Monday, October 09, 2006

Would you like to pick a pocket or two–oooo?

- Gotcha! Caught red ‘anded!

- Hey! Lay off will ya?

- Wot you fink you’re doin’, Son?

- Lemmi go, Guv’nor, please!

- I don’t fink so, yer lil’ blighter! Only two futures for a filfy pick-pocket in this town; a trip to the gallows or else it’s Australee for ye!

- Let me go, y’bleedin’ bastard!

- Well, now … wif language like that, my Young Son, I’d suggest you’ll be a-waltzing matilda before week’s end!

It wasn’t all that long ago that my own country’s “European” history commenced on the backs of criminals; men, women and children all, as Mother England sought an alternative to its over-filled gaols and leaking, fetid prison hulks. It’s commonly cited that many of those “transported” to the Great Southern Land were more or less innocent, having resorted to petty crime in order to survive the ravishes of extreme poverty driven by the Industrial Revolution, although there were almost certainly many who arrived in Sydney Harbour as punishment for malicious and violent crime.

Either way, transportation was certainly a punishment which was considerably more severe than was warranted for many of the crimes committed, and one that springs to mind is pick-pocketing. Ask yourself what you think of, and how you feel about pick-pocketing? Are you appalled and shocked at so heartless and immoral an act that removes one’s hard-earns without permission? Do you consider it a disgusting violation of one’s personal space and property?

Or do you, like me, when you hear about pick-pockets, marvel at the type of person with enough skill and dexterity to remove something from your wallet without being detected? Or perhaps, again like me, you romanticize the pick-pockets as a bunch of charismatic, sprightly young lads who rob from the rich to more-or-less feed the poor? - I’m thinking here of Oliver Twist’s good friend and mentor, the “lovable larrikin”, The Artful Dodger, who although nothing but an opportunistic thief, still wins our affections as a moralistic hero.

So what do you think is a suitable punishment for pick-pockets? The slammer? The gallows? “Hanging’s too good for ‘em, send them to Australia instead!” Surely it’s not that serious?

It seems pick-pocketing on the streets is not so common in “western” cities nowadays, and so I guess the conundrum of appropriate punishment doesn’t come up all that often, but I occasionally wonder if the severity of the punishment is not somehow relative to the level of poverty within a given society. So, for example, removing twenty Australian dollars from some schmuck’s pocket in Flinders Street may not be judged as being as serious as lifting the equivalent amount in Indian rupees from someone’s bag in Chandi Chowk!

Not so, I learned this week. While wandering around my local market, I witnessed a scruffy-looking teenage lad reaching into a young lady’s bag, and copping an almighty, open-palmed slap across the head from her father, who witnessed the urchin’s ill intent. The whack more or less knocked the young, Not-so-Artful Dodger off his feet, and he scrambled upright immediately, getting ready to high-tail it in the face of an expected lynch mob, but the young lady and her father had already moved on, and the lad just stood his ground, rubbing his thick ear, and watched them go.

That’s it? No pinching the ear? No shouting for justice? No calling the cops? No tanning of hides? Nothin’! Could pick-pocketing be that forgivable? And in Delhi of all places, where people vie for, and abuse moral high ground more than a preacher with the clap!

Witnessing this misadventure this week took me back to my only other personal experience of pick-pockets, in a place where the practice was certainly viewed as a social evil, but at the same time also regarded with considerable hilarity.

Ever since the Russians shut up shop and took off across the steppes in their rickety jeeps back in 1990, most Mongolians have experienced poverty on a massive scale. Nowadays, bands of unemployed youths roam the crumbling streets of Ulaan Baatar, day and night, preying on unsuspecting citizens or travellers, and pick-pocketing has become so widespread and common, that it is almost a National joke. I don’t mean, “Hey Bolbaatar, did you hear the one about the one-armed pick-pocket?”, I mean that a group of young men will follow you for blocks at a time, looking for any opportunity to swipe your bag or delve into your pocket, and if you happen to make eye contact with them, they will smile and laugh with you in common recognition of what they’re up to, but they’ll keep following you just the same … sometimes for hours.

The Ulaan Baatar General Post Office only has one narrow entrance and exit. The pick-pockets congregate on either side, creating a crowd through which you must push if you want to get in or out, and who will filch you for all you’ve got. Your cries for help and your abusive shouts are met with a laugh and a cheer both from the perpetrators and nearby on-lookers, but the thieves don’t let-up and no one intervenes. The strange thing is, believe it or not, that for some reason, it’s not threatening. It’s a game; get through the door with enough money to buy stamps, and you’re a winner!

It gets even more bizarre at the bazaar! A trip to the Black Market, so-called from the days of Ulaan Bataar being a centre for trade in Russian contraband, is a sporting tournament in which you and yours are forced to divide your funds into multiple, small piles of cash which you then distribute amongst pockets, socks, shoes, bras, wallets, bags and even undies. When Donkey went to the Black Market, he looked like a deformed trans-sexual, sporting as he did both a well-filled trouser and a couple of Double-D Cups – but it was all padded with US dollars, I can assure you! Once inside, roaming packs of young men would follow you around, make jokes about trying to steal your money, try to corner you in cul-de-sacs, or knock your glasses off your head in order to distract you while they grab your wallet.

And they’re very, very good at what they do! So good, in fact, that they even have the elements working for them. During our trip to the Black Market, the balmy day very quickly deteriorated into a heavy summer thunder storm which had everyone diving for cover beneath plastic tarpaulins, including the pick-pockets, who took the opportunity of mayhem to begin their orgiastic pick-pocketing feast. Before long, we also had the market vendors joining in the fun. As we raced from one tarp to another to avoid the pick-pockets, the vendors would belch out a cackling laugh and poke the tarps with sticks so that the accumulated water would come crashing down on top of us, and the pick-pockets would run in from the sides, laughing cheekily as they felt in one pocket or other, or tried to lift a bag or two. It all sounds very menacing, I know, but as there was never any direct threat to one’s personal safety, it all took place in the most festive spirit!

Attitudes to pick-pocketing can definitely be fractious. To some it is a tremendous social evil which deserves a punishment of six months at sea with scurvy, followed by a life sentence in an uncultured land, while to others, pick-pockets are master entertainers who deserve a standing ovation, endless groupies and a regular column in the Sunday tabloids.

The Artful Dodger, opportunistic thief or moralistic hero? Pic: Google Images


sabrina said...

In Malaysia, we don't have a lot of pick-pockets. God knows, none of these fellas has got such a skill or talent for it! But we do have a LOT of snatch thieves, and many innocent people have died as a result of being a victim of these losers. As a result, many people have resorted to taking the law into their own hands and beating these thieves to a pulp cos the police don't seem to be doin anything.

By the way, i know i've mentioned this like a million times but i really do love your writing style. You have such an interesting voice and i think you'd be like a good adventure-book writer.


sabrina said...

Oh also, might i suggest goin to and pinging your site everytime you post. Makes it easier for us to know when you've posted something.

Be good!

Anonymous said...

Smokey is your Reader

DonkeyBlog said...

Hey Booby, thanks for the tip ... am on hols in Thailand, so haven't had much of a chance to post - don't really understand all this new-fangled internet stuff, so will investigate your suggestion soon.

Smokey, great to have you back on board - hope The Man doesn't find out this time!