The neighborhood’s nightmare began one evening around three AM, dragging us out of our slumber with what sounded like a piece of sheet metal being hit with a hammer.
Our first thought was that the very worst thing imaginable was happening: our air-conditioner must be malfunctioning.
I roused myself and went to the window, raising the heavy fabric shade, expecting to see smoke belching from the unit or a monkey tearing it apart is its bare hands. That’s when I saw the armored cars, the men, and the guns the men were holding as they watched other men remove metal boxes from the armored cars and toss them on the ground with sleep-shattering crashes. Still other men picked up the boxes and carried them into a bungalow that was otherwise unremarkable but for the small ICICI bank logo above the doorway—a doorway that had always, until three AM on this weeknight, been covered by a metal shutter.
A few weeks before that colossal three AM racket, we’d noticed some renovation work in the upper floors of the ICICI-labeled building. This building was located on the main road between our house and Hauz Khas market, just a stone’s throw away, and although the potted plants on the building’s windowsills had always been kept trimmed and watered, the building had never before shown any signs of life. As with all construction sites, the workers renovating the building were given the privilege of living on-site for the duration of their work; what had drawn our attention was their shadows thrown against the upper-floor walls as they bent over their indoor cooking fires, defying all existing fire codes and fire prevention logic.
Now there was this colossal three AM racket, which lasted until five AM. The next day, the racket began again at a slightly more reasonable six AM, and repeated itself two or three times a week thereafter for the duration of our stay in India; although never again did they decide to go at it earlier than sunrise.
Until we learned to sleep through it, this wake-up call often had us out of bed and into the shower at ungodly hours. Sometimes I’d walk out on the balcony and study these men while sipping my coffee, these ICICI employees who were slowly taking on “mortal enemy” status in my sleep-deprived brain. Their operation involved a disproportionate number of thin older men standing around the armored cars, doing their best to look intimidating and alert, holding ancient rifles with worn wooden stocks that wouldn’t have looked out of place firing on the British in Meerut, watching a smaller number of thin younger men to make sure they didn’t run off with the cash as they lifted and threw the boxes, casting longing glances at the chaiwallah in the shade of the nearby tree.
The metal boxes would land with spectacular thuds, the kinds of sound that thin metal boxes dropped from a truck make when they’re full of thick, juicy stacks of rupees.
Once the trucks were empty, the men would emerge from the building carrying the multiple metal boxes with ease, implying that their contents had been emptied into what I presume was a big pool of money in which ICICI executives would routinely bathe. They’d toss the boxes lackadaisically into the trucks, where they’d roll about like coins dropped into an empty soda machine. Only far louder.
And then, with a great show of glancing around for bad guys, the guards and the men would stand around scratching for a few minutes. And then they’d hitch up their pants, spit one last time, and pile into the trucks to drive away.