One evening a number of visitors came to visit me, leaving quite late. It turned out that Mister Bruno, my Alsatian, had become complacent about security. Perhaps he was just sleepy. Normally, if anyone came to the gate after dark, he would make a huge fuss, barking furiously. Then peace could be restored only when the visitor had been escorted safely into the house, a bite-and-bark-free zone.
When my guests had departed I settled down in my usual rocking chair on the veranda overlooking the river – on the opposite side of the house from the front gate. When Naveen had finished his work, he came to join me for a chat. Slowly he realised that someone was moving about in the compound on the other side of the house. Scary.
We found a youngish fellow wandering around, inside the garden gate, with Mister Bruno wagging his tail in enthusiastic welcome – about as useful in the circumstances as a faulty burglar alarm. The intruder looked rather like those young men who used to parade up and down Oxford Street in London chanting Hare Rama, Hare Krishna. Naveen guessed that our visitor was unwell. I thought he was drunk or drugged. His head was shaved so we wondered if he was looking for one of the temples. Maybe he was hoping to find a Hindu temple in which to seek refuge for the night.
Mister Bruno played the perplexed bystander, tail still wagging but much less confidently. He still hadn’t uttered the mildest woof but later we discovered that our trespasser had stolen the gardener’s working clothes and had hidden them in plain sight by wearing them on top of his own. No wonder Mister Bruno left him well alone: he worshipped the gardener and no one had ever trained him to spot the difference between a real intruder and one dressed as a gardener; a wolf in sheep’s clothing, as it were.
Our unwanted guest was proving obstinate and resisted our well-mannered entreaties for him to clear off. So Naveen started to propel him slowly towards the gate, firmly and physically encouraging him to get out and get lost. By now the village dogs had started a chorus of barking, the alarm signals that had been so sadly lacking from Mister Bruno. None of the neighbours made an appearance – which was odd since they all must have been awakened by the cacophony of canine howls from their own chained watchdogs. So Naveen called our neighbour on his mobile phone to alert her. The lights in her house came on at once, then the next-door house lit up and rapidly the other houses along the river came to life. Everyone must have heard the frantic barking but no one had offered to join us and confront the prowler. They were scared.
By now the drama had moved to the other side of the river. The interloper had crossed the sluice-dam and managed to find a motor scooter complete with ignition keys. He had been caught red-handed trying to start it up and make a speedy getaway. Naveen ran towards the commotion and found the miscreant already lashed to a coconut tree while fishermen and farmers were taking it in turns to slap and punch the helpless young man. Naveen did the only sensible thing: he called the police. They said it would take time to arrive because it was so late and there were no police cars available at night. But two enterprising cops requisitioned a scooter-rickshaw outside the police station five miles away and rattled and rolled their way along the river bank to the crime scene, heralding their arrival by hooting reassuringly on the rickshaw’s ancient brass bulb horn.
The police ordered the villagers to untie the intruder and hand him over. No one wanted to press charges because the villagers are frightened of the criminal justice system, a world of wrongful arrests and decades locked up on remand with no prospect of a trial. And a complaint would mean long hours, even days, at the police station – possibly even a counter-claim for assault from the prisoner. So the culprit was bundled into the rickshaw whilst a cramped cop squeezed in on either side of him. Off they puttered, along the river bank to the tarmac road and the police station.
The excitement was over, the culprit caught, and the village went back to sleep. The next day every farmer and fisherman was walking taller. They’ll brag about their bravery for years to come. And they’ll spin the yarn to scare their children and keep them home through the long, dark nights.
Extracted from ‘A Village in South India‘ by Adam Clapham, a slow take on daily farming/fishing life.