To brand a super thief

Photo: Jocelyn Baun

AS DEVENDER Singh alias Bunty waved to a cheering audience, it seemed he had finally made something of himself. After 12 years in jail, he’d finally arrived. Most people, who watched Bunty’s exit from Bigg Boss a day after he was welcomed, believed it was Salman Khan’s mischievous introduction that had him riled from the start. “Bunty chor,” Khan grinned, “tell us, how many times have you been to jail?” Bunty stared back in stony silence. What the channel did not air was his angry retort — “How many times have you been, brother?”

To understand the genesis of this anger, go back to the time when the channel Colors approached Bunty months ago, promising him a new lease of life. He would leave the show as Devender Singh — no one would remember “Bunty chor”.

For the media-savvy, it would be a dream come true — there’s nothing we love more than a repentant delinquent. For the reticent Bunty, it involved accepting a past he was trying to erase.Bigg Boss promos required him to monotone, clad in a sexy black waistcoat and hat, “Chori karna gunaah nahi hai” (stealing is not wrong). Bunty balked and stormed off the set.

It is easy to feel indignant at Bunty’s reluctance to talk about his crimes. Where is the irreverent Bunty, that his alterego from the film Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye! prepared us for? Why doesn’t the most famous thief of our times want to play to the gallery?

Sitting in his office (a friend’s home in south Delhi, where he runs his Krishna Detective Agency), Bunty, 37, is calmer. Startlingly good looking, his face resembles a mask — a smile that turns sardonic without warning, and eyes that twinkle too brightly for one so contrite. Bunty is quiet and predictably sharp. He speaks in a low voice, and looks right into your eyes when he does. Although he carries out essential courtesies, he is not exactly warm.

The stories surrounding Devender Singh are almost mythic — he can talk to dogs, he is the most well-spoken man you will ever meet, no security systems can keep him out, no jails can keep him in and, most recently, that he is insane.

That dark comedy, Oye Lucky!, played a big part in Bunty’s story. Without it, he’d be an intriguing headline; because of it, he’s something between a freak and a star. Everyone in his neighbourhood knows him. As we walk, cars slow down, old men peek out of their windows, ladies whisper and young boys ask for photographs. No one knows where he figures on their moral radar, but everyone wants a piece of his story.

While most thieves stole cash, Bunty picked up crystal vases, ceramic dolls and even a Spanish pomeranian

Without the fairy dust of celluloid, that story is quite bleak. Bunty grew up in a middle-class home in Vikaspuri, west Delhi, occasionally travelling to Singapore with his family. He’d loaf around the neighbourhood with friends — the kind of ‘awaaragardi’ his father frequently caned him for. When the father brought another woman home, Bunty ran away to travel around the hills in the company of back-packing foreigners. He looks back at this time fondly — he was free and introduced to new cultures. His hazy dreams of running a business took shape when a Japanese tourist pointed out his gift with electronic circuits. Soon after Indira Gandhi’s assassination in 1984, a policeman found the young Sikh boy wandering in the hills, and bought him a bus ticket home.

Back in his private hell, he was determined to be independent. “I was hungry. I saw an open door leading to a fridge. It was an obvious solution.” This is the only instance of stealing he admits to. Bunty maintains that if he’d known what he was doing was wrong, he wouldn’t have done it.

IN THIS warped logic exists a kernel of truth about his life. When policeman Rajender Singh investigated the thefts, he noticed a pattern — “From a row of parked cars, Bunty would choose one. Reversing the others out of the way, he’d take his favourite and leave only after restoring the others to their original position.” There was a similar eccentricity in his other heists — while most thieves went for cash and jewellery, Bunty would pick up crystal vases, ceramic dolls and even a Spanish pomeranian.

Filmmaker Dibakar Banerjee who made Oye Lucky! believes these were signs of a man “stealing a life for himself”. Bunty gave away the jewellery he stole to his girlfriend, a memory he wants erased, saying, “If I had someone in my life, would I have done such things?”, Banerjee says, “Stolen cars to drive to hill stations, fancy knick-knacks for his house. It reflected the hollowness of a society that makes material things desirable, but lays out rules about who can have them.”

A few hours later into our conversation, Bunty is a changed man. We hope to encounter a few dogs and witness his legendary charm over them. “Why do you want to show me in a picture with dogs?” he asks. He is insecure, asking if we are trying to damage his reputation, insisting that the word chor should not be used in the article. His friend Raja asks us to be patient — “It takes four hours to convince bhai. You’ve only known him for three.” Bunty instead wants to talk about his divya drishti, which enables him to travel to places in his mind. His ‘gift’ had policemen convinced that repeated incarceration had cost him his sanity.

Estranged from family, surrounded by fair-weather friends, the only person with insight into Bunty’s mind is his arresting officer. Bunty considers Rajender Singh his ‘guardian’, but beseeches me not to speak with him because “he’ll talk about my crimes”. Each time he was released from jail, Singh lent Bunty money and even gave him shelter at the station. He admits Bunty’s motivations were different — “He has never been violent or behaved inappropriately with a woman.” Though he backed Bunty’s decision to be a detective, Singh realises that it can never work if he pretends his past doesn’t exist.

This is the tragedy of Devender Singh. Attention makes him believe he is someone important, but the pop-culture fetishisation of his crimes means that people will only see him as a thief. If he is not Bunty superchor in the next bulletin, then he is just a stale headline.