In the days when the French were in considerable number in Pondicherry, there was a bakery called Boulangerie in French at the crossing of the Ananda Rangapillai and the Mission streets. Bread used to be supplied daily from here to Sri Aurobindo’s house. A young man of about twenty-five would carry from house to house a basket full of bread and biscuits, deliver them as per arrangement, take the signatures of the residents and go back.
The story I am going to narrate took place about fifty years ago. Sri Aurobindo lived then in the Francois Martin street. I remember only the name of one person out of the several who stayed with him; the other names are lost to my memory.
The lunch in Sri Aurobindo’s house would generally finish by 12 noon. The main gate and the room doors of the house were not shut or bolted in those days. Even so, no outsiders or thieves would get in.
After the midday meal the inmates of the house, all except Sri Aurobindo, were in the habit of going to sleep after closing their windows to keep off the heat of the sun. They would sleep from 12.30 to 2.30 or 3. The boy carrying bread used to put it in the proper place between 2 and 2.30 and go out. He would enter by the main gate, climb the stairs and approaching the table in the middle of the verandah, which would be dark owing to the shutting of windows, put the bread and account book on it and leave the house. After 3 the bread was removed to its place and the signature put in the book. The boy returned before 5 or 5.30 to collect the book for bringing it again next day with the bread.
The verandah table had but one drawer. It had no locking arrangement. Some ten one-rupee notes and five rupees’ worth in small coins would generally be inside the drawer. The inmates were not in the habit of counting the money while keeping it in. The amount would sometimes be more, sometimes less.
One day when Bejoy Nag opened the drawer to take some money out, he by chance detected an appreciable shortage. He was a bit startled. He kept observing for 2 or 3 consecutive days. All the notes vanished mysteriously. Only the small coins remained. Bejoy Nag one day kept a five-rupee note and two or three one-rupee notes together with the small coins to observe the result. The very next day a one-rupee note was missing. The next day to that, another one-rupee note disappeared. He was convinced by this that it was during their sleep that the money was being stolen. He resolved to catch the thief anyhow; he called me, asked for my help to catch the thief red-handed by keeping an eye on him from a hiding place between 12.30 and 2.30 p.m. Being young, I was over-enthusiastic to catch the culprit.
At the appointed time three of us (besides Bejoy Nag there was someone else whose name I forget) concealed ourselves behind the doors and kept a watch from three directions. It was about 2 p.m. My heart was beating fast with impatience. The bakery boy climbed up the stairs and then walked up to the upper verandah without the least sound as if he did not intend to disturb our sleep. He took down the bread basket from his head, put the fixed number of loaves and the account book on the table (a bit of pencil would always be attached to the book), silently opened the drawer of that rickety table, picked a five-rupee note out of it and thrusting it inside his turban retraced his steps. I could no longer contain myself. All three of us leaped lightning-like upon the boy and catching him dealt resounding blows to him. The sound of beating in that silent hour fell as that of thunder upon my ear. At the first two or three blows the boy uttered no word. As the fourth blow came upon him he could not bear it and started to cry out. He confessed that he had been stealing for some time past and promised that he would do it no more. Either on hearing the cry of the boy or for some other reason Sri Aurobindo came out of his room straight to the verandah and appeared before us. For a little while he stood without a word. On the face of the boy who had received blows there shone the solace of having seen his Saviour. Our raised fists dropped down of themselves and we stood still as though we had been the culprits. Sri Aurobindo forebade us to take the five-rupee note away from him and when we heard the order we felt as if a sentence had been passed upon us.