A Close Encounter with Mumbai Pirates

Every time I visit Mumbai, I try and find time to visit the street which is notoriously famous for selling pirated software. Not to buy some for myself. Thanks to my partners, I get all my software for free or next to nothing. I wander this street to get a sense of how bad the situation is. I see changes every time I visit this street – changes for the worse.

Some years ago, I had to follow someone into a dark alley, up the staircase of a dilapidated building and into a room where I was shown a bunch a CDs, each at a fixed price of Rs. 100 ($2.5), irrespective of the software. I found it funny that I could purchase IntelliCAD and AutoCAD at the same price.

Later, the pirated CDs started appearing on the street, but under cover. The pirates would set up a small table on the street and pretend to sell blank CDs. If you asked them for “software” they would reach down into a plastic bag and hand you a bunch of CDs to choose from.

I believe I saw the worst when, on a subsequent visit, the blank CDs disappeared and the pirated CDs were arranged neatly across the tables, in broad daylight. They started openly running promotions, like buy 2 get 1 free. They actually followed you down the street, with pirated CD’s in hand, and pestered you if you left without buying anything. It looked like they were doing everything that a CAD vendor would want their resellers to do. It was that bad.

So imagine my surprise this time around, when the cabbie dropped me off at the street, I found nobody. The pirates were all gone. I asked a roadside vendor selling old books on the sidewalk, where the pirates were. He told me that one fine day some officials from the municipality came by, trashed their things and took some of the pirates away, and possibly trashed those who could not bribe their way out. But he added that there may still be some operating under cover. I decided to find out.

I walked the street asking roadside vendors for “software”. I got a standard reply in Hindi, which translated to, “It’s all stopped now”. I never thought that I would see this day in my lifetime.

Then something weird happened. A shady looking character started following me. After a while I turned around and looked at him questioningly. He gave me a big smile which had the words “I have software” splashed all over it. He asked me to follow him into a lonely alley, which I did. And then into another lonely alley, and then one more. As I walked I realized that one of two things was going to happen. I was either going to see some pirated software or I was going to get mugged. I hoped it was the former.

We finally stopped in the middle of an alley. I couldn’t see any sign of pirated CDs, just some broken furniture and trash lying around. I began to get worried when he started to make idle talk. He asked me where I was from and how long I was going to be in Mumbai. Mustering all the bravado I could, I told him sternly that I didn’t have the time for idle talk and that if he had software, now was the time to show it. He immediately lost the macho man mask and rushed to apologize. As it turns out, he was trying to gauge whether I was an “authentic” buyer or some cop trying to entrap him.

He then asked me to stay where I was and proceeded towards the dead end of the alley. He reach behind a pile of old, broken furniture and fished out a plastic bag. While he was doing that I fished out my camera phone and took a picture.

He came back with a handful of CDs. I don’t know why he didn’t take me to his treasure chest instead. Maybe he was selling something more than just pirated CD’s back there.

I started “browsing” the CDs and began to lay them on a wooden crate nearby. I wanted to take a picture of them as well, but the pirate wasn’t in the mood of leaving my side. I have absolutely no idea why I did what I did next, but I am pretty sure I will never do it again. With the pirate by my side, I fished out my camera phone and pretended to dial a number. While he thought I was looking down at my phone and keying in a number, I actually clicked a picture of the CDs on the crate.

I always turn off my phone’s camera sounds. I do this because I often click pictures of my six month old son while he sleeps like an angel, and the shutter-like sound on my camera phone is so loud that it sometimes wakes him up. So the pirate had no way of knowing that I was actually taking a picture.

So after clicking the picture, I realized that I was supposed to speak to the person I had just “dialed”. I put the phone to my ear and pretended to speak to a friend, and asked him whether he wanted Pro/E. Looking back, I now wonder what would have happened if my phone had rung while I was “speaking” to this friend. After I “disconnected” I let the pirate know that the version of Pro/E that he had did not match what I wanted and proceeded to thank him for his time. But surely the pirate didn’t take all this trouble for nothing. He then did something which left me speechless.

He started making the case that Inventor was far better than Pro/E and that I should buy Inventor instead. He began running figures, saying that a majority of his “customers” chose Inventor over Pro/E. He even stated that Inventor was far more easier to use than Pro/E. I tried my best to maintain a straight face and stood there in silence as he made his sales pitch. The more he spoke the more I realized how he would make an excellent sales executive at any CAD reseller. Although most of what he said was utter crap (he said that Inventor can also edit images like PhotoShop), I was amazed by the way he said it. This guy badly wanted to make a sale, and it showed.

When I realized that I couldn’t take it anymore, I reached for my wallet, paid for the Inventor CD and put it in my backpack. He tried to sell me more, but I told him that I was in a hurry and had to leave. I found my way back to the street and hitched a cab. As I paid the cabbie I gave him the Inventor CD and told him to give his kids a new “shining toy”.

I am definitely going to visit this street again the next time I visit Mumbai. And if I manage to keep my life and limb intact, you are definitely going to read about it here.