There was ‘Venkatesh medicals’ at the end of the street when I was 8-9. It was a small pharmacy run by a man in his twenties.
An uncle had a credit account with the shop. So he bought stuff as and when he needed and paid at the end of every month.
I accompanied my uncle to the shop often. The shopkeeper would let me wander inside his tiny shop. I would curiously explore the boxes and containers of pills and medicines, for as long as my uncle would be there. And I would leave with my uncle.
My grandparents had a lot of respect in their neighbourhood and I had just started to learn about this; partly from how everyone treated family members and largely from claims my family made in everyday conversation.
I think I had started feeling like I could get away with anything.
So I would go by myself to this pharmacy and ask the shopkeeper to give me candy. I would ask him to put it on my uncle’s tab. Although puzzled that I was turning up alone, the shopkeeper let me wander around in as usual, while he went about his business. He was a nice man.
But my intentions slowly turned into something not so 'nice and harmless'.
I got a kick from demanding whatever I wanted, taking it and walking away without having to pay. I then thought what if I remove money (and my uncle) from the equation altogether?
On an earlier exploration of the store, I had seen some boxes of chewing gums. For the uninitiated, chewing gums were the thing when I was a boy. Wrigley’s, Chiclets, Bonkers, Big Babol and the new Centre Fruit. It was the definition of cool and elders didn’t buy you junk often.
I figured that when the shopkeeper was busy and looking away, I could just pick an assortment of chewing gums and bring them back with me. He wouldn’t know. And I wouldn't have to be concerned with money and other such boring things.
So I stole from his shop.
It went unnoticed once or twice. I felt confident. And on one occasion I went there back to back. As I stood there picking chewing gum and stuffing it in my pocket—in full view of everyone, but thinking that no one could notice—a customer pointed to the shopkeeper that ‘a kid at the back’ was shoplifting.
The shopkeeper turned around in horror and got down to my level and asked me angrily “what the hell do you think you are doing?” I couldn’t believe what had happened! How was I caught red handed? How the hell did my plan fail?!
I told him that I was just doing my usual exploration. And tried to tell him that all the chewing gum in my pocket, I had bought from the adjacent shop. He said “yeah right” and shooed me away, asking me to get out. I kept trying to convince him that I had bought it from the adjacent store and started crying. He went about his business.
I came home. I was so embarrassed that I complained about him to my grandmother. Just imagine that—instead of being remorseful or letting it go, I complained about the shopkeeper to my grandmother that he accused me of stealing and embarrassed me in front of other customers.
I think I was scared that everyone would find out what I had done, should the shopkeeper complain to my uncle.
My grandmother and aunt spent the entire evening cajoling me to be honest, “Tell us what happened honestly. Did you steal? We won’t scold you. It’s ok. But you have to tell us the truth.” I cried throughout and insisted that I wasn’t lying and that he was falsely accusing me of the stealing.
And finally after a good hour or two of questioning me… my grandmother decided to believe me.
She then said that we would go to the store and settle the matter. I was unwilling and continued to cry. She asked me why I would refuse to go with her if I was telling the truth. I realised I had no option but to go with her.
As soon as the shopkeeper saw my grandmother approach his store, he greeted her with enthusiasm and was very welcoming. I mentioned, didn’t I? That my grandmother was pretty famous and respected in the neighbourhood. After some small talk, my grandmother brought up the topic and said “I believe you have mistaken that my grandson has stolen something from your shop. I must pay if something like that has happened.”
The shopkeeper was embarrassed and said “Oh please, don’t bother about it. It was a small thing.” She went on to say “My grandson has been crying and is very hurt, I just wanted to make sure that if he has stolen something then it must be paid.” The shopkeeper then turned to me, pinched my cheeks lovingly and, in fact, handed me a chocolate to console me.
And I stood there, with my head down all along, sniffling, holding my granny in one hand and the chocolate in the other; like a sneaky little [email protected], knowing fully well what I had done.
I saw the man for years, every summer vacation when I went to my granny’s place. I never went to his shop or never spoke to him. I actively avoided him.
When I got much older, I saw his pharmacy shift to a different location. He had greyed quite a bit and his shop had gotten much bigger. I was glad that little thieves like myself had not stopped him from prospering.
I always felt like I must go to him and tell him, “Sir, I hope you remember me. When I was a kid, about 15 years ago, an incident occurred at your store…” And that I must confess to him, now that I was an adult.
But I somehow never got around to doing it.
… since I never stole anything.
(except that I fully did.)