The Thief by Devarakonda Balagangadhara Tilak

The moonlight was dim. Gopal was walking in the darkness under the trees. Clad in a knee length dhoti, a snug undershirt  clinging to his chest and a small knife tucked under his waist, he felt confident and bold .He still tasted the sour country liquor on and off in his throat. He had taken one glass of it to give him the zest and energy..Gopal was uneducated, but well organized .He always considered the pros and cons of everything he did. There was an inherent  sharpness in him. That was why Somulu and Rattayyah entrusted him with this job. Things worked out smoothly when the duo were not involved. They had only  greed and confusion, no planning.

Gopal observed that man and wife for 2 weeks and noticed the husband never came home before 1’o clock in the morning. The husband  always  sat in the bar drinking expensive liquor and gambled till he was stripped of his last penny. By then his wife had slept alone in the room next to the kitchen in their house. There was an entrance to the kitchen from the back yard. The back yard was pretty large with lot of trees and thick bushes, which would work perfectly for Gopal as it would shield
him from people’s sight. The kitchen window had weathered from sun and rain and the bars were rusty and weak. If he used his strength and deftness he could easily remove three or four bars. Once he entered the kitchen through that window, his
job was easy. He would make a noise at the other door leading to the adjacent room. The woman of the house would open the door thinking it was a dog or a cat in the kitchen. Then Gopal would  threaten  her with his knife, and swiftly snatch the
four stranded thick heavy gold chain from her neck and disappear into the darkness before she realized what happened and called out for help.

Gopal was strolling  leisurely going over this entire plan in his head. The streets were empty except for one or two late night passersby. That was an area away from the main town, not as crowded and bustling as the town was. After the  night show of the cinemas, all the little kiosks and coffee shops in the neighborhood were closed. Many houses were already submerged in deep slumber, very few houses still had their electrical lights shining through the windows. Overall it appeared  as if those empty streets and houses were waiting for Gopal in a quiet solitude in that translucent moonlight.

Gopal had no ethical qualms about his work. He never thought  being a thief  was wrong or sinful. He was doing it just like others worked various jobs for living. He never had the guilt ridden conscience to micro-analyze his deeds  into right and
wrong, in fact he never felt it necessary to think along  those lines. So, he never had a conflict with his conscience. He dreaded getting caught though and was very well aware of the possibility of going to prison if that happened. He always planned meticulously to avoid getting caught. He worked alone, never took Rattayya and Somulu along with him unless it was absolutely necessary. The very thought of them eagerly waiting for him to return successful, gave Gopal a new leash of energy.

That house looked  like a curled up  turtle in the dull moon light. He went  around the house and entered the backyard as per his plan. The back yard  was really dark and unkempt with  full of bushes, scattered coconut and plantain  trees. Gopal
slowly walked up to the kitchen and examined the window bars. Suddenly he heard voices from inside. He was surprised. This was not in his plan. Again he heard the voices, this time loud and angry. Gopal felt curious. Perhaps the visitor might leave now making it easy for his plan to go smoothly, Gopal thought. May be it was her lover, perhaps  she was having a secret  affair, thought  Gopal. He heard some words again from inside, loud and hurried.

There was pain and fear in her voice. Gopal was getting more and more curious. He forcefully  pulled the window bars out, and entered the kitchen. He heard somebody talking again.

“Please,listen to me,”  female voice

“Will you give it or not?”  male voice.

“Why do you gamble and waste money? Since we  got  married  there had been no fun or pleasure. You spent  all the money on gambling. Is it not enough?”

“Stop lecturing  and  give that to me! Or else……”

“If I give you this last  piece of jewelry left, what would happen to me and my child? Please, take a look at him, your own son! Don’t you have a heart? Don’t you feel any compassion for him? Please, leave it. It is midnight now. Please stay home tonight. I am scared to stay all alone by myself in this house. Come, let’s go to bed.”

This time the male voice sounded very gruff,” will you give it  or you want me to strangle you? I will be rid of you!”

“No, I won’t.”

“Won’t you?”

“No, never. This is given by my mom. This is mine, my asset.”

Gopal thought what she said was fair. Her voice was very sweet, faint and tender.

Gopal felt irritated with her husband.

“What did you say? Your asset ? You b….? Did n’t I feed you with my money all along? Give it. Give me the chain.”

“How could you utter these unkind words? Am I not saying all this for your sake, for your own benefit? This is the only piece of gold that we have. Did I say one word when you sold off an acre of my property given by my parents? You drink, you
gamble. You  have no  sense of right and wrong, no feelings for your wife and child.Should I rot in this hell like this forever? I beg you, please, listen to me.”

Gopal heard a sharp slap. Looks like the husband was hitting his wife. Gopal felt a rush of compassion and anger. Her pitiful, sweet and sad voice held him strongly.

“You can beat me! Kill me! I won’t part with my gold chain.”

“Won’t you, won”t you? You bloody b….!” Again sounds of thumping and punching.

She was sobbing helplessly, pitifully and painfully. She wailed. Gopal could hear them tugging and struggling.

“Let go off me! Please! Oh my god … ”

Gopal’s eyes got red. He clenched his fists angrily.

“I will strangle you today. Give me the chain.”

“Why should I? So you can gamble with that and loose it too?” She was talking between heavy sobs.

“You did not even  bring medicine for the sick child. I don’t even have a nice saree. It does not matter to you if I am dead or alive. After this I end up penniless and begging on the streets because of you. ”

“So, you are defying me for this little rascal. Let me strangle him right now!”

“Oh, my god, No! Please do not hurt him.” She started screaming loud. The little one wailed too.

Gopal could not contain himself anymore. He visualized a small kid getting strangled He kicked the door with all his might. It did not open. He kicked at the door forcefully again. The doors flung open. The woman was holding a small boy in her arms and crouching in a corner of the room. She was shaking all over with fear.

“Please do not harm my baby. Here, take the chain,” she  handed her chain to the man who bent over her like a monster. The husband took the gold chain from her hands and turned around and found Gopal standing across from him.

“Who the hell are you?” said the husband.

Gopal punched him on his jaw. The husband jerked forward. Gopal ran at him, held his head down and punched him again with force. He fell down.

“You hit a woman? You are stealing that chain from her? Rogue, Shame on you! hand me the chain now! No, do not move. I will kill you if you move.”

Gopal snatched the chain from him. The man was slumped on the floor, breathing heavy. Wife was too shocked to comprehend what was happening and stuck to the wall wide-eyed staring at them.

“You scoundrel, being an educated man all you do is gamble and drinking? You are stealing your own wife’s jewellery instead of looking after her and the baby?”

The husband was lying on the floor faintly murmuring obscenities.

Gopal kicked him in his side, “Shut up.”

She screamed “No, no, please do not hurt him!”

Gopal walked towards her with the chain. She was slim, fair and slender. Her hair was all undone. Her cheeks were streaked wet with tears. She was hardly twenty-five. She had a look of fear and surprise mingled in her eyes. The boy in her arms was crying.

“Here, madam. Your chain,” Gopal handed the gold  chain to her. The husband tried to pull himself up. Gopal took his small knife out.

“Look !If you move, I shall stab you! you will be no more!”

The man folded his hands in pleading.

“If I ever hear you took her chain or laid your hands on her, I won’t spare you.”

Gopal shook his dagger close to his face.

The man nodded his head  agreeing.

Gopal turned towards her, “Nothing to  worry ,Madam. Stay strong.”

She nodded her head with fear and gratitude.

Gopal tucked  his dagger back under his waist and turned to leave. She asked him in a feeble voice,” who are you ,sir?”

“ME…” Gopal turned  pale.

“I ..I am called Gopal. That’s all,” Gopal averted his gaze, and hurried out to the back yard and disappeared  into the darkness.

(End)

sasidhar_vaidehiTranslated by Dr. Vaidehi Sasidhar and published on thulika.net, August 2008

(The original story, donga, was included in “Tilak Kathalu”, a collection of short stories by Sri. Devarakonda Balagangadhara Tilak. First publication in 1967. .)