “If you know that it was stolen now, then you must have known it was being stolen at the time! And yet you clearly didn’t, since you didn’t do anything to stop it from being stolen!”
In the words of Calvin & Hobbes, the forensic marvel had reduced my logic to shambles. Siddharth explained to me in English that police inspectors were reviewed on the basis of the ratio of cases solved to crimes reported (and all reported crimes must be investigated). That ratio can be raised either by upping the numerator (i.e., solving the cases, which turns out to be lots of work) or by lowering the denominator (i.e., not reporting cases, which turns out to be very little work indeed). The Indians, as we all know from Ramanujan, are a very mathematically-oriented people and so they understand these little intricacies. The end result was that I filed an application not for a report of theft, but for a “general diary” entry to be made in a grubby little ledger to the effect that I had “lost” my wallet and passport “while roaming in the gardens.” It all sounds so rococo that way.
You can imagine what the days since have been like, getting an emergency-issue passport from the US embassy, obtaining an exit visa from the government that put the bureau in bureaucracy, etc. I spent the better part of the day today in a government office jockeying to maintain my place in something I’ll liberally term a “queue” (though “mob” may be closer to the mark) to get that exit visa. After 2 hours, I was the first in line at the counter, when a random Tibetan dropped the identity cards for an army of exiled Buddhist monks on the desk of the woman about to help me. She obliged him (probably because it’s bad karma to ignore an army of exiled Buddhist monks, which just happens also to be the reason I only weakly objected to the queue-cutting), and by the time she was finished, it was lunch hour, so I got to perfect my placeholding skills for another little while, telling people edging up along the sides “back off, I’m first” if they looked obstreperous, and “please let me go first – my pregnant wife is waiting for me at home” if they looked nice.
A pregnant wife who, I might add, now has $30 to live on for the next 10 business days until our credit and debit cards have been reissued.