Neighborhood Justice

I moved into the South Delhi neighborhood of Lajpat Nagar in early April. Wedged in between the very high-end Defense Colony and the sometimes suspect Jangpura, Lajpat Nagar is pleasant, sprawling, and defined by rectangles of four and five story housing units built around delightful green parks. My single-room rooftop apartment overlooks one of these little parks, in fact. The neighborhood is predominantly populated by Hindus relocated from Pakistan during Partition, and as such they have a variety of their own rituals and traditions and keep much to themselves.

In my first full day in the neighborhood I strolled out looking for a place to lunch and found a little vegetarian spot not far from my apartment. As I was digging into a thali of tomato paneer, dal, raita, and roti, a slim youth shot past my window down the alley. He was followed seconds later by a rather angry man, who then returned a minute later, hauling his prey roughly by the collar.

"You think you can rob my store, thief?" the stronger, older man said. He was wearing a pink shirt, holding something in his clenched left fist and heading with the youngster towards a jewelry store just across the street from where I was eating. He was shaking the kid and jabbing him in the jaw as a crowd gathered. "Huh? I'll show you what we do to thieves."

The thief was probably around 16 or 17 years old. Apparently he had snatched something from the jewelry store and bolted down the alley, which is when I first saw him. He was stringy, almost unhealthy looking, and right now he had the fear of God in his eyes. I assumed the police would come and take the kid away, but the crowd gathered round as the pink-shirted man took his quarry up the stairs in front of his shop. He stopped halfway, where another staircase went down to a different, now-shuttered shop. And he punched him full-on in the face. Once, twice, three times. And then in the stomach. Blood spurted and the crowd surged and I couldn't see any more.

I finished my meal and went to get a closer look. Two large Sikhs had the thief down at the bottom of the stairs in front of the shuttered shop. His chest was heaving. His nose and mouth were bleeding, his eyes swollen. His shirt and pants were torn and he was wild-eyed and desperate. I guessed he was either plotting his revenge or thinking that if they were to let him live he would never steal as much as a glance for the rest of his days.

"What did he do?" I asked pink shirt, the jewelry store manager who'd caught the guy and started the beating. "I caught him red-handed!" he told me, almost defensively. "He was stealing a necklace and we got him." What he meant was this: since we saw him do it and caught him attempting to escape, we're entitled to mete out punishment.

And apparently he was right. The gathered crowd, all furrowed brows and thin grins, seemed to approve. And after a couple minutes they dispersed and went on with their day. Couples walked by, chatting and laughing. Old men resumed storefront perches. And the young thief, bloodied and bruised, crawled to his feet beneath the jewelry store.


An Auspicious Arrival

Yes, I'm in Pakistan. Decided it was time to visit the place I'd read so much about so I found a couple stories to cover for DevEx, who were willing to cover half the travel costs, and off I went, on a very fast...bus. Not wanting to lay out $400 to fly the 300 miles or so between Delhi and Lahore, I instead dropped $75 on matching 12-hour bus tickets.

But first I should tell you about getting my visa. I dialed up the Pakistan High Commission and asked for the Press Minister. “One minute,” said the operator, putting me on hold. What song did proudly Muslim Pakistan offer callers to its Indian embassy? None other than the bouncy piano theme song from the movie The Sting. On ominous sign, I thought. But Press Minister Khan was very helpful, not to mention rather pleasant, although he had his doubts about journalists. “I know you journalists,” he said, smiling. We were chatting in his spacious office, waiting for his assistant to make copies of my passport. “You go in, do all of your reporting, and then you come home and write whatever you want.” I smiled and said I'd return after my visit.

The bus departs at 6am but travelers are advised to arrive at the station two hours early, so there I was long before sunrise with dozens of Pakistanis in skullcaps and headscarfs, checking bags and getting patted down before taking a seat in the lounge. The relatively high price includes full meals, so we were treated to coffee and biscuits. The woman next to me offered her whiny toddler a sip and the kid cried for more. “It's her first time trying,” she told me, smiling. “She seems to like it.” The half pound of sugar may have helped the medicine go down. Either way, I hope I'm not sitting next to these two on the bus.

We load up and set off on time, positively zipping through Delhi as a red-orange sun rises over the horizon. I've never seen the streets of the capitol so empty, so calm and peaceful during daylight hours. It's eerie, almost apocalyptic, to see chaotic Delhi, a sprawling metropolis of nearly 20 million, the world's fastest growing city over the past three decades, suddenly without its people, nearly transformed into the artful, tranquil burg it was a half century ago.

Except, that is, for the wailing sirens of our police escort. One SUV each in front and back, they will be with us the entire journey, most likely for safety, to avoid the deadly bombing that last year hit the Samjhuata Express train, which linked these same two cities until it was stopped, after the bombing. We are not inconspicuous.

Stop for breakfast. Stop for gas. Stop for mutter paneer lunch before arrival at Indian customs around 2:30pm. Unload all bags and then back on and then stop for same on other side of border, which is much quicker and more efficient in a sleeker and more modern building. They essentially wave me through – “With bus?” they ask – and I'm in Pakistan.