Confessions of a Pickpocket

Madhavankutty Pillai has no specialisations whatsoever. He is among the last of the generalists. And also Open chief of bureau, Mumbai  
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PICKPOCKETS USUALLY never work alone. There are three or four of us, and we pretend to have nothing to do with each other. We only work in crowded places like trains and buses. The kalakar (artist) is the one doing the actual act of picking the pocket. He takes the purse and passes it on to another, who takes it and leaves the area. If the victim suspects him, the kalakar will become aggressive, ask him to prove it and even threaten to beat him for suspecting him.

Thumb nails of a pickpocket are always slightly long. This is to grip the wallet. We can guess by looking at the wallet whether it contains money. Sometimes we feel the pocket to guess how much is in it. And then we move in.

The victim is first distracted. Sometimes, one reads a newspaper in front of him. Inevitably, he will also try to read it. Or one of us will nudge him hard and he’ll glare at us. Or two of us can stand near him holding the handrails, and push his face with our arms. That much distraction is enough for the kalakar. Shirt pockets, front pockets, back pockets, hidden pockets, we can pick them all.

For handbags we use a small blade, hidden in our mouth. When the target is near, the blade is transferred to the hand and the bag is slit open to reach the wallet. Once I got Rs 90,000 like this. We rarely make that kind of money, but baglifters or dholbaaz get it all the time. Pickpocketing and baglifting are separate professions. Baglifters wait at railway terminals just observing people. If someone is constantly looking at a bag, they know where the valuables are and they lift it. The police don’t beat us too much but with baglifters they are vicious.

The real danger for pickpockets is the public. Working in groups provides safety. One gang had a member who looked like the typical Mumbai cop: hefty, moustached, cropped hair and Marathi speaking. His job was to move in when one of them was being thrashed. He would take custody of the pickpocket and scare the victim into not filing a complaint. But nothing really works when the crowd gets into a mood. A crowd threw one of my friends out of a running train. He’s dead. Many pickpockets are killed this way.

The pickpocket was a regular on Mumbai locals