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Saturday, October 16, 2010


The current October 2010 issue of Reader’s Digest magazine sadly ran what they call an ‘open  photo editorial’ (p.44), commenting on how shoplifting at our malls has become really big in this country – to the tune of an estimated Rs.5,000 crore a year (that’s about one billion US dollars), almost. Shoplifting happens in other countries, too, but the Indian figure, as a percentage of total sales is much higher than, say, in the US and UK. India, they said, has earned one more dubious distinction: ‘the shoplifting capital of the world’! They also wondered ‘what the Father of the Nation (to whose memory we still officially pay homage this month) would have said about such a collapse of national integrity’.

I was reminded by this story of the fact that a certain girl – ashamed to admit she used to be a pupil of mine – had boasted, after going to college in Delhi, how ‘cleverly’ she and her college friends steal things from shops, all kinds of things from cheap trinkets to expensive electronic items, ‘just for fun’. That was maybe five years ago; I wonder what she’s stealing from the office now. And only a few days back I read in someone’s blog (another Delhi-wali college goer) that she has stolen books from the book fair ‘for fun’. Yes, say the Digest editors, for some people shoplifting can be ‘fun’. And they say there are even parents around who think ‘their thieving teenagers are clever, because the kids don’t get caught at their shameless (italics mine) game’.

A critical point to note is that all these thieves are ‘educated’ as well as well-off; they steal only for fun, or maybe out of greed, or merely to show their friends how ‘brave and clever’ they are. And, as noted above, there are lots of people from whom they win admiration for it: or at least, they are certainly not called ‘shameless’ and worse. Indeed, if you look into the comment on the last post I wrote on the other blog, you will see that someone has asked ‘Why should it be mandatory for everyone to be interested in the same things – such as books?’ I am sure that it is the same sort of (by now very numerous-) people who will say ‘Why should everyone be bothered about morals and things like that? That is so 1970s (or whatever)!’

In this context, I only wonder whether it is indeed a fact that there has been any all-round decline in national integrity of late, as the Digest editors seem to think. Aren’t fraud and theft and blackmail and lying and cruelty of the worst sort quite as much a part of ‘our hallowed tradition’ as the rise of great men and women now and then who have set good examples and persuaded a few of their fellow-Indians – for a while – to rise above the muck to better things? My reading of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata certainly makes me think like that. I have read about graft on a gigantic scale in Mughal times, and heard that even in my grandfather’s youth – that’s about 70 years ago –  the municipal Corporation of Calcutta was called chorporation (den of thieves), where nothing moved without a bribe. From Vidur to Gandhi, good men have been freaks actually, I think, who have in vain rocked the boat briefly before vanishing from the stage, leaving the ‘wonder that is India’ to wallow back in the filthy mire, which, maybe, is the only place where most of us really feel at ease. After all, there is nothing new about the Bangla saying churi vidya mahavidya, jodi na poro dhora (theft is a great art, if you can avoid getting caught). The only difference that may have come about lately is that people have become more ‘shameless’ about what they do, more in-your-face, even ‘proud’ of it. Until very recently, men like Harshad Mehta, Ketan Parekh, Ramalinga Raju and Lalit Modi were being touted as icons and role models for our youth, remember? Their bad luck they got caught: it is an open secret that countless ‘icons’ of exactly the same ilk are still sitting proudly on their pedestals! Who cares how they made their money? Isn’t just having loads of money everything these days? I have never yet met a young man who is ashamed that his father got rich stealing scrap metal from a steel plant. 

Our children get to know it and practise it, apparently with their parents’ tacit (or even explicit) approval, in school itself, the day they start copying in exams, don’t they? If ever they get caught, their parents raise a huge ruckus about how the poor darlings don’t really deserve any serious punishment, don’t they? And, as I shall never tire of pointing out, it is these millions of children who grow up, by way of honing their skills at cheating, shoplifting and other minor arts like that, to become ‘successful’ doctors and engineers and teachers and bureaucrats and lawyers and politicians and business tycoons, don’t they? So why don’t we at least collectively cry halt to our other national passion once and for all: that of forever beating our breasts about how ‘corrupt’ this country is becoming? Why not declare that churi vidya… will be our national motto hereafter, for one and all – and then find out whether a country which bases its economy and polity explicitly on such a foundation can survive for long. Which crooked millionaire wants his milkman or tailor to cheat him? The one universal constant that I have found in dealing with people is that even thieves absolutely hate it when others cheat them or steal from them; that's the one time they talk nineteen to the dozen about the need for morals! Why can’t we applaud those who are smarter crooks than we are, even when they are picking our pockets?

 Besides, why should someone who steals Rs. 50 be called a crook and another who steals hundreds of crores be invited to lecture at high-end business schools?


Soham Mukhopadhyay said...

Dear Sir,
You had discussed this topic in our classes. Calling India ‘the shoplifting capital of the world’ is really a shameful fact for our country. I often hear our elders saying how advanced have we become- however when I tell them about these facts, they give a disapproving look. I even hear this among some of my friends who boldly proclaim that how they managed to steal a bottle of perfume or a packet of chips and so on. It is really shameful and pathetic. We are proud of our progress regarding infrastructure while we hide our faults in morals regarding life.


Vaishnavi said...

Dear Sir,

If a certain wrong thought or opinion takes root in a person and if that person does nothing WHATSOEVER to change it; in spite of having ample opportunities to do so; if that person chooses to remain in the stagnant pit that his mind and principles have become, what can be done? And if this same person mutates into hundreds of others till a country holds in large bunches, such despicable people, what can be done? Yet we must do something; just like you do Sir, through whatever means possible. This is such a distressing state of events; even more so because I know that right now if I were to go talk to some people about this particular thing, they would laugh and brush me aside. Do people have such messed up notions of what is right or wrong out of ignorance or apathy?


Subhasis Graham Mukherjee said...

shubho bijoya to all suvrobemused

we take this international with pride too

while doing my grad studies in US I had close encounters with Gultis (Andhra) and Tambis (Tamil). Most of my friends and roommates where from these two states.

A year into our studies, we started preparing ourselves to welcome the new batch of students (more Gults). My good friend kept reminding us of his super-rich cousin coming to study there. He was the son of a (ahem!) cop in AP.

He arrived when I was away on a trip back home to Kolkata. When I came back, I found our enterprising young man and his friend had used my room and bed. Abused would be a more appropriate word.

He started out by using Indian one Rupee coins in the common washer and dryer machines - they were very close in circumference and weight to the American quarter (how I wish all this research efforts were used for good). He chose to do all this in the machines closest to our unit. So, if anyone wonders where Indian coins come from in this area where it's mostly Americans and people from other countries - the blame's easily passed.

He also did all the "cool flicking" Suvro talks about, at the local supermarkets and stores - with a lot of pride and admiration from peers.

Pretty soon, he started shopping for a car. For some weird reason, he came to me for advice. I told him (based on my my experience) to go for a 'student' and 'survival' car of around $1000 and then definitely go for better once he got a job and settled down (even I wasn't anywhere near that then).

My friend (our man was this guys cousin) reminded me that his dad was such a rich super-cop from Andhra that he could actually sponsor four such grad students in US everything paid. I was being quite stupid in suggesting he buy a $1000 car. He eventually got a $4000 car.

What I didn't and still don't get is why he had to use my half room and bed instead of a motel or even hotel. And flick chewing gum from the stores.

Winning Is Living.. said...

Dear SIR ,

As you point out,the vast majority of people do not care about morals anymore..and have only become more shameless ! And yet , as the others before me have pointed out , when one goes to talk to them about these things , one is either laughed at or simply brushed aside as if what we were saying made no sense !

And these "well off and educated" thieves stealing for "fun" (some of whom i too do find among my associates ) , only to win some admiration , have more of a mental disorder! Why does one need to steal to gain admiration ??

And as you point out in the later part of your post , we need to stop this from the grassroot level itself . These "thieves" learn such things starting from copying in school examinations itself...and then unluckily if they get caught the parents make a huge issue out of it. Thus we only encourage them to do so..and make them beleive that there was nothing wrong in what they did. We have truly messed up our morals big time...

With regards,

Arka said...

Dear Sir,

Subho Bijoya to you, boudi and Pupu. And ofcourse, Happy belated Birthday.

The senior journalist, Mr. Joydeep Dasgupta, Bureau Chief, Zee News Kolkata, under whom I'm working right now, writes often in his blog. I'd like you to follow it for a while, you may like it too. He's even a very good cartoonist and most of his works are political satires. I just forwarded the link of your blog to him.

The link for his blog is: www.joydeepdasgupta.blogspot.com

With regards,
Arka Choudhury

Anirban said...

ei lekhata porte porte mone pore gaelo je 'churi kora' kintu aekta manushik rogo hote pare..and some people need serious counselling/treatment..(aamar nijer chokhe daekha aekta cheler aekhon treatment cholche...cheleta shoplifting korte giye dhora pore bairer aek airporte ebong take konorokome charano gechilo..pore jana gaelo je shoplifting kora or gupto shobab chilo and it was a sort of mental disorder)

just for everybody to be a little alert..maybe somebody needs some serious help.


Suvro Chatterjee said...

That is certainly a possibility, Anirban, but given that millions of people in this country have this habit of shoplifting, it begs the question, doesn't it: what kind of society is it that breeds such a foul 'disease' in such huge numbers?

Anirban said...

I agree with your views, Suvroda...ei shob trend gulo disturbing.

After i read your article initially, i visited the website of 'The Economist' and found out that in terms of % of revenue lost through shoplifting,India heads the list whereas in absolute terms USA is the highest.While a lot of social factors can probably explain such an observation about Indians , i was wondering what could have prompted people in US to behave in such a fashion?

Or maybe the issue is a deeper one affecting many more societies?

Tomar motamot janio.



Shubhranka Mondal said...

I was back to college after bijoya dashmi and was awestruck to see a rack filled with a brand new collection of Oxford Tagore translations in the library. (The literature department here is probably sprucing up to celebrate Tagore's 150th birthday.)
Whatever, I could hardly hold my excitement and randomly picked up an anthology translated by Sukanta Chaudhuri.All I wanted to know was ...whether some of my favourite poems from Sonchita would echo similar thoughts when read aloud in English. The only other advantage that I was looking forward was...whether some of the allegorial poems that I have read and failed to understand have an explanatory footnote(we do have them sometimes in translations, don’t we?)

No other thought came to my mind. I rushed out of the library at once as i had forgotten to carry my library cards which were inside my confiscated bag. But as I retrieved my bag from the library attendant I realized...that I was carrying an unissued book which the librarian had forgotten to check.So,out of sheer excitement I had this book which I wanted to read for the rest of the week right in my hand.For a moment..all kind of thoughts crowded my mind....I am no Gandhi...who needs the card, when I could have the book for the rest of my life well placed in my boofself?
Second, I had followed no tactics to steal.The book was in my hand quite unthinkingly out of some crazy excitement... I wanted to be the first one to read a new book.Why on earth do I need to return it?
...But finally my conscience did not allow me to do the same.I went inside with my card and issued the book.
Back home, I was happy. I was at peace. Deep inside I knew I could have never forgiven myself after stealing....Robithakur's work.NEVER EVER.
That day as I flipped though the pages…I did not find the translation of a single poem that I was searching.But that evening I did read Sonar tari.Sukanta chaudhuri had even translated the inner meaning of the same as written by Tagore to a critic in response to some letter.It was hidden in the explanatory notes in last few pages of the book.It suddenly started raining in Delhi….I re read Sonar tari.
By the way, what is ‘Delhi-wali’ ,sir?

Suvro Chatterjee said...

Strange: one needs to be a Gandhi these days to hate stealing, is it? We live and learn...

Subhasis Graham Mukherjee said...

Most libraries have sophisticated systems in place nowadays to prevent absent-minded walk away with library material. All library material - books, magazines, CDs, DVDs have an embedded strip with electrostatic charge. This charge gets removed during legit checkout but would cause an embarrassing beeping at the security scanners if material is just walked away with.

For those passionate about reading and books like Suvro, this news would be very exciting. Stealing library books could be of as much value as taking electronic and other valuable items from stores.

Same expensive deterrent system in place for both.

interesting story on George Washington - http://www.cnn.com/2010/LIVING/04/19/george.washington.overdue.books/?hpt=T2

Suvro Chatterjee said...


You don't seem to have noticed that this post was not about shoplifting alone, but a (near-universal) national tendency to cheat and lie and steal whenever we can get away with it.

And Subhashis, the very fact that such surveillance systems are having to be installed is proof enough that we had better beware of thieves (well-dressed, well-heeled, 'educated' thieves) all around us, isn't it?

As for lending books, alas, one has to bow to reality sooner or later. After lending books indiscriminately for more than two decades, and suffering loss beyond count, I have now stopped almost completely.

Amit parag said...

Empty brain is the devil's workshop and this void in the brain is created by wrong sense of entertainment and false notion of "I can do this, can you?" among friends, which many times results in this malpractice becoming habit ( like doing these things just for the sake of doing them). The progenitors of one of the many twisted 'shameless games" the adolescents love to play can be traced directly to some ideas and philosophies which is drilled into their minds by their guardians, like being told to be always practical and care for one's own self every time. For instance, in Kota , parents tell their wards to concentrate only on joint entrance examination and absolutely do nothing else-by 'nothing else' I mean that the student is not allowed to play , read other books or even dream, for that matter). So naturally these highly practical parents produce highly practical thieves.
There was time once when teenagers where expected to know their Homer, Virgil and Shakespeare and quote them with ease, I am talking about the Will Pitt ,the prime minister, James Fox, Wilberforce and the like, and the classic extempore speeches they gave, while frequently using quotes from Greek literature. In the preface of the book "Meditations' by Marcus Aurelius , the editor has written that the great emperor drills his soul in the right principles so that when the time comes he would not be found to be lacking in them.

Suvro Chatterjee said...

Absolutely on the dot, Amit. As I have myself quipped before, the real disease is so many 'educated' people around with degrees under their belts and nothing (outside a few inane technical details - such as how to repair boilers, write software or remove teeth) in their heads, and proud of it too. Your allusions take my breath away, for the simple reason that I know most people your father's age these days won't even know the names you have mentioned, let alone say anything sensible for two minutes about any of them. It has become incredibly easy to be called educated these days; it wasn't always like that. That's what they call progress...

Dipayan G said...

I haven't come across any shoplifter till date so I was genuinely surprised by the RD article. Still, I'd like to ask: don't shoplifters have a thing called conscience which would prick them? Or is it years of practice that has made them immune to that prick? Don't they realize that NOTHING on Earth is for free? Again, if such people get their pockets picked, they're the ones who'll create maximum fuss about that, as you said. Call it hypocrisy or feeling-what-it's-like-to-have-a-dose-of-your-own-medicine. The very fact that shoplifting is done in a furtive way justifies that it's a shameful act and not something to be proud of, leave alone 'discussing' about it in a group or getting praised for a feat well-achieved. The Indian scenario's dreadful indeed. Still don't want to believe it's true.

Suvro Chatterjee said...

Well, you are not very likely to 'meet' shoplifters, Dipayan, unless you are a mall security manager or policeman, psychiatrist or maybe journalist, or if one of your friends boasts of being one...

Yes, it hurts to know such things about your fellow-countrymen, doesn't it? So what do we do, play the ostrich and get angry with people who point out such things?

Dipayan G said...

Either that or try to change things at whatever level we can. Don't want to sound pessimistic or anything, but it will remain to be seen whether any effort on our part to curb such incidents will actually be effective in the true sense of effectiveness. Otherwise, as you mentioned in your post, these efforts will "have in vain rocked the boat briefly before vanishing from the stage, leaving the ‘wonder that is India’ to wallow back in the filthy mire, which, maybe, is the only place where most of us really feel at ease."


Suvro Chatterjee said...

Are things changing for the better, or worse? Read this for some interesting observations: