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.

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