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Friday, June 22, 2007

Life in Chennai #17: Why We Have Bars

The strangest, oddest fucking thing happened to me last night. It was surreal. I’m still shaking my head about it, trying to resolve the details.

So it’s 3am and I’m sleeping. I’m not sleeping that soundly actually. I was up late reading, my brain is still spinning and I can’t seem to get comfortable. So I’m rolling a lot. But I’m mostly asleep listening to the washing patter of rain through the nearby trees. Every once in a while it is punctuated by a snap and thud as the ripe mangos in the tree outside my window get heavy with water, break and fall heavily and satisfyingly to the pavement below. Occasionally a squirrel makes a racket, a vehicle passes along a nearby street, or a truck honks its horn, at who this time of night God only knows.

With all that, I am a little surprised I heard it. Perhaps it was simply the closeness or perhaps it was just a sound that was distinctly out of place, our brains adapted through the eons to pick out discrepancies in the background. Whatever the reason, the odd soft, scrape and knock stirred me.

You know when you’re in a sleepy state, your mind not quite awake and you’re not sure if you’re really awake. That was me. And even fuzzier without my glasses or contacts in.

But I swear I thought I saw a large dark shadow drift down out of sight outside my window. Now that is a very odd thing to see. I wasn’t sure I saw it. There was no sound, just movement of dark in front of the city-warmed night sky and building across the yard. Sleepy as I was, I was having trouble processing what I thought I saw. I thought, “monkey?” but it was too large to be a monkey. Bird? It didn’t move like a bird. It kind of just looked like it sunk. It had human size, but I’m on the 3rd floor (that’s 4 storeys off the ground for those in North America. India counts the ground floor always as 0). And last I recalled, although admittedly I was quite tired and still very fuzzy, people didn’t sink silently and smoothly through the air.

Truth be told, I’m a little fuzzy about all that as I was not fully awake. I was starting to wonder if I had picked up a half-dream from having watched part of “The Exorcism of Emily Rose” and an episode of “Heroes” earlier than night. That combo will fuck up your dreams if anything does.

But something still wasn’t right. You know the feeling. Humans are very, very good at picking up subtle queues, even when you can’t put your finger on it. The dark swath shadow of the curtain bunched to the side of my window kept my eye. It didn’t move right as a curtain does and I was thinking it was too big. Don’t ask me how I decided this at 3am. But then it moved and resolved into a man-shape.

Holy shit. There was a man outside my barred, but open window four storeys up at 3am! I can’t say the adrenaline hit me and I leaped to action. I think it was the silence of it all. There was no sound other than the rain. But I swiftly got out of bed and moved to the window as the man slipped silently and smoothly up over the deep overhang and to the roof just above. I gave a quick yell, but didn’t run out of the flat to catch them coming down the stairs. I’m in India, I don’t know how many people are up there and I don’t have any sort of weapon I can grab before they’d be down and gone. Simply not a good idea. Let them go. They didn’t harm me.

But mostly, I stood there because I didn’t feel any fear since they weren’t going to get through the bars on the window and without that fear (and it being 3am), there wasn’t really anger either. Just puzzlement. I stood at the window trying to sort out what I had seen and how it had worked, thinking, “What the Fuck. Did I really just see that?”

How the Hell did he get there and move around so quietly? He was obviously making some noise that woke me. But the roof overhang is at least 2 feet from the wall, the open window panes form a narrow outward barrier to reaching through the bars. And funnily enough I actually have personal experience of how slippery the walls and ledges are from the grime and dirt – and that’s when it is dry, let alone tonight when it is pouring rain. Being a climber, I know how hard it is to pull oneself up over a ledge or even up a rope, let alone quietly and in the rain. I didn’t see a rope hanging. What is this guy, Spiderman, Batman or some sort of circus freak? He moved so smoothly and quietly. I was left with respect for his acrobatics and boldness for what he had to know was a low and uncertain payoff, just whatever was in reach.

I can’t be certain, by a long stretch, whether the first shadow I saw was a second man who dropped down or if it was just one guy who dropped below my window panes and back up to the wall beside them where I finally made him. If there was a rope, I didn’t see it although without my glasses, expert witness I am not. Was there someone hauling him up from the roof? Or did he climb like the geckos that sometimes look at me curiously from the ceiling?

To be honest, so completely odd, even for India, that it was, I’m not sure I would have been sure I saw it at all except that he left his reaching device stuck through the window bars and leaning up on my desk. So I had physical proof of the short affair, but it still left me to sort out puzzle of the unlikelihood of the events.

What he had been doing was trying to steal the stuff from my pockets that I drop messily on my desk – cell phone, ipod, wallet, keys, coins, pen. I don’t know of course what, if anything, he could make out in the dark was there versus how much he was just hoping. He was reaching through with a strip of plastic. It was one of those flat wall panels meant to hide wires and the like – about 1 inch wide, ridges forming a wide “C” along the sides to give it some rigidity. Considering my presumed sophistication of his Spiderman routine, I kind of thought he would use something more specialized to grab things, but who knows. I suppose if you could get the strip under the cell phone, you could tilt it up and slide it smoothly down between the side ridges. And I suppose you could hook it in the fold of the wallet and lift it out too. But all that presents a degree of dexterity and smoothness not anticipated by a person clinging outside a window and trying not to make any noise. It was obviously the nearby soft scraping of the plastic against my desk that was the out of place sound that pinged my sleeping brain.

My next line of questioning was whether I had been targeted as a foreigner who presumably has more value lying around. It is possible as I’ve never been good with closing the curtains. Maybe someone saw from across the next building. But one has to be careful assuming you’re special in India with a billion people and when so much happens at random. Perhaps they just saw me reading tonight. Perhaps it was totally random. Who knows.

As to how they got to the roof, well, that part I know: the watchman, as nearly all watchmen uselessly do, sleeps like the dead all night and the roof is open from the stairwell. I’ve come home several times late on a Saturday night and had to jump the chained gate, tromp past the sleeping watchmen and up the stairs. I’ve no doubt a group of would-be petty thieves could wander in and out dragging furniture and the elephants from their escaped circus and no one would notice. Ah well, such is the way of things here: all watchmen of all buildings seem to sleep so there is no use firing him.

So the whole affair of 2 minutes and then several more questioning the sanity of the universe was over. Nothing taken. A stupid plastic strip as a souvenir. A little bothered because of how close someone had been, only 10 feet or so, but no risk to my person and I was not particularly shaken. What does one do, but go back to bed. Just a weird, surreal story that I had to share or risk starting to wonder if I was crazy.

I’ve always lamented and questioned the bars on the windows and balconies and double locks and deadbolts on all the doors. I hate feeling like a prisoner and not being able to lean out. I haven’t heard of Chennai having a particular petty theft problem, not like Vancouver where having your car or even your apartment broken into has become almost not worth commenting on. And I’ve always thought, come on, 3rd floor? What are they going to do, drop down with a rope and come through the windows? Yeah, that is what they are going to do. There is always one more surprise living here.

So that I now see is why we have bars on our windows. Utter madness, but there it is.


Erica said...

Isn't it amazing how a two minute flash of an event can so profoundly affect you - not just in the minute but in the replays and the analysis afterwards? That's scary kid - do you feel less safe now? That's always the real crime. Glad to hear you're ok!

McKay said...

No, I don't really feel less safe. The experience was just weird, same as all the other weirdness of life here. People value lives differently, including their own, especially the lower castes. It seeps through all of society as I've seen it and so what would not ever be considered by a down-and-out thief in north america -scaling a building to steal things through windows - because despite their despiration, they still have a deeply ingrained valuation of life versus personal risk, is done easily here. People will work in very dangerous conditions daily - you should see them putting up apartment buildings - without a second thought or really any pre-union grumbling so taking the same monkey-routine risk to grab a few hundred rupees worth of what you can lay hands on I guess isn't so outlandish.