Kleptomania: A Rich Man’s Disease? Or Poor Man’s Chori


Kleptomania: A Rich Man’s Disease? Or Poor Man’s Chori

Illustration: Shruti Yatam

Inside the confines of a bar so dingy that the owner named it Kit Kat, I stood in front of a waiter guarding the fridge full of cold beer. My goal was to distract him from his post, so my friend Pranay could swipe a couple of pints from the fridge, free of charge. We were drinking at our table when he convinced me that the act of stealing would yield a rush even Walter White’s best meth couldn’t top. Up until this point, I had only heard stories about Pranay’s habit of nicking objects that caught his fancy. But this was the first time I would become an accessory to his plans.

Pranay is a 22-year-old Sindhi boy with sloppy brown hair, a perpetual stubble, and a small scar above his right eye. He liked dressing up as a college kid to look younger than he actually was. Hailing from a typical upper middle-class family, he never runs short on funds for booze, food, or drugs. He just prefers stealing them.

Pranay is not a thief. He is a kleptomaniac. Kleptomania is an impulse-control disorder characterised by stealing items not needed for personal use or monetary value. That night, Pranay could easily have paid for the two beers he was planning to filch from the fridge. However, he had become hooked to breathless, heart-pounding rush of adrenaline that accompanies the act of stealing, and now he wanted to introduce me to the same high.

Now I am not what you call a “bad boy”. I’ve grown up with a healthy respect, perhaps fear, for the consequences of stepping out of line. Between my parents, school teachers, and college professors, I had it drilled into me that rules were meant to be followed, not broken. But, something people never told me about was the kind of rush one could experience by doing something gravely wrong.

So there I was, winging it to help a kleptomaniac succeed in his neurotic mission to get the five-finger discount on a couple of pints of cheap beer. I got the waiter to move away from his post at the fridge with the urgency of a SWAT team, when I whispered, “Woh table par ganja phook rahe hai,” to him. While he swept the bar with his nose for the odour of Mary Jane, an artful Pranay had already begun sneaking the second bottle into his bag. And then, with utmost confidence, he walked out of the bar without even turning back to see if I followed. In that moment, with sweat beading my forehead, I experienced the shortness of breath and rapidly pounding heart that Pranay had promised I would. I ran out of the bar before I could freeze from the excitement.

Sometimes, he would steal for kicks, and on other occasions something would simply “catch his eye”.

The Mayo Clinic states that the cause of kleptomania is not conclusively known. Present research indicates that these cases of sticky fingers could be linked to addictive disorders, low levels of naturally occurring serotonin, or imbalances in the brain’s opioid system. But it normally manifests during childhood or early adolescence, and usually occurs spontaneously. Certainly, there wasn’t much pre-planning that went into Pranay’s plan to steal the beer. He simply saw it and decided he wanted to steal it. It’s the “Pepsi thi, pi gaya” mentality taken to the extreme.

Pranay has been shoplifting since he was eight years old. He recalls his first “score” – he’d nicked a few jaljeera packets from a general store on a dare. He says that he experienced intense nervousness which made his hands quiver while stealing them. However, once the goods were pocketed without raising the suspicion of the shopkeeper, he recalls feeling an increasing sense of elation. He was hooked. He kept at it, and his antics won him popularity among those he shared his loot with. From jaljeera, he graduated to chewing gum, chocolates, chips, Coca-Cola, and anything else that caught his fancy. Eventually, Pranay realised the desire to steal had become a compelling urge.

There are stories of kleptomaniacs who experience terrible regret for their actions after the compulsive theft has been committed. Meanwhile, leaning against the filthy walls of a deserted alley, at a safe distance from Kit Kat Bar, Pranay bites into the top of the beer bottle and spits the cap off with a grin. “Cheers!”

So far, he thinks he has stolen upto ₹25,000 worth of objects, from gift shops, clothing outlets, grocery stores, bars, general stores, and the houses of a few unsuspecting friends. In college, he would steal cigarettes, booze, and marijuana from the bags of fellow stoners. Sometimes, he would steal for kicks, and on other occasions something would simply “catch his eye”. He grabbed any opportunity to steal what he could, even when it got him into trouble. The scar on his forehead was a memento from a time when he was caught trying to unsuccessfully leg it after grabbing an Old Monk bottle from a wine shop without paying.

I ask Pranay if the consequences of being caught ever weigh on him. To which, he responds by saying, “Guilt is only experienced by those who think they’ve done something wrong. I don’t feel that.” So far, Pranay has never acknowledged his mental condition. When I tell him about kleptomania, he simply chooses to waive it off as a ridiculous social construct and laughs. In his head it’s not wrong to steal from someone who has more than what they need. When he speaks of the many places he has stolen from, he invariably states that each of them had so many objects that one going missing wouldn’t affect them thus, justifying his behaviour.

A New Yorker essay “The Secret Shopper” on the history of shoplifting, says “the first attempt to explain why rich people might steal things they didn’t need came in 1816, when a Swiss psychologist named André Matthey coined the word ‘klopemania,’ which later became ‘kleptomania.’”

“When the wealthy stole, they could be deemed mad – actually, a little neurotic – rather than bad. This not only suited the store owners, who didn’t want to alienate their rich clientele, but also benefitted the classier shoplifters, who preferred seeing their doctors to going to prison,” the essay explains.

“The rich have kleptomania, while the poor are taken down with larceny,” a New York City store executive said in 1878.

Is it Pranay’s affluence or weird brain chemistry that powers him through his life as a kleptomaniac, I wonder. I’m not sure, but I know I can’t keep up with him. Even though stealing the beer did make me feel much like a badass, the guilt eventually caught up. I was starting to realise that I wasn’t cut out for Pranay’s way of life. Theft comes as naturally to him as breathing, and it is the only way to satisfy his urges. He prefers living on the edge. He says this is what makes him enjoy that cold beer even more.

I didn’t really enjoy the cold, stolen beer. It didn’t make me feel victorious. It made me feel like a thief. It also didn’t help that, unlike Pranay, I couldn’t really afford the beer which made it seem even more like a theft. I guess only the privileged can experience the pure joys of kleptomania. For the rest of us plebs, it’s just good, old chori.