Mugged in Mumbai—and an unexpected Karmic twist

Mugged in Mumbai: Cruise director Paul McFarland
Cruise director Paul McFarland

“I WANT,” is the driving force behind mugging: need and greed. But these muggers in India also had intangible desires that compelled them to behave in a way that surprised their victim. After a recent visit to Mumbai, my friend Paul McFarland, a cruise director, filed his report.

Thanking Muggers

After years of travel there are a few places that I still get excited to visit. Mumbai, India is one of them.

After a delicious meal at the Khyber restaurant, I waited for a taxi outside. I planned to go to Victoria Station, the train station in downtown Mumbai, to take photos of the beautiful building and the colorful people.

A black and yellow taxi pulled up, reminding me of a bumblebee; not so much because of the color but because of its size. It took me some time to fold my 6′ 3″ frame into the back of the vintage vehicle, and I was no sooner in when the driver hastily sped off. We quickly reached top speed and began cutting and slashing through the traffic. I felt like a bag of rice being thrown from side to side. Fortunately my outstretched arms could reach each side of the vehicle and that alone kept me upright.

The driver sensed my discomfort and asked if I liked Indian music—as if that would soothe me. I didn’t want to set him off by saying no, so I nodded. Big mistake. His voice sounded like a snake charmer’s flute as he sang, and he let go of the steering wheel, wildly waving his arms as if he were a classical dancer. All the while he was driving faster and faster, narrowly missing ox carts, cars, and pedestrians. I finally screamed at him to slow down, whereupon he glanced at me in disbelief and started to sing his song slower. The good news is that I arrived at Victoria Station in record time. Little did I know this was just the start of my adventure.

I got out of the taxi much quicker than I got in—so happy I had arrived safely that I gladly overpaid him by 200 rupees. I had plenty of money with me as I planned on giving a few rupees to some of the people as a thank you for allowing me to take their pictures.

Mugged in Mumbai: Mumbai fruitwalla near Victoria Station
Mumbai fruitwalla near Victoria Station

Victoria Station loomed large across the busy intersection and beckoned to me to photograph its architectural beauty.

On the way I stopped every few feet to photograph the colorful, happy people at the markets that had sprung up on the streets surrounding the station. They were selling everything: from watermelon with slices of fresh pineapple chilled with melting blocks of ice, to scraps of material, to cheap padlocks. Because my camera was new I was concentrating on the viewfinder, focused solely on my photography. I wandered freely throughout the crowded market and, even though I was by myself, I felt very safe. I’ve enjoyed many wonderful visits to this exotic and exciting country without any incidents and had no reason to believe today would be any different.

Even though I didn’t buy anything, the street vendors seemed to enjoy having me look at their items. I think it added some credibility to their card-table stores. I weaved my way through the vendors and crossed the street to capture a good panoramic view of Victoria Station. As I walked along a roadside barrier, I kept my eye on the building.

Mugged in Mumbai

I didn’t notice a taxi approach me from the opposite direction. It pulled to a stop right next to me and two young men got out. At the same time someone tapped me on my shoulder. As I turned to see who it was, the two men from the taxi immediately dropped down in front of me, grabbing and wrapping themselves around each leg.

My first thought was, my God these beggars are a lot more aggressive than they used to be; but at the same time two men jumped on my back, one holding onto my left arm and the other one going for my backpack which contained more camera equipment. Another one wrapped his arms around my waist. I must be watching too much of the Discovery Channel because I remember thinking: I’m like a wildebeest on the Serengeti being pulled down by a pack of jackals. Even though the wildebeest is much stronger, the jackals can bring him down through perseverance.

I staggered forward wearing five young men. Then it occurred to me that they weren’t trying to hurt me, they were just trying to detain me long enough to pick my pockets. Within seconds I reached for my wallet but it was it was already gone. This enraged me and I tossed two of the young men to the ground. But I noticed at the same time that one of the boys was running from the scene dodging traffic as quickly as his flip-flops would allow. His hasty departure told me he was the one with my wallet.

I tried to pursue him, but there were still three thugs hanging onto my legs and waist. I was able to quickly rid myself of the young man around my waist but I had to use my camera as a hammer to get rid of the human leg irons. They were no match for the Nikon D300 and dropped off. Then I was free to pursue the thief with my wallet.

I ran across the four lanes of traffic yelling stop thief at the top of my lungs, hoping to gain attention and support from the many locals in the area. But he had already made it to the other side of the road and had merged with the millions of Indians at the Sunday market. My heart sank, knowing that my chances of ever seeing him or my wallet again were nil.

Mugged in Mumbai: Sidewalk barbers in Bombay
Sidewalk barbers in Bombay

I wandered through the market, carefully scrutinizing every face I saw. After about ten minutes, realizing my search was futile, I headed back to the road. I now looked suspiciously at the same people, and now their beauty and innocence were gone. I was sad about that. Little did I know that there was still more to my adventure.

The black and yellow bumblebee taxis were all lined up looking for fares, but not necessarily looking for me because, in this part of town, few of the drivers spoke English. In these situations, rather than asking drivers if they speak English I ask “Did it snow last night?” if they say “yes, no problem,” I know we’d have a problem if I got in that taxi.

After quizzing eight to ten drivers, I found one I thought understood my destination. I was relieved that I had remembered before leaving the ship to stash some cash in other pockets in case of just such an emergency. I climbed into the taxi and he took off in the direction of my ship, giving me confidence that I had made the right choice.

We’d been on the road for three or four minutes, giving me time to organize my thoughts and do a mental inventory of what was in my wallet and what steps I was going to have to take when I got back to the ship. I realized that the wallet contained three credit cards, my drivers license, my PADI dive card I’d had since 1976, and $250 cash.

My concentration was interrupted when suddenly another taxi pulled up next to us with two young men in the back seat yelling at my driver. My driver tried to ignore them at first, but eventually was forced to the side of the road by the other taxi. I couldn’t believe it was happening again, and I braced myself for another attack. I thought: the bastards know I have more money because I got in a taxi and they’re after every penny.

I gripped my Nikon for action as the two young men jumped out and quickly threw something in the back window that landed on my lap. Thinking the worst, I threw myself out of its path—only to discover that it was my wallet. To say I was surprised to see it is an understatement. I opened it and realized that my credit cards and everything but my money was intact.

As they fled, I was so relieved, I blurted out the window, “thank you,” as if they were India’s version of Robin Hood. I thought: you’ve really lost it now—thanking muggers! My taxi driver smiled at me, and we once again took off for the port. On the ride I double and triple check my wallet, thinking it was too good to be true to have thieves go to the effort to track me down. Why had they chosen me to attack, and then why in the world would they take the chance of being caught by returning it?

Mugged in Mumbai: Musicians in Colaba, a Bombay neighborhood
Musicians in Colaba, a Bombay neighborhood

I wasn’t sure if my driver knew that I’d been mugged when I got in the taxi, but I was pretty sure he figured it out. So I asked him why they returned my wallet and he gave me in a one-word reply: Karma. I remembered reading that in the Hindu and Buddhist religions Karma is most important and is based on actions or deeds. The thieves initially created very bad Karma for themselves, but by returning my wallet perhaps they hoped to balance it out with a good deed.

Once back at the port I told the ship’s agent about the incident and he asked me to describe the attackers. I told him that there were six or seven of them, and that they were all about 5′ 6″ to 5′ 7″ with dark hair and dark complexions. I added what I thought would be a helpful detail, remembering that they all wore flip-flops. He seemed amused, and I embarrassingly realized that I had just described not only my attackers, but probably five million other young men in the city. I quickly added that one of them might have a unique imprint on his forehead—that of a 28 x 200mm Nikon lens.

Bottom line: I lost $250 but that’s not what I’ll miss the most. I’ll miss feeling safe in a city I still love.

*The photos of Mumbai are mine. Paul’s are probably much better!
For more on muggers, read

“How I mug,” as told by two muggers in Panama

© Copyright 2008-present Bambi Vincent. All rights reserved.

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