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That Stinging Sensation

A mongoose. An ugly box. A starring role. A khoofiya mission. I was bitten by the bug.

Shifting houses is a colossal pain in the ass. Take it from someone who’s done it twice in the last one-and-a-half years. There are, however, two good things that happen. You get rid of unnecessary baggage accumulated over many years. And as you take out things buried in the deep recesses of your closet, memories come tumbling out. In my case, it was a strange hard denim-covered box with straps and tinted plastic film on three sides. “What the hell is this now”, yelled my exasperated mother. And as I looked at the box the frame froze. And the wheel of time spun backwards. Faster and faster and faster till it zeroed in on a memory I couldn’t believe that I had almost forgotten even existed. My very own sting operation!

Yes. A sting operation. In which I had a two-bit role to play. And it wasn’t any ordinary sting operation. It was one that succeeded and got results. Yeah, okay, it was neither sleazy nor a government-toppling, minister-resigning or jail-going kind of result. But it was a result. Here goes…

A long, long time ago, in a place far, far away – ten years ago in Noida to be precise, there was a sting hatched by two bees. Actually, there were one or two others queen bees who were involved but let’s not digress. The plan was simple. The Indian mongoose was being butchered by paintbrush manufacturers for its hair. And something needed to be done about it. There’s no need to roll your eyes. So what if it’s not the tiger or some exotic animal. The mongoose has no right to live or what?

Anyway, although the mongoose is a protected animal, it was, as you must be thinking, pretty low down in the order of things to be protected. So this friend of mine decided to do a sting-op and wanted my help. A hardened sting operator, he had already done the bulk of the work by catching on camera the mongoose being hunted and killed, as well as going to paintbrush manufacturers and recording them on hidden camera relating how they were openly using mongoose hair in paintbrushes because it’s better and cheaper.

My role was to go to a big mongoose-hair-using-manufacturer’s showroom in Delhi with a small hidden Sony videocam, and get the shopkeeper to spill the beans about what hair they were using in their paintbrushes. Now don’t think this was simple. There were no cell phone cams at that time. We spent a few hours scratching our heads. How would we smuggle in a camera so no one would see it, point it at the brush and then at the shopkeeper, make sure the audio and video are clear, and walk out of there in one piece?

So the first order of the day was to find a bag to place the camera in. We finally went to a tailor with some cardboard, denim and one-way see-through tinted plastic. The result was a weird looking, eyesore of a bag, which I wouldn’t be caught dead using otherwise. Besides, only a moron would not notice that there was something off about a bag with rectangles of tinted plastic on three sides, one for the viewfinder, and the other two to make that look like a design.

Luckily, we went to the showroom of one such person (morons who don’t notice ugly bags). We had, of course, done a few dry runs using my brother, who took great pains to point out how idiotic and pointless this whole operation was. Unaffected, we took off for the shop. It was my time to shine.

And shine I did! Remember sting ops were not common those days and the guy couldn’t possibly have imagined that the bag I plonked on his counter was recording his every word.

Conversation: Of course this was mongoose hair. It’s much better quality blah blah. Yes maybe it’s banned but everyone uses it blah blah.

It was so simple. I went on and on and was really beginning to enjoy myself. Drunk with the power I had over this small-fry of a salesman I would’ve extracted his family secrets from him had my friend not put a hand on my shoulder to remind me of why we were there.  And my role of a lifetime was over. Successfully.

A few months later the documentary went public. It won several awards, it got the attention of the wildlife-saving community, and most importantly, the mongoose was bumped up on the list of protected species. Its hair is no longer used by paintbrush manufacturers for fear of the stringent punishment that there is now on its use.

So unlike what you’ve been seeing lately on Indian TV, all sting operations and exposés are not necessarily sleazy and unethical and can do a lot of good. In fact the less sensational they are, the more good they can do. While you’ll be hard-pressed to find more than one odd person who’s actually gone to jail for the many, many sting ops and exposés of the past two decades, in this case an animal was saved from possible extinction in large parts of India, and accorded the protection that it deserved.

But not all of the sting ops I’ve seen in my short journalistic career have gone off so smoothly and successfully. In fact, unless you’re prepared to go all the way, they can sting you right back.

A fellow reporter once decided to go after the quack sexual problems-curing clinics who he was convinced were ‘exploiting’ the Indian man. So off he went with a hidden cam to a sex doctor in Darya Ganj in Delhi.  After the doctor heard his concocted sexual problem, the doctor gave him a short lecture and then finally said, “Okay, come inside and let me examine you now”.  He barged out of there as if he’d been stung by a bee. No way in hell was this alpha male going to be subjected to any such examination of his prized parts. Not even for his scoop. Talk about taking the sting out of something.

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