Page last updated at 11:04 GMT, Saturday, 1 August 2009 12:04 UK

Seeking Delhi's 'phantom squirter'

Every day tourists all over the world fall victim to scams aimed at relieving them of some money, and often some dignity. The BBC's former South Asia correspondent, Sam Miller, has been on the streets of the Indian capital, Delhi, investigating one such scam.

Shoe shine generic
Finding New Delhi's ingenious scammer has become Sam Miller's obsession

I need help. For five years I have been obsessed with finding a man whose dexterity and gall I admire beyond reason.

His magical feats and evanescent persona have become legendary among my family and friends, though they are slightly fed up with hearing about him.

The world at large sees him as criminal for the way he has relieved tourists of many thousands of rupees, but in my view he is no more than a minor miscreant.

He has outsmarted me many times, and I still have not solved the mystery of who he is and may never do so unless I get some assistance.

'Brownish goo'

I first became aware of his existence 10 years ago, but subsequent investigations have revealed that he has been plying his trade, if that is the right phrase, for more than 25 years.

I grabbed the man by one shoulder and cleaned my shoe on his trousers

I was in Connaught Place, in the heart of New Delhi, and as I emerged from an underpass a shoe-shine man came up to me, and whispered into my ear.

He then pointed at my right shoe on which sat, to my amazement, a small worm of brownish goo.

He offered to wipe it off, but I knew that something was, well, afoot, and cleaned my shoe with a few leaves.

Some months later it happened again and I had a minor altercation with the shoe-shine man.

Then one day, I decided I would take a photograph of the person who squirted my shoe.

But I was daydreaming as I wandered through the underpass and was squirted again.

Life story

The same shoeshine man appeared, clearly not recognising me. I was embarrassed to have been caught again, and, I am ashamed to say, I became incandescent with rage.

To the consternation of passers-by, I grabbed the man by one shoulder and cleaned my shoe on his trousers.

I became obsessed. I began researching the history of the scam.

There are dozens of accounts on the internet and several acquaintances had similar stories to tell. The scam goes back to at least the 1980s.

India

Only foreigners get squirted, it seems, and only those wearing closed shoes.

My epiphany came when I read the rantings of an American blogger, who described with pride how he pushed and swore at the shoeshine man, adding, "All in all, I feel pretty enlightened that I didn't make him lick it off."

My sympathies were suddenly with the squirter and the shoeshine accomplice. I now sought out the phantom squirter, I wished to befriend him.

I wanted to find out his life story, how he learnt his trade, whether it is a father-son thing. How much money does he make on a good day? Has he ever been caught?

What are the mechanics of squirting, does he use a turkey baster perhaps, or a syringe? And, most of all, what does he tell his family that he does for a living?

I wrote about the phantom squirter in a book about Delhi and after its publication I returned several times to the underpass, once with a television crew in tow, discreetly following me.

I tried to look as nonchalant as possible. To my great disappointment my shoes remained spotlessly clean. I did an internet search to check that the squirter had not gone to ground and, yes, there were several more reports from angry victims.

There was also a video on Youtube, in which an American visitor to Delhi read out a poem.

He, like me, was rather impressed by the scam, declaiming that "with 20 million beggars roaming through that nation, at least one guy showed me some imagination."

Futile quest

A few weeks later a friend called me. "You'll never guess what happened," he said.

He had been in Connaught Place with his girlfriend, and as they went down into the underpass he recounted my story of the squirter.

Shoeshine boys in Delhi in 1974
Shoeshine boys posing for a picture in Delhi in 1974

And yes somehow, he did not know how, he was squirted. And he saw the funny side of it.

Then just a month ago, as I prepared to leave Delhi for a holiday, I went back to Connaught Place and made a final desultory attempt to find the phantom.

I walked through the underpass and nothing happened. I was then strolling in a nearby park when a shoeshine man came up to me and pointed to my shoe.

And there it was, I had been caught again. I turned to the shoeshine man. I explained in Hindi that I was not angry, that I wanted to meet his accomplice and I even offered him some money.

He ran away, without the money, as fast as his legs could carry him.

Will I ever learn the true story of the phantom squirter of Connaught Place? I am beginning to doubt it. Unless one of you can help me?

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SEE ALSO
Country profile: India
31 Mar 11 |  Country profiles
'My life cleaning Delhi's sewers'
07 Feb 09 |  From Our Own Correspondent


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