In the backdrop of the spirited Ganpati Celebrations of Pune, Aman and Sahil find themselves in the middle of a whirlwind of adventures. One Modak box goes missing every day in one of the popular pandals of Pune. Racing against time, with credibility at stake, Aman and Sahil find themselves in a nail-biting chase to find the Modak Thief.
It was a pleasant evening. There was a gentle breeze coming through the window. Early September, the rains had finally subsided. The trees seemed eager for the monsoon to end. The rains had been heavy and harsh this year. Tired of all the soaking and drenching, they were ready to shed off their leaves and let go of their baggage. Just few more weeks, they seemed to whisper, for the arrival of the much-awaited season of the year, Autumn!
“Wish it was that easy! To start over all again,” pondered Aman. Autumn and Spring, the two desirous seasons of the year, whom nature looks upon for rescue from the torturous sun and the cruel cold.
Aman was winding up his work for the day. The workload had suddenly increased the past four days, thanks to his manager, who had taken up multiple contracts on Ganesh Chaturthi.
“Any project started today will be fruitful,” he had declared on the day before the pooja. Suddenly, everyone was swarmed neck deep with their work. Finally, after four days of hard work, Aman had managed to get his share of work under control. He had decided not to slog hard at least for the next seven days, when Ganpati will be celebrated in great enthusiasm in Pune.
Ganpati is one of the biggest and most important festivals in Maharashtra. Every village, town and city welcomes and worships Ganpati with utmost dedication and zeal. Pune witnesses one of the grandest celebrations every year. The whole city decks like a bride, every lane and alley is decorated with flowers and lights. For eleven days the city celebrates Ganpati with full gusto, with prayers, chants, food and dance. People dressed in colorful clothes and are usually seen outdoors socialising with each other.
Aman headed to his car in the parking lot. As he drove, the sunlight hit him straight on the eyes. The setting sun was still bright and shiny, reflecting the atmosphere of the city. He crossed the narrow streets and glanced at the huge Ganpati idols installed on big pedestals. The pandals hosting the idols were decorated in opulence with rich velvety silks, variety of flowers and glittering lights. The pandals were set up with extravagant themes, sparing no expense.
In between pandals, the streets were packed with stalls. Some stalls were selling Ganpati idols and accessories. The attractive peshwa crowns, lovely bejeweled umbrellas, pearl necklaces, bracelets and other trinkets used to adorn the Ganpati were a feast to watch.
But the most enticing of all were the sweet shops, which minted money the eleven days of the festival, when they transformed into “modak factories”. (Modak is the most famous offering to Ganpati across Maharashtra. The traditional modak, made in all the households, is made of flour with jaggery filling deep fried in oil.)
The sweet shops had their own secret recipes with which they produced different flavors of delectable modaks. The Malai modak, Kaju modak, Coconut modak, Anjeer modak, Chocolate modak and the Mango modak, were a few popular flavors among many.
Aman longed for the modak every year. Three days back, on the day of Ganesh Chaturthi, he had welcomed Ganpati with simple prayers at his home. He had bought a small colorful clay idol of Ganpati and decorated him with flowers and leaves. He had offered the modaks at the end of the aarti and had relished his share of the modaks.
As he was lost in his thoughts, his phone rang. The name on the display surprised him. Why is Sahil calling him at this time of the year?
Aman had met Sahil twice, once in Matheran and once in Tirupati. And both the times, they had solved petty mysteries together.
“Hey Sahil, how are you?” greeted Aman.
“I am fine Saab! Ganpati Bappa Morya,” croaked the voice from the other end.
“Ganpati Bappa Morya. How are celebrations going on at Matheran?” asked Aman.
Sahil was from Matheran, the place which Aman loved the most. The tall woods, serene mountains and the deep valleys worked wonders on his soul.
“I am in Pune right now, Saab. Kiran and I have come to help my uncle in his grocery store during the celebrations. He said he could use a pair of extra hands,” replied Sahil.
“Whoa! We must meet. Where are you put up?” enquired Aman.
“Viman Nagar,” came the voice from the other end.
“That is very close to where I live,” Aman said, “when are you free?”
“Right now, Saab. And if you come within the next half an hour, I have something very interesting to show you,” said Sahil playfully.
Aman’s antennae shot up. ‘Interesting’ is a word which defined their encounters the past two times.
“What are you up to Sahil?” he got curious.
“Nothing very serious Saab. I chanced upon something interesting. And I thought about you…” Sahil was indeed making it very fascinating.
“Don’t tease me Sahil. Where are you right now?”
“At the biggest chowk of Viman Nagar. I am heading to the pandal for the evening aarti,” Sahil answered.
Aman checked his watch. It was half past 5. The aarti starts at 6:00 pm. He was just a signal away from the Viman Nagar turn. He could see the big mall, which stood at the intersection of the Viman Nagar and the main road, already in his sight.
“Alright. See you there in few minutes,” Aman said and hung up.
He anticipated heavy crowd, especially at the time of aarti. So, he took a turn at the signal, parked his car near the corner and started walking towards the chowk.
The chowk was decked like a wedding venue. There was a huge arch decorated with different types of flowers at the entrance. The pathway was cluttered with stalls and eateries on either side.
Flower vendors were selling lotuses, roses, marigolds of different colors, yellow, orange, red and white. Lotuses in full bloom made such a lovely sight in the hands of Ganpati Bappa. The marigolds were considered to be the God’s favorite and were used in abundance in all the floral decorations.
There were also fruit sellers who had their baskets full with delicious apples, pomegranates, oranges, custard apples and bananas.
As he walked along the pathway, a huge pandal opened up towards the left.
Yellow and red fiber columns with intricate peacock designs supported the pandal on all the four sides. The beams on the top of the columns had skillfully crafted patterns with Ganpati in the center, flanked on both sides by elephants with their trunks raised. Red and white silk drapes covered the pandal between the columns.
Inside the pandal was an enormous pedestal, upon which sat a larger than life Ganpati Bappa, watching everyone with his benevolent eyes. The backdrop was a white drape. A circle of orchid bouquets was beautifully laid on the pedestal. The clay idol was about eight feet tall and was seated on a throne. The trunk of the God was slightly curved towards the left. The idol was carved in the traditional form, with a Ganesha seated with an axe, noose, lotus and modak on each of his four hands. He was attired in an orange floral dhoti. There was a small statue of a black mouse at one corner of his seat. The crown was studded with red, green and white stones. There were huge lamps and scores of incense sticks lit on either side of the deity. Just in front of the pedestal, were two tables, joined together and covered with a muslin cloth. This was the place where the devotees can place their offerings to the God during the aarti. After the ritual is complete, the eatables are then distributed among all the devotees.
Aman looked up. The roof was covered with a Coral marquee with bright red floral designs woven into it. The pandal was very well lit with LED lights all over. A dim color changing light on top of the Ganesha idol added more splendour to the grandeur. The entire arrangement looked lavish and was a feast to the eyes.
As he was walking towards the pedestal, he spotted a thin fair man standing in the corner talking to someone. It was his friend, Shubham. Shubham knew Aman very well and was very fond of his adventures. Shubham had been a regular volunteer in the pandal for the past few years. He decided to greet him later.
It was few minutes before six in the evening and crowd had started gathering up for the aarti. Aman looked around but could not find Sahil. He found a nice little spot towards the far left where he could get a good view of the God and stood there.
Someone from behind tapped his shoulder and he turned around.
“Saab,” Sahil greeted Aman with a hand shake. At about 6 ft, Aman was very easy to spot even amidst a crowd.
“Hey, Sahil,” said Aman affectionately, and embraced him with a warm hug.
“Where is Kiran?” he asked looking around.
“He is at the shop with my uncle,” Sahil answered. “Come, it is about time for the aarti.”
“Where to? It is a good view from here,” said Aman.
A radiant smile spread across Sahil’s face.
“No saab, let’s go ahead,” he said and added in an undertone, “All the action happens in the front.”
He cruised through the crowd and reached the front row, and then moved sideways to the left, where they could get a full view of the prasad table lying in front of the pedestal.
But they could see only one side of the God. Aman looked quizzically at Sahil, who had a mischievous smile on his face.
The aarti was just about to begin. The head priest was already on the pedestal. The drums and the bells were in place. People were placing the modak boxes on the table in a hurry. This has to be done before the aarti, for the modak will be offered as prasad to the God during the ceremony.
“Saab, how many modak boxes do you see on the table?” coaxed Sahil.
“WHAT? WHY?” said a bewildered Aman.
“Count it once,” Sahil nudged.
Aman quickly counted the modak boxes laid on the prasad table amidst the marigold garlands, coconuts, laddus and pedas. He said “24” aloud.
“One of them is about to disappear,” Sahil smiled.
Aman was about to say something when the beating of the drums started along with the ringing of the bells. The priest commenced the aarti. He lit up the holy fire on the lamp and held it in front of the God. The entire crowd started singing.
The atmosphere turned vibrant. People were singing in unison and their voices echoed through the speakers. At that moment, the only thing anyone could have heard in the entire area of Viman Nagar was the chorus singing the aarti.
After a few entrancing moments, the bells and the drums stopped. The priest turned around and presented the aarti to the devotees in the front row. The crowd went livid. Everyone wanted to feel the sacred fire in their palms. They surrounded the prasad table and shoved their way ahead to reach the aarti. The security guards and few volunteers looked on helplessly at the chaos.
Aman and Sahil stood in the corner and observed the commotion. After a few moments, the crowd thinned down and began moving towards to the prasad queue, which was a lot more organised.
The queue was towards the right side of the pandal. There were tables running along the side and their volunteers stood behind them ready to distribute the prasad.
As soon as the commotion ended, Sahil tugged Aman’s shirt. “Quick, count the boxes again. They are about to take them out for distribution,” he said.
Aman counted the boxes immediately. “23!” he exclaimed.
Looking at the smug look on Sahil’s face, he continued, “This is ridiculous. How did you figure it out?”
“This has been happening since the day of the Sthapana. The first day I arrived, I was in awe with the vast spread of the prasad and the variety of modaks. So, I counted them. Kiran walked in just after the aarti was finished. He was also surprised and I asked him to count them just for fun. He came up with a number one less than mine. So, I counted again to verify and the number was indeed one less than what I had counted before. The next day, out of curiosity, I counted before and after the aarti and found one box missing again. The incident repeated yesterday, and now as you see, even today!” Sahil concluded his narration.
Aman burst out laughing. “So that’s why you called me? To find the “modak” thief?”
“No Saab. I was planning to meet you anyways. But knowing you, I thought you might find it interesting,” said an embarrassed Sahil.
Aman suppressed his laughter and joined the other devotees who were lined up in the queue. “Come, let’s have some prasad,” he said jovially.
The queue moved faster and the volunteers were filling the plates with the prasad and handing it over to the devotees.
“So how long are you here?” Aman asked.
“I head back the day after the visarjan,” Sahil replied.
“And before that, you have a task up your sleeve. To catch the modak thief?” Aman jested.
“I am going to give it a shot,” said a determined Sahil.
“No one else even noticed. The prasad is in abundance,” countered Aman.
“Well Saab. Theft is theft,” asserted Sahil.
The volunteer handed over the prasad to them. The plate was overflowing with rice, two different types of modaks, chana, laddu and halwa.
“This is more than my share of dinner,” Aman exclaimed.
“Ganpati Bappa is generous!” the volunteer said with a smile.
Aman thanked him and exited the pandal. Sahil followed him with his plate. They sat on the steps of a sweet shop adjacent to the pandal and started eating. It was twilight already. There was a gentle wind swaying the trees.
Many others followed the same suit. Few of them went into the sweet shop to enquire about a type of modak and ordered a box for themselves. The shop was thriving in business.
“The sweet shops will make enough money for the year,” murmured Aman.
“Yes Saab. I was suggesting that my uncle open up a sweet shop next year. We will come to help. It is a very profitable investment,” said Sahil.
“Good idea,” Aman paused. “Coming back to the modak thief, did you inform the priest or the volunteer committee?”
“Not yet Saab. I wanted to be sure first,” answered Sahil.
“Now that we know, let’s go to talk to them,” said Aman.
Aman walked towards the prasad queue where the volunteers had gathered. He found Shubham standing among them. Instead of pulling Shubham aside, he broke the news before the whole group, a decision which Aman repented in a few minutes.
The priest and the president of the volunteer association were taken aback at first that there was a box of modak consistently missing for the past few days.
One of the volunteers clasped his hands in delight, “Ganpati Bappa is accepting our prasad. It is a miracle! We are so blessed.”
None of them understood what he was hinting at.
They all stared at him hard.
“Can’t you see? Ganpati Bappa is actually savoring the modak every day. That is why one box is missing,” said the fanatic volunteer.
Few of the others, who considered themselves enlightened and could see the truth, began to marvel at God’s wonder. They started praising the priest for showing them the way. The priest was both baffled and humbled at the same time. They congratulated each other for being fortunate to have witnessed the miracle.
Aman was shocked at the turn of the events. He stood there, speechless, with his gaze arrested on the fanatic volunteer. Sahil was having issues controlling his rage, he looked like he was about to hit them with a bludgeon.
After a few seconds, Aman gathered words to speak up. “Do you really believe God is eating the modak? It is as good as the rumor which was spread when I was a child, that he was drinking milk from his trunk,” he gasped aloud.
“What else do you think, if not a miracle? Why is it only one box of modak is missing every day?” the volunteer countered.
“That is precisely what we have to find out,” argued Aman.
“There is no need for anyone to steal. The prasad is distributed in abundance,” asserted the volunteer.
Aman shot a very sharp look at him. He did not know what to say. He looked at Shubham expecting him to speak up, but Shubham was avoiding his gaze. He turned around and started walking very fast. Sahil followed him.
“Only because of such people and their misplaced beliefs, we still live in the past,” he cursed under his breath, taking huge strides.
“Saab, should I go punch him?” offered Sahil.
“Let’s not attract more attention. We will have to figure out what to do next,” said Aman.
They heard a voice. “Hey, Aman!” They turned around.
It was Shubham. Aman recalled that he was one of the very few who had remained silent throughout the conversation.
“I am sorry about what happened. People can get really crazy, especially when it comes to beliefs,” he started apologising.
“If you did not agree, why did you not say anything?” bellowed Sahil in anger.
“There is no point. Besides, now news will spread fast that Ganpati Bappa is eating the modaks,” said Shubham.
“So, are you going to let people believe that it is true?” queried Aman.
“No. The news will spread fast, and if it turns out that it is false, we will be in whole lot of trouble. We are already running short of resources and funding. But I do not want to start any investigation on this formally,” said Shubham with a look of concern.
“So, what is your plan?” asked Aman.
“Why don’t you join us and help us out? I am the secretary; I can rope you in. I know you can crack this up for us,” he appealed to Aman. “One of the security guards will assist you. I will ask the volunteers to keep quiet till we figure out what is happening. I do not want any publicity around it.”
Aman glanced at Sahil, who gave a slight nod.
Shubham went back and spoke at length with the other volunteers, who were murmuring among themselves. Aman could make out that there was a disagreement. The head priest and the fanatic volunteer were throwing their hands up in the air and speaking frantically.
Seeing it was taking ages, Aman and Sahil headed to the tea vendor at the chowk.
After a while, Shubham turned up. “You are in. Solve this case for us, won’t you?” he pleaded with Aman.
Aman agreed and signed up to volunteer. The priest and the group of fanatic volunteers looked daggers at him.
“The chair person has instructed them to keep quiet about the whole incident for the moment. We do not want false publicity,” whispered Shubham in his ears.
Aman nodded and also got the permission from Shubham to check someone if they found them suspicious.
They chatted for quite some time until Aman realised he is already late for his apartment cultural program.
The celebrations in the apartments, where Aman resided, was a gala affair every year. Ganpati idol was received in the apartment premises on a fully decorated thela accompanied by dhol and dance. The procession was welcomed by beautifully saree-clad ladies, who stood around an elaborate colorful Rangoli which they had made in the early morning hours. Then it went around the apartment complex, amidst dancing and cheering by all the residents in the society, young and old alike. The children led the procession, followed by men and women who danced whole heartedly and spiritedly.
After a full round, the idol was installed in a well decorated pandal, where the aarti was performed by the senior most member of the society. After the Sthapana, they inaugurated the cultural programmes, which would be conducted every evening for seven days. The children and the adults got a chance to showcase their talent in the form of dances, skits or songs. The evening ended with a grand sumptuous dinner.
Aman looked forward to the celebrations in his apartments every year. They gave him an opportunity to interact more with his neighbours. But this year, he had been having a tough time managing his increased work for the last few days. He hoped to plan his schedule better for the rest of the celebrations, so that he can dedicate more time to both the celebrations in the apartments and the mystery at the pandal.
The following day evening, Aman wrapped up his work by five and was on his way home. It was Tambola that night at the society. He was looking forward to it. The programme, the day before had gone really well. Aman had given his name for the on the spot entry in the fashion competition and had won. He was pretty pleased about it and was in a jolly good mood. He had made some new friends and they had all decided to meet up the coming weekend for breakfast. He was humming to the beats of some melodious songs being played on the radio when the signal abruptly turned red. He came back to his senses and pressed the brakes hard. He saw the huge mall looming to his right and upon further raking his neck, caught a glimpse of the decorated archway leading to the chowk. He checked his watch. It was quarter to 6. He waited for the signal to turn green and started his car.
Sahil was early today. He secured his spot such that he could get a full view of all the happenings on the table.
The news that Ganpati Bappa was eating the modaks did spread around, despite Shubham’s efforts. The crowd was in a frenzy today. People were hoping that Bappa will savor their box today. There were more modak boxes than the previous days on the table.
Sahil was furious. His immediate reaction was to collect all the boxes and put them in a bag, safe and secure from the crowd.
“How many boxes today?” he heard a deep familiar voice.
“Total 52, 20 medium sized ones, one of which will disappear,” Sahil responded without looking back. He was grinning cheek to cheek.
“Alright, let’s get this modak thief,” said Aman and hurried to the other end of the table, exactly opposite to Sahil’s position. The drums and bells started ringing and the chants began for the evening aarti.
People were immersed in devotion. With their palms clasped together, they were mesmerised at the sight of Ganpati Bappa blessing the divine aarti. Aman was keenly observing the table. The old lady next to him saw him gawking at the prasad and tugged his shirt. She signaled him to look towards the God. Feeling little awkward, Aman averted his gaze momentarily.
Once the aarti ended, the commotion broke. Aman and Sahil closed down to the table, but the crowd was beyond control. People swooped down on the table to reach the aarti. By the time, the crowd receded, as expected, there were only seven medium sized boxes on the table. The modak thief had stuck again!
Sahil came running towards Aman. “Any luck?” he asked.
Aman shook his head and looked around. There were no CCTV cameras installed. To the right, the prasad queue had already started. They walked towards the entrance of the pandal. It faced another crowded sweet shop on the front. The grand floral marquee covered the left and back side of the pandal.
“The thief most likely would have exited from the front,” guessed Aman.
“The prasad is quite generous, Saab. He wouldn’t want to miss it,” countered Sahil.
The sixth day of Ganpati saw more crowds pouring into the pandal. Aman saw the president and Shubham refuting the rumors vehemently that there were modaks being eaten by Ganpati Bappa in the pandal.
“There are no modak boxes missing,” he heard the president shouting aloud. “It is a rumour being spread. Do not heed to them. Our volunteer team is keeping a keen watch on the proceedings.”
“Dude, help me, won’t you?” Shubham’s tone was desperate. He had sneaked up from behind. “They will say we are spreading news for false publicity and cut our funds. We are a small group of people trying to uphold a tradition.” Aman nodded silently.
He and Shubham took charge of the prasad table. As the prasad kept coming in, they quickly reshuffled the boxes so that they were at the farthest end.
But exactly few minutes before the aarti, the table was filled with fresh modak boxes. The crowd was unmanageable by then and Aman was helpless. He knew there is nothing much he could do and so he ran towards the side exit to stand with the guard. They had assigned Kiran, Sahil’s son to do the counting job.
Once Kiran confirmed the theft, they started watching people with bulged bags or suspicious gait. They even asked for few backpacks to be opened up for routine scrutiny.
After the prasad distribution, Aman walked towards Sahil, who looked grim. They discussed the plan of action for the next day, eating their prasad on the steps of the sweet shop.
“I do not think anyone walked out of the side exit with the box,” he said. “Tomorrow let us swap positions.”
On the seventh day, Aman had decided to work from home. It was visarjan day in their society. The dhol and the thela had arrived early evening. There was a grand parade. After the rituals, Ganpati Bappa was placed on the thela and the procession went around the huge complex. Men, women and children, folks of all ages were dancing without inhibitions to the beats of the drums. Aman joined the procession and spent two good hours dancing along with others. In the end, there was the final aarti and loud chants. They then immersed the clay idol in a huge vessel filled with water and rose petals. A little boy started crying loudly. “Ganpati Bappa is dissolved in the water to go back to Mount Kailash to his parents. He will come back to us next year”, he heard his mother consoling the child.
Aman checked his watch. It was about time for the aarti at the pandal. He hurried towards the chowk. By the time, he reached the pandal, the aarti was almost over. Aman ran towards the front entrance and waited for the people to walk out. Unlike the side exit, the front entrance had very little crowd coming out. As Sahil had guessed, no one would want to leave such a sumptuous prasad.
But still Aman scrutinised each and every person walking out. There was nothing much to do. It did not take him long to conclude that the modak thief did not exit from the front.
“More than one pair of hands is involved, Saab,” said Sahil, when they were eating their Prasad at the regular spot. Shubham joined them.
“Looks more like it,” murmured Aman.
“What do we do now?” Shubham said.
“Wish there were cameras installed,” began Aman and paused looking at Shubham.
“No more funds. Sorry,” Shubham shrugged his shoulders.
Sahil was thinking aloud, “Unless it is from the top, there is no point recording it near the table.”
A plan started materialising in Aman’s head. “Ask Kiran to come early tomorrow,” he told Sahil.
On the eighth day, Aman asked Kiran to record from his phone near the prasad table. The security guard and Sahil took their positions on the side exit and the front entrance. Aman crossed the road and stood near the sweet shop which directly faced the pandal. He climbed up few steps so that he can get an overall view of the pandal, from the front and the sides, and waited.
The aarti was done. Sahil signaled. Kiran had just confirmed the theft for the day. Aman started recording the crowd exiting the pandal with his phone. He did not find anyone suspicious but nevertheless he kept recording the proceedings for about half an hour, till the crowd completely receded.
Later, at the steps of the sweet shop, they played back the recorded videos. Kiran’s video was uneventful. The crowd was too unruly and there were scores of hands reaching out towards the aarti. In the chaos, the pair of hands stealing the box was completely submerged. Then Aman played his recording, he zoomed in on the side exit first, and then the front entrance. They played it twice, but did not find anyone suspicious.
As they were heading back home, they saw few of the fanatic volunteers sneering at them and mocking them. Disheartened, they parted for the day.
That night, Aman could not sleep. He was tossing restlessly in the bed, and reached for his phone. He was scanning his photographs and videos. Casually, he played the earlier pandal recording again, this time without zooming in. He was watching the people going out of the pandal again, when suddenly he saw a flicker of movement towards the left.
He paused, moved the slider back and replayed it. He zoomed in to the left side of the pandal, which they had ignored for the past five days.
He saw a lean figure, walking from the left side of the pandal towards the road. With a bag in his hand, the figure trotted away towards the arch.
With wide eyes, Aman replayed the video again. He saw adjacent to the pandal on the left, was a small building, which was a day care center. The marquee was erected next to the wall of the day care center, and there was a small passage between the wall and the marquee. The broad pillars on the front engulfed the passage way and hence is unnoticed by those on the road.
Aman was fully awake by now. The mystery slowly unraveled. A big smile came up his face. He picked up his phone and dialed. The sleepy voice on the other end asked, “What happened, Saab?”
The whole night Aman could not sleep. He kept thinking about various possible theories about how the theft was done. He could zero in on just one, though it made little sense.
When he met Sahil and Shubham the next day, he poured out his thoughts. One person, who is on the front, steals the box from the table and passes it on to another, who is standing in the middle of the crowd. That person, in turn passes it on to the third, who is on the left most corner of the Pandal. The third person puts it in a bag, bends down and slides the bag under the marquee. The fourth person, who is waiting in the passageway outside the pandal picks up the bag and walks away. The other three join the prasad queue, indulge in the sumptuous prasad and go home with their stomachs full.
“4 people for one box of modak? Why?” Sahil asked the obvious question.
“The modak thief should give us the answer,” shrugged Aman.
“We just have two days left to catch him,” warned Shubham.
“I know, let’s hope for the best,” answered Aman.
“Should I wait inside the passageway?” asked Sahil.
“No. We have to catch him red-handed, with a box in his hand. Only then can we know the truth. Otherwise he will simply deny the theft and we do not have any proof. The recording does not show the modak box. It might be in his backpack,” countered Shubham.
“So, we stand on the footpath?” asked Sahil.
“No, I will stand on the pavement to the left and you stand on the opposite side of the road. Let him take the box and we will ambush him,” said Aman.
“I will have to be at the pedestal during the aarti. Will join you once it is done,” said Shubham.
They took their positions and were keenly watching the narrow passage left to the pandal.
Kiran was in his regular position to count the modak boxes and the security guard was on the side exit of the prasad queue.
Few minutes after the aarti, Sahil spotted the movement and signaled Aman. They saw a thin lanky boy in his teens coming out of the passageway with a backpack. The boy started walking swiftly towards the arch. Sahil rushed towards Aman.
Shubham caught up with them.
“Most likely he is a beggar,” Shubham said. “He will either turn right to the mall or turn left, to the Ganpati temple”.
Aman nodded. A large group of beggars in front of the mall is a familiar sight to those who cross the Nagar road. The boy must be taking the modak to feed the beggars.
He also knew that the temple in the far right also had beggars seated in a line. The guard’s conjecture seemed plausible. The boy had increased his speed by now. Aman and Sahil hurried. After a while, he vanished.
Aman and Sahil decided to split. They ran in opposite directions of the road. Aman did not stop till he reached the beggars near the mall. Shubham followed him. There they saw the beggars in rags, with their hair disheveled. Few were sleeping on the footpath and few were watching the traffic. There was no sight of the boy.
They walked back in the opposite direction to meet Sahil on the other end. There too, they had no luck.
“The boy wore decent clothes,” observed Aman, “He did not look like a beggar. Unless he is a Robinhood, I don’t think he will come near the beggars”.
“We are running out of time, Saab,” said Sahil. “Tomorrow is the last day.”
“I know. Let’s hope we will catch him tomorrow,” Aman tried to sound confident.
“Do you think he figured out that he was being followed?” asked Sahil dubiously.
“We will know that only tomorrow,” said Aman hoping that the thief had not spotted them.
On the tenth day, the last day of the Ganpati celebrations, the city was preparing for the visarjan the next day. Huge trucks and vans were standing on the pavement, decorated with flowers and lights to escort Ganpati Bappa. The vendors were closing their stalls and the decorations on the pathways were winding down.
But the fervor in the pandal was just the same. The crowds were flocking around the prasad table.
Aman and Sahil were standing on the farthest corner near the arch to remain unseen. They had asked the guard to keep a watch on the left passageway of the pandal. Shubham said he would not be able to join them, as he has to prepare for the visarjan the next day.
They heard the chants of the aarti reverberating through the streets. After few minutes, the beats of the drums and the ringing of the bells subsided. Aman held his breath. This was the moment of action, the climax. If the thief does not show up today, all their efforts for the past few days would be futile. If the thief does show up and they miss him, it will be a letdown. Moreover, they will have to face those fanatic volunteers empty handed. The whole thought gave him butterflies in his stomach.
He saw Sahil on the other end. He was pacing up and down. He seemed on a verge of a nervous breakdown. Aman managed a brief smile. Of late, they both had got into the habit of nosing around someone else’s business. Their craving for thrill and adventure has gifted them these anxiety pangs, which at the current moment, seemed no good.
Time looked eternal. Aman had begun to give up hope. Sahil was sweating profusely. Suddenly the phone rang. The guard signaled in affirmative. Aman and Sahil ambushed on both sides, like tigers, ready to attack the prey. The prey will be there any moment.
In a blink, everything happened. The prey came and vanished in a fraction of a second. The tigers who were about to pounce, found themselves, face-to-face.
The thief had suspected the ambush. So, he came ready to run. He got a bicycle today, and had parked it near the day-care. The guard had seen the thief walking out of the passage and on to the pavement. By the time, he saw him taking out the cycle, it was too late. The thief speeded up, crossed the arch and much to their chagrin, went neither turned left nor right. He entered the residential area, straight ahead where the tall apartment complexes stood staring at them glumly.
Aman and Sahil crossed the road and started running at the same time. But they were too late. The thief had vanished. Aman went to enquire the security guards at the main gates of each of the apartment complexes. He came back disappointed.
“Where did he go, Saab?” said Sahil catching his breath.
“No idea,” said Aman dejectedly.
They turned around and started heading back to the pandal. From the corner of his eye, Sahil spotted something. He pulled Aman’s shirt and signaled him towards his right. There was a very narrow lane hidden between two apartment complexes. They looked at each other, their hopes raised and started walking furtively into the lane. After a while, the lane curved left. They saw a small Durga temple, where the lane opened up to a slightly bigger road.
When they entered the road, they stood gaping at the sight which greeted them. There was a canopy set up on a small stage. And on that stage, on a throne sat another idol of Ganpati Bappa, with benevolent eyes. They walked ahead and saw a bunch of women distributing prasad to the people. They were serving rice and chanaa.
Aman inspected his surroundings. The road branched into multiple lanes towards the right. In each lane, there were block of houses with asbestos roof, laid out in a row. The houses seemed very small enough to accommodate a single room and a kitchen. The bathrooms were outside. He saw women standing in a queue to fill the pots from running water from a tap.
“Must be the labours and the cleaners, who worked in the apartments and the malls,” thought Aman. He went and made some enquiries with few women. The women folk were the maids working in the apartment complexes.
He repented the moment he opened up the modak topic.
“We are maids and labours, Saab, but not thieves,” rebuked a woman in a stern voice. “We earn for our living; we are happy with what we have.” She started talking about their daily hardships and poured out her woes to him. Aman was profusely apologetic to her, but she did not heed to any of his words. She was in no hurry to pardon him and let him go.
Sahil, who was standing few steps behind Aman, silently scurried off the lane.
One of the women saw Aman’s miserable condition and came forward to the rescue.
“We did not see any one with the modak box, Saab. We have our aarti here daily in the evening. We cook the prasad and distribute it among ourselves.”
Aman believed them. He felt very guilty suspecting these common folks. He looked at the stage where Ganpati Bappa was seated. It was very simply decorated. But that did not take away any generosity from the God, who showered them with his benevolent blessings.
He apologised to them once again and started walking back when he heard Sahil’s voice. He turned around. Sahil was further down the road, asking him to come.
Aman hurried towards him and Sahil led him further down. He looked sideways at the houses. The lanes were clustered, the houses were smaller, mostly with just one room. The beds were laid outside, and women were washing clothes and drying them.
They passed through the lanes which were crisscrossed like a maze. After few turns, the lane opened up to an open ground. There was garbage piled up in one corner. In the other corner, there were few children playing hopscotch.
Aman looked at Sahil enquiringly. Sahil pointed to the garbage, where there lay scattered, few empty modak boxes. Aman stared hard at the boxes.
“How do we find who has been throwing them?”, asked Aman.
Sahil went to the children and asked them if they knew who was eating modak the past few days. One girl pointed out diagonally to Sahil. There, he saw 10 teenaged boys, huddled in the far end of the ground, eating modak. One of them was the boy they were chasing. The boys were happy chatting among themselves and oblivious to the proceedings around them.
Aman and Sahil approached the boys stealthily. Sahil tapped on the thief’s shoulder. He abruptly turned and jumped up. The boys scattered and some ran away. Sahil firmly held the thief’s shirt and Aman caught two more boys by their collars.
“We are from the volunteer association committee of the pandal. Tell us what is going on, otherwise we will call the police,” threatened Aman.
“We did not do anything saab. Leave us,” pleaded the boy.
“We have caught you red-handed eating the modaks. We saw you stealing the box from the pandal. You thought you will get away with the theft. There are cameras installed there. Now tell us what is going on or you will have to face consequences,” warned Aman.
“Saab, it is not such a big deal. It is just one modak box. There is so much of prasad out there,” said one of the boys defiantly.
“Theft is a theft,” growled Sahil, “And you do not mess around with Ganpati Bappa’s prasad. Besides what was the need to steal? You had plenty of prasad being distributed freely?”
“My grandfather used to be a cleaner in the pandal till last year, Saab. Every day in the evening, he would get a box of modaks for all of us to eat. This year, he broke his hip and cannot move. We love the modaks and wanted to buy them. But they are very expensive and our parents would not allow us. We saw that there were lots of modak boxes in the pandal. No one would notice if one of them went missing. So, we got a box of modak each day and distributed it among ourselves,” said the thief.
“Why did you not seek work, just like your grandfather did?” reprimanded Aman.
“We checked, Saab. They said they were running short of money and volunteers themselves were cleaning up the pandal this time,” answered the boy.
“How many of you were there in the pandal? There were more than two isn’t it?” asked Aman.
“Yes Saab, Jiten here lifted the box from the table, and gave it to Atul. Atul then gave to Viren, who walked towards the end of the pandal and slipped it under the drapes. I picked it up from the outside,” confessed the thief.
Sahil looked admiringly at Aman, who bowed before him mockingly. “I put my case to rest, your honor,” he joked.
They took all the three boys and called their parents near the Ganpati stage. They made such a huge hue and cry, that everyone in the colony came to know about the theft in few minutes.
Aman called the other eight boys who had run away and rebuked them for being a part of the theft. The embarrassed parents of the boys profusely apologised to Aman and promised him that such a thing will never happen again. They even introduced him to the grandfather who was very unhappy on what had transpired.
“I used to take pride in my work, even if I was a mere cleaner in the pandal. You have brought me shame,” he rebuked his grandson and his friends.
It was getting dark. The weather was slightly chilly and a slight drizzle started. Aman and Sahil walked out of the colony happy and relieved. They did not say a single word to each other. They were tired for the day and were basking in glory of their success.
When they were about to part, Sahil asked Aman if he will come for the visarjan.
“Of course, Sahil. This is the first time I have come to the evening aarti in the pandal so many times. The celebrations will be incomplete without the visarjan,” he smiled and walked away.
That night, Aman and Sahil slept at peace. On the day of the visarjan, Pune prepared to give a grand farewell to Ganpati Bappa. All schools, offices and local businesses were closed for the day. Every man, woman and child, was near the pandal to offer their prayers one last time to the God.
The sacred prayers were chanted and coconuts broken. And for one last time, the drums and bells started ringing. The Maha Aarti commenced.
The crowd was in frenzy. Amidst chants, hails, and sobs, Ganpati Bappa was taken off the pedestal and carried to the huge truck, which was waiting near the arch. The truck was decked with orchids and marigold garlands of all colors. People were squeezing upon each other climb the truck. There was a musical band standing in front.
They saw Shubham in the middle of the crowd. He waved at Aman and Sahil. He was with the head priest and the fanatic volunteer, who were too embarrassed and averted their gaze.
Aman had called Shubham the previous night and narrated everything that had happened. Shubham in turn had broken the news to everyone in the committee. They had succeeded in keeping the rumours under check the past few days.
Once the priest boarded the truck, the procession began. The vehicle started moving slowly. The procession turned right from the arch towards the mall. The band started playing the Bollywood music. People started dancing fanatically. The crowd gathered more and more, till the whole road was flocked with people. The police had to block the traffic, to let the procession move on.
And somewhere in those myriads of people, were Aman and Sahil, dancing off to the stars, thanking Ganpati Bappa and congratulating each other on their adventure, finding the modak thief.
(The views expressed by the author are personal.)
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