Don't sleep over it

India, Nov. 14 -- In January 2007, columnist Tavleen Singh was walking her dog on Marine Drive. As dogs tend to do when out on walks, it defecated. When a municipal official asked her to pay a fine for not cleaning up after her dog, Singh refused. The Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation's (BMC) rule about scooping dog poop, she said, was "half-baked" and "stupid". Ergo, cleaning up after her dog was not her problem.

I had recent reason to remember this episode. (Though here's full disclosure: Singh once wrote a critical review of my second book, The Narmada Dammed). One night last week, a man entered my mother's fourth-floor Bandra flat, probably through the kitchen window. She was asleep in her room, as was the young lady in the next room, a good friend who lives with my mother. The man opened cupboards in both bedrooms, disturbing a little box that fell to the floor and woke our friend. She put on the lights, saw nothing unusual, checked that my mother was okay, assumed that a gust of breeze had knocked over the box and went back to bed. It was just before 2 am, she later told us.

After he dropped the box, the man must have raced through the living room into the kitchen, grabbing my mother's handbag on the way. He jumped out of the window onto the parapet below, where he rifled through the bag. Taking Rs. 5,000 in cash and her cellphone, he shinned down the outside of the building.

He next climbed up to a third-floor flat two buildings away. There, he robbed and raped a young German woman, in India on an arts fellowship. She eventually escaped, locked herself in her bathroom and started screaming. The other residents of the building heard her, and someone called the police. They arrived at about 4:30 am. The man was long gone, taking her money, a camera and some of her clothes.

About 6 am, my mother woke and found her bag missing, then the kitchen window open. She looked out. There on the parapet was an unsettling sight: her belongings, and the empty bag, strewn on the parapet.

Less than 24 hours later, the police had arrested a suspect. He had burgled the model Dino Morea's Bandra home only a week earlier, taking over a million rupees, a watch and two phones. Why he got bail after that kind of crime remains a mystery, but clearly he felt no qualms about returning to the same neighbourhood to rob again, and this time to rape.

And on Saturday, the police recovered most of what he stole that night, including my mother's phone.

This much, we know. That there are questions to ask about policing and security and window grills (or their absence) and so forth, we know that too.

Yet one piece of this story is missing. Where was this man immediately before 2 am, immediately before he climbed to my mother's flat? What was he doing?

About what you might expect, actually. He had tried to break into a room on the first floor of the two-storey bungalow, Susheela Sadan, that sprawls between my mother's building and the one where the poor German woman lived. The owner of the bungalow saw him peeping in through the window and raised the alarm. His watchman chased the man as he jumped to the ground and ran. He vaulted the wall at the edge of the property into the compound of the neighbouring building. My mother's building, that is. Here's what has left me stumped for a week now. Having chased the man off the property and into the neighbouring compound, the owner and his watchman simply went back to sleep. The idea of calling the police and reporting this rather unusual event, this attempted burglary, seems not to have struck either of the men. No, the man was off their property, so he was now somebody else's problem.

Yet consider: if one of them had called the police - and there's a police officer more or less directly behind his home - there might have been a few constables on the prowl on the street. They might have been asking questions and looking around, even before 2am that morning.

They might just have prevented two burglaries. They might just have prevented a rape.

But because the only people who saw this man and chased him decided to go to sleep instead of calling the police, a young woman is scarred for life.

Talk about security, sure. Talk about policing, definitely. But how will the police do their job if the community they serve is so wholly self-centred? Where's security if you and I are uninterested in looking out for each other? Where's security if it's not my problem?

You might equally well ask: where's cleanliness in our cities if it's not my problem? What is this society we have built where simply doing what we can and must is someone else's job?

Dilip D'Souza is a Mumbai-based writer and journalist. The views expressed by the author are personal

Published by HT Syndication with permission from Hindustan Times.