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Theft In A Time of Quarantine

A reader writes a gripping whodunit to engage us during lockdown

Team Lede

Team Lede

Everyday a chota hathi drives into my gully. It arrives at 10 am, on the dot. It is loaded with an Ahuja sound system. As the vehicle passes, it delivers cautionary announcements to the residents. I could not understand a word. However, from the sounds, it is profoundly clear that the speaker has reached the end of its life.

Today, I was disinclined to decipher the demonic cacophony. My laptop went missing. Its disappearance put to risk the next three weeks of my life. My work, my entertainment, my connection with the rest of the world were all lodged in my laptop (at free of cost!). And this morning, the lodging disappeared.

I leave it on my study before I retire every night. When I didn’t find it this morning, I thought someone misplaced it. My mother thought I misplaced it. My brothers were unable to provide any reaction as they were still drooling on their pillows. My father was not to be disturbed as he was on a Zoom call about optimizing work from home. (He was on his own laptop).

For half an hour I scanned my home and retraced every step I took the previous evening. I was certain I left the laptop on my study as I had watched a movie before I slept. It was around quarter past 11 last night, when I left the study to retire.

Between then and 10 am this morning, someone must’ve been misplaced or stolen it.

At 10:30, I was convinced it was stolen. My brothers had woken up by then and denied any involvement. My mother guaranteed my father’s innocence.

‘I saw you watching a picture on it after dinner. I went to sleep after closing the kitchen,’ said the maid.

There was no way a burglar would’ve entered my house at this time. Not during this lockdown. The CCTV camera confirmed my suspicions: the thief was in the house. To add, why would a thief steal just my laptop?

My first suspicion lay on the maid, obviously. Why would my family steal from me?

I didn’t accuse her, but under the excuse of searching for something, I entered her quarters. There was no way she could’ve hid anything in her quarters. Her belongings were in one cupboard, and the rest of her quarters were just filled with articles that were too abject to keep elsewhere in the house. Empty water cans, laundry baskets, paper bags, mops, stray towels, and LPG cylinders, to name a few. I couldn’t muster an excuse to open her cupboard, but concluded that she wouldn’t have hidden it there. She would be immediately thrown out if something as apparent as a stolen laptop was found in her cupboard.

She could have smuggled it out of the house through a visitor. We had only two visitors that morning: the newspaper delivery executive and the packaged bovine dairy supply artist. I am going to refer to them as newspaper boy and milkman for ease. The newspaper boy was a Tamil speaker, while my maid spoke Hindi exclusively. There was no way they could’ve plotted together. The milk man definitely spoke Hindi. The company he works for bore the title of a Sanskrit-rooted baniya: Mittal & Sons Paal.

The CCTV camera showed the milkman delivering the milk in a bag and leaving without scandal. He left the milk on the front porch. There was no interaction between him and the maid. Social distancing.

While I bounced these thoughts with my mother, she began to feel impatient. She demanded I stop thinking about my laptop and let her cook lunch. She expressed no sense of loss at the disappearance of my laptop. Her attention was fixated at lunch. Lunch was 2 hours away. It was quarter past 11.

It was difficult to suspect my mother. After all it was my mother. What could she possibly have to gain from taking my laptop? Did I do something wrong yesterday? I began to reflect on my mother. She did confiscate my toys when I disobeyed her. Surely, as an adult, she wouldn’t do the same to me. Would she? Could she?

I stole her cupboard key and opened it. Nothing. Just her belongings. Clothes, bags, pads, documents. One document did however strike me: a chit of paper with my kundli marked. Just my kundli. I pocketed them and scoured through my father’s cupboard as well. Then my brothers’ cupboard. My warrantless investigation seemed to reveal less the more I looked.

At this point, I decided to take statements from my brothers and parents pertaining to their activities between 11pm last night and 10 am this morning.

Brother 1:

“After dinner, I was playing Grand Theft Auto until 1 am. Father requested I turn off the machine around 9:30, but I ignored him. I had nothing better to do. Brother 2 saw me around midnight, when I went into the kitchen for a snack. I slept after that. I woke up only after it was discovered that the laptop was missing.”

Brother 2:

“I was chatting with parents until 10:30 pm. After that they threw me out of their room. They wanted to sleep. I sat next to your study and watched Netflix on my phone. I went to the kitchen for a glass of water. I saw Brother 1 in the kitchen. He was emptying the chocolate. I don’t know when. I slept after that. As long as I was awake, I didn’t see anyone enter your study.”

That was true. He was sitting next to my study until I retired.

Mother:

“We were chatting with Brother 2 until half past 10. Your father and I went to bed around 11 pm. I woke up at 8 am. I read the paper and drank tea with your father. I have not taken your laptop.”

After finally getting off the Zoom call at 1 pm, my father too denied seeing my laptop.

Father:

“We chatted with your brother until 10:30 pm. Your mother went to sleep around 11 pm. I was replying to a bunch of emails. I sent you some as well. I slept maybe around midnight. I woke up around 7:30 am. I made myself tea, sat with your mother and read the paper. I began the Zoom call around 9 am.”

I did receive those emails.

Maid:

“As I said, I slept immediately after closing the kitchen. I woke up around quarter to 8 when I heard saab make tea. I was dusting and mopping the house since. Ask your parents, they saw me working.”

The statements did not further my investigation. I could only take them at their word. I could not cross verify much. I could not verify whether any of them woke up in the middle of the night to take my laptop. Nor could I discern a motive to steal my laptop. No one is buying laptops right now.

Just imagine. In the middle of a lockdown. When you are stuck within your home, with family. The motive to commit a crime is as low as the reward. The risk of committing the crime is as high as the opportunity. Yet, a crime was committed. A laptop gone. All my life’s work - poof. Not an inch of support from my family. The only conclusion I could arrive at was that this was an act of god; or that everyone was in it together.

… Yes, it had to be my family. But it was important that I find the bloody laptop rather than accuse my family of theft. But what coercive power did I have against my parents? How could I get my insolent brothers to return my laptop?

‘Lunch time!’ my mother called.

I ran to the kitchen and pulled out a bottle of salt. Lunch was sambar and rice. The sambar was at the center of the table. I pulled the sambar towards me and opened the bottle of salt.

‘What are you doing?’ my family collectively gasped. The meals were already skim during the lockdown. I was about to ruin a meal.

I said, ‘Everyone leave the room. If my laptop is not back on top of my study in the next ten minutes. I am emptying the salt into this meal.’

My family stood unconvinced of my threat. Brother 1 giggled. ‘What’s wrong with her?’ father demanded to know from mother.

‘And you will not have any salt until the next ration,’ I enunciated.

‘Don’t be stupid. Don’t overreact!’ my father thundered. I stared back at him without hesitation. My brothers stared at each other. My mother looked at my brothers and then my father. I suspected they were trying to signal each other with their eyes. My brothers tried to reason with me. My mother tried to place her hand on me and appeal to me through her motherly sentiments. My threat was stern. Even the maid stood frozen at the standoff. The risk of sodium deficiency made her a stakeholder in this family drama. They could not physically overpower me. It was too risky.

Okay, said Brother 2. We will go. With his eyebrows, he urged my parents to come with him. A few minutes later, my family comes back, silently. My mother shows me a picture on her phone. All 4 of them took a selfie with my laptop, in today’s clothes. It was now placed right where I left it last night.

I sheathed the salt.

Lunch was quiet. My father who was thunderous a few moments ago, now tried to make conversation. Brother 1 talked about how his college would manage exams during the lockdown. Mother talked about some updates she read on the paper. Father expanded on how Zoom calls were getting increasingly useless. Brother 2 liked the lunch.

3 more weeks with these people.

(This write up has been sent to The Lede by Akshay Mehta. All opinions are the author's alone and not necessarily that of The Lede's.)

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