A massive racket broke through the evening silence. "Chori karta hain! Abhi police ko bulati hun!" [You're stealing? Wait. I'm calling the cops.] screeched a woman in rage. Mentally cheering woman power, I rushed to the terrace to see what was going on. Several people were similarly out in their respective windows and balconies, and a small crowd was rapidly gathering around a woman who had collared two children. Another child stood nearby with a small sack.
As angry people started getting aggressive, and the children looked terrified out of their wits, I hastily ran down to find out what the matter was. By then, an older man had taken over the two children from the woman, and laid in a few slaps. Asking those gathered what had happened, no one was quite sure. So I waded in and asked the people directly yelling at him, quite happy to deflect attention and give them a breather.
The children were street kids, who the woman claims had earlier been warned to not come in the area. She claimed that they reached in from windows and stole whatever was within reach. Other angry people spoke about missing underwear (not joking), bedsheets and such. None of them claimed to have seen the children take anything, but most of them were certain that these kids, lurking around daily were the culprits.
I asked them to empty their sack and it was indeed full of empty beer bottles like they had said. So I asked the people if the bottles belonged to them. No answer. I asked them if they could name something the kids had taken. Someone chimed in that there were bicycles being stolen in the area by street kids. No one was able to say that these were the children who took the bicycles.
In the meanwhile, a younger man had grabbed one of them and was threatening to strip him publicly as punishment, to which I bluntly told him that he was doing no such thing. "They won't learn otherwise!" "What do they have to learn? They don't have stolen goods on them. None of you can prove a thing. What are you expecting to teach them? Or is it that because they are street kids and no one is here to defend them, you can punish them for every imagined crime street kids do?" I fumed.
My husband, resigned to my ways quit watching from the balcony. He probably figured out that nothing was going to happen to those kids with me there.
Much talking and coming back over and over to the point that the sack they carried contained exactly what they claimed - trash - empty beer bottles. Much insisting that there will be no violence in any case. A few housewives found their voices to agree with me. "What will a child find within the reach of its hand in a window?" "Most windows have box grills anyway - even we can't hand out things if we wanted to" started emerging.
In the end, I told the kids that we understand that they make their living selling scrap, but the building compounds don't have scrap thrown inside. They can collect in the public area, but if they are caught without reason inside building compound again, they will end up with the cops, and I will not say a thing to defend them.
Then I deliberately walked with them a bit away from the group (and any residual anger). My heart broke to see those weeping faces, even though I was not entirely certain that they were all that innocent. And I gave them my parting shot "If I smell thinner on you again, we're going to go to the cops to get help for you."