July 09, 2020
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THERE are few instances in English where a number becomes a noun. OK, one may say "Let’s do a 69", a graphic numerical metaphor with its delicious Yin-Yang pattern. There aren’t many more.

In the languages of India, like a jewel in the noun-crown, sits char-sau-bees , ‘420’— a word which succinctly describes a personality.

"The man is an actual char-sau-bees ," is how I first heard it. In my youth in Sarbatwalla chowk in Poona, the description was invoked several times a day. Knowing the characters to whom the word applied, one immediately appreciated the definition without knowing that ‘420’ originated in the Indian Criminal Code. Under Law 420 these ‘bad hats’ were jailed for unspecified skulduggery.

Raj Kapoor made a rebellion out of the word. Shri 420 , one of the films for which he ought to be remembered, takes the word to new heights. Suddenly it’s not just a description of the wretches who are dragged before the magistrate with shackles on their ankles and ropes round their necks, it is the description of a romantic hero, a Robin Hood, a damned, elusive Pimpernel.

What was once a bureaucratic number in a code formulated by the Brits for their vast and seething colony, has become the name of a swashbuckling D’Artagnan. Never before or since has a bureaucratic number achieved such status. What continues to intrigue me, and I don’t want anyone to end this suspense, just as a 7-year-old doesn’t want to know that there really isn’t a Santa Claus, is what crimes do the other 419 sections cover? 419 ways of breaking the law? The Raj must’ve been running scared.

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