by Ajay Patri
We were known as the town of pickpockets. It was a well-deserved moniker for a small town set on the most important trading route in the country. Traders, migrants, vagrants and those seeking a better life in a place other than the one that birthed them all landed in our town at some point in their lives. And they all left after paying a price.
The town’s pickpockets did not discriminate. They saw no difference between rich and poor, men and women, priests and infidels, soldiers and revolutionaries. Nor did they hanker after only money. Everybody and everything was fair game. People came to our town and lost two penny shoelaces and precious rings that had been passed down in their family as heirlooms. They lost dirty handkerchiefs and engraved guns made of ivory and teak. They lost cracked spectacles and leather briefcases filled with gold ingots. One man spent a night at the local inn and woke up to find that his two gold teeth were missing. If you were not careful in the town, the saying went, you could have your very soul picked clean from your body.
When the notoriety of the town reached the ears of the senate in the big capital, they were not impressed. This is unacceptable, they declared. Maybe we should build a new trading outpost to bypass this puny town and its unscrupulous inhabitants.
These rumblings from the capital terrified us. We met in the town hall to decide what measures we could take to repair our tarnished reputation. Someone proposed that we counter the actions of the pickpockets by doing the opposite of what they did. The idea was simple but ingenious. All we needed was a squad of, for lack of a better term, drop-pockets. People who would go out and leave things for the people travelling through our town.
And that is how visitors to our town started finding things in their pockets that did not belong to them. A lucky few would gasp at finding a silver coin mixed in with the petty change in their pocket. Others would be bewildered by the appearance of cough drops, tickets to the local cinema or a vintage pipe with a complimentary pouch of tobacco. Every time we slipped something into the pocket of a person and walked away, we were filled with a strange thrill that made us grin like idiots. This is what a pickpocket must feel like, we told ourselves.
So wrapped up were we in our own cleverness that it took us a while to notice that not all visitors were happy with the unexpected gifts they received. A woman who found a slice of our best beef in her handbag shrieked her head off and threw it out on the road for the dogs to devour. We found out later she was a vegetarian. A man who had lost an arm in the war burst out crying in the middle of the street when he discovered a pair of velvety gloves in his satchel.
We pegged these instances down to our inexperience. We consoled ourselves by saying we would be more circumspect in the future. Even the best pickpockets must have gone through moments when they doubted themselves. We shouldn’t be so hard on ourselves, not when we were rebuilding our town’s pride from the rubble that the pickpockets had reduced it to.
But then there came occasions when it looked like we were conspiring with the pickpockets and not waging a war against them. A grieving man found the picture of his dead wife replaced by a flyer offering discounts at the town’s brothel. Another man who also woke up with his gold teeth missing found a sparkling set of dentures grinning at him from the bedside table.
The senate were infuriated when they heard of these stories. This town mocks everyone with their impudence, they said. We should teach them a lesson.
The new trading outpost was built before we had time to think of ways to let the world know we were not all bad. People stopped coming to our town. Our livelihoods, even that of being drop-pockets, were snatched away from us. People are never happy with what they get, we grumbled as we packed our belongings and left the town for good.
Ajay Patri is an accidental lawyer who reads, writes and often wonders if life ought to be more like a Wes Anderson movie.