Home > Apollo Robbins, Pickpocket > A Disappearing Art?

A Disappearing Art?

I still remember the scene quite vividly. It happened during an afternoon at the movies, at Regal cinema in Bombay many years ago.  I had gone to get samosas during the interval (the ones sold at theatres those days were really to die for). In that pre-multiplex era, there were no turnstiles and no queues, one had to fight and jostle to get to the counter because the samosas usually ran out if you weren’t quick enough.  As I stood tip-toed, trying to lean over the person ahead of me with a 20 rupee note in my hand and shouting ‘boss, do samosa dena’,   I vaguely felt a hand brush slightly on my back of my jeans. Almost immediately I realized what had happened and felt my back pocket, only to find that my wallet was no longer there. I instantly turned around, but could only see others like me desperately trying to make their way through the crowd. Either the guy had made an improbably quick exit, or he was daring me by essaying the role of a similarly hassled movie patron hoping to get his samosa, and doing an excellent job of it.

I was a perpetually broke student then and hardly had anything meaningful  in my wallet, but remember feeling  a palpable sense of dismay that I had been so careless and allowed it to happen. As I played back the sequence in my mind later, I tried to imagine if I could have accosted the people around me and somehow managed to isolate the thief.. the dismay was not so much about losing the money, but the feeling of having been completely outwitted by a clever con at work.

I don’t know why, but the memory of this incident came back to me a few days ago, and I’ve been thinking about pick-pockets since then. ( Isn’t that the noun, btw? I’ve never heard ‘pick-pocketeers’ being used). Anyway, what strikes me of late is,  that afternoon in Bombay was the first, and to date, the only time that I’ve had my pocket picked. And as I began to think about it, I realised that I don’t seem to recall anyone I know – friends, family, acquaintances, anyone at all –  recounting a story of pick-pocketing, for as far as I can remember in recent times.  Do you know of anyone?

Is it do with the fact that almost everyone I know these days has their own vehicles, and hardly any of us ever uses public transport? And of course, we watch our movies in fancy multiplexes and wait patiently in queues for our nachos and popocorn too. So is it just that I’m sampling the wrong demographic here?

Are these artists still around, plying their trade and picking out their unsuspecting targets?

I sincerely hope they are. I will be quite saddened if the art of pick-pocketing is on the wane, because I really think it’s an art which should be preserved, which should evoke not scorn, but admiration. I mean, just look at the sheer dexterity and skill involved – a whole lot of practice and preparation, an ability to read situations very well,  split second decision making with very dangerous consequences for wrong decisions (escape strategies, for example), extreme propensity to take risks.. almost sounds like a CEO job description.

Co-incidentally, I stumbled upon 2 stories this week through different sources – one via a tech blog, and the other via Twitter – but both on the same man,  Apollo Robbins – entertainer extraordinaire’  who began life as a pick-pocket, and now has psychologists, neuroscientists, defence experts and Nobel prize winners study his skills to learn about human attention patterns.

This amazing video where he shows off his skills is a must watch:


And don’t miss this fascinating New Yorker piece on his life and times.

In his words, “A lot of magic is designed to appeal to people visually, but what I’m trying to affect is their minds, their moods, their perceptions. My goal isn’t to hurt them or to bewilder them with a puzzle but to challenge their maps of reality.”

Not words you would expect from a common thief, is it? Mr Robbins, may your tribe grow and prosper.

Categories: Apollo Robbins, Pickpocket
  1. Siddharth Kapoor
    February 13, 2013 at 1:21 am

    Satish, don’t worry, they are still around. One of my team members lost 6k over the weekend, while getting off a bus. I can tell you he doesn’t share your admiration for them 🙂

    • February 13, 2013 at 9:47 am

      Sid.. Glad to know that they do 🙂 On the days I don’t bike to work, I take 335E to Richmond circle. Let’s see if I encounter one of them any time.

  2. February 13, 2013 at 10:50 am

    Ive got mine once pick pocketted in DU….first and the last time. I have managed to save couple of my uncles getting theirs do….but admiration yes 🙂

    • February 18, 2013 at 11:26 am

      Amrita – almost all the responses (yours, or on FB, or conversations I’ve had after this post) seem to be about incidents that happened 15-20 years ago (except Sid’s account above). Seem to suggest that we have moved out of the league, so to speak, for pick pockets, or that they themselves are dwindling in numbers. I hope it’s the former.

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