‘You hit me mummy!’ states the three year old, brazenly. ‘Er…no. I did not hit you.’ I quickly correct. ‘I did tell you to stop drawing on the fridge door, though.’ This subterfuge and diversion is new for my easygoing son, direct attack being one tactic he uses to deflect attention away from his own wayward behaviour. He has, in fact, turned into a threenager. He is suddenly full of strops and stomps, slamming doors and fearsome roars. And a very cute pout. He has developed a brand new habit of carrying a ‘souvenir’ back from any visit, anywhere: he leaves nursery clutching a small sticklebrick, a playmate carrying a pink belt, a wedding reception holding a tea light. The items are chosen randomly, and although woe betide anybody who tries to prise away the stolen good from his fingers at the time, my mini-kelptomanoac has no real intention of keeping them.
It is a different matter in the heat and bustle of a teeming city in Africa, where education, business and relative wealth contrast with extreme poverty and the resulting struggle to survive. The government have ‘cleaned up’ the street hawkers, those raucous roadside squawkers, with their cries of ‘Ananas! Maaaaaango! Iko hapa!’. While the roads look less crowded and are undoubtedly easier to manoeuvre they have lost a lot of their colour and character. The government view is that the street hawkers are a nuisance, and of course, they don’t pay taxes. The simple clearing away of the offending parties with stiff fines to dissuade rebellion costs little to implement, and this country does not operate a system of benefits for the poor, so on paper it’s a win-win for the suited decision makers. Silly, of course. Surely those important officials realised that those thousands of hawkers previously eking out a living, once that meagre living was snatched away, would turn to crime? Surely they did.
For two months, Ba and the family had nobody to help them at home. The dust- that swirling, sandy dust- carried by the sea air, settles everywhere and needs to be swept up at least once a day; it hugs the creases in clothes, and the only way to dislodge it is to beat them hard when washing. The heat at this time of year means that the refrigerator acts as little more than slightly cool storage space, and fresh produce must be bought at the market each day. The pendulous, jellyfish-like mosquito nets that hang over the beds must be tied up each morning, and released in the evening. Oh, the daily to-do list is endless, and the grandparents are in their nineties. Usually they have someone who comes in every morning to help, but their last help disappeared with their emergency electricity generator. Now, during the inevitable blackouts the darkness is broken only by candlelight, and the heat hangs heavy while the arms of the ceiling fans are still.
It is not, by any means, the first time that this has happened: almost anything that isn’t fixed in place has been stolen, from bent steel spoons to perfume. There is now nothing of value in the apartment, but items of use- the hand mixer, steel bowls, metal sieves, candles, for example- must be locked away for fear that these might vanish too. I have much sympathy for those who resort to theft to enable survival, but I struggle to understand those who are in gainful employment who steal from their vulnerable, elderly employers (who have little themselves). I just don’t get it. The toy shop, too, has been targeted. Bapuji has always been conscious of security, aware that his hard-gained stock could walk out of the store without payment, and has put measures in place. It was an elderly beggar, with his constant watch on the neighbourhood, who proved more effective than any security measure. He called Sudhir over one day. One of the shop boys had been stealing, siphoning out toys under his clothes and in his bag as he came and went from the shop on errands, alleged the man. It had been going on for months, he said, perhaps years. ‘Watch him’, said the beggar, ‘and you will know that I am telling the truth’. And he was . Some people retain honour when they have lost everything else.
I am collecting up the small items strewn around the house which must be reunited with their rightful owners. The toddler assists, helpfully pointing out his purloined treasures with no trace of apology. In his world, ownership appears to be a fluid concept, but at least he accepts the return of these items with good grace.
** for those who are reading this and protesting that the stormy toddler described above is not the one you recognise, I admit use of a little hyperbole. He remains, despite his three years, a smiler who sees the sunshine in everything, but he has moments of rage and unreason. He does. Really.