Stench of the Uniform, #2

This is a remembrance special for Human Rights Day 2013, to show how safe and happy we are in the world’s largest democracy.

*****

My run-in with the cops wasn’t anything major. While on our way home from work, my then-colleague and I were stopped by a sub-inspector and his constables, who wanted their palms greased to “let us go”.

This was during my undergrad, and we were part of a avant garde theatre project situated in a call-centre. My colleague A and I were the only two performers from the northern suburbs of Calcutta, so we had a separate small car to ferry us home. That night, the car had just dropped me off at the gate of my building and was starting up to turn 180 degrees and go out of the lane my place is on when this police jeep stops in front of it, blocking its way. Five men in uniforms get out. Or so I assume, for at that moment, I had been climbing my way up to my third-floor flat. I had just reached my doorstep when my colleague called. “Hey, the police are not letting us go, could you get your dad down here to clear the matter up?”

“Sure”, I said, pushing open our unlocked door. Both my parents in the balcony, looking down. “I’ll go see what this is about”, I told them, dumping my bag but taking my purse because it had my photo ids.
“No, don’t! It’s the police…” began my mother instinctively – the same mother who had once hauled a constable by his collar to the police station for sexually harassing her. Then she corrected herself mid-sentence and said, “I mean, wait for Baba to put on a shirt and go with him”. But I was already on the second staircase down.

Now, the one thing I should mention here is that because our performance was an audio-play, and because we had the entire floor of the call centre to ourselves, none of us really bothered to ‘dress for work’. We mostly went wearing chappals and jootis, an old skirt that hadn’t been worn in three years, bermudas, faded tees, track pants and a top with frayed hems and in one desperately yechhy case, the same bleeding outfit for three months (I remember fellow-performer S describing this person to her friend as ‘a zombie warmed up in the microwave’). That particular evening, I was wearing a long skirt that can be comfortably gathered around if the AC was too cold with a blue peasant top of thin cotton, and A was wearing a halter top with pink track pants. These details are important, so keep them in mind.

Right, so A was already out of the car by the time I was down again, arguing with the cops. The driver sidled up to me. “Please medam, West Bengal Police hai, aap please kuchh mat boliye, woh medam to baat nahin sun rahi hai… West Bengal Police bohot denger hai medam… aap thanda kijiye unhe…” (“Please madam, this is the West Bengal Police, don’t get into an argument with them, the other lady isn’t listening to me… West Bengal Police is big trouble, they’re dangerous, please appease them…”). I should add here that the driver wasn’t a particular coward. The general local consensus in my neighbourhood is indeed that if you’re in trouble, stay away from the WBP. They’ll make it ten times worse and convince you that you deserve it.

Before the man had quite finished, a policeman planted himself in front of me and demanded to see my ID. I had my university id. card, but A didn’t have a photo id. Anyway, they barely glanced at mine. What they did was confiscate it. The sub-inspector who took my ID casually bent his head, leaned inside the patrol jeep, and put my ID card o the dashboard, out of my reach. A definite threat.

“So, your id?” he asked me idly, like this little episode of card-snatching hadn’t happened.

“The one you kept there, you mean?” I asked, calmly pointing.

He didn’t even look in the direction. “Let’s see the id, then”, he drawled in Bengali, holding a hand out. “So that’s your game”, I thought. And all thought of making nice left my head. Between the two of us, A is a bit of self-styled desperado, and while it hardly ever shows, I’m trouble too. And I detest bullies.

“Come on!” snapped the man, impatient.

Just then, my dad made his appearance, stage left. “Ki hochhe?” he asked. What’s going on?

“He’s playing cat and mouse with us, he thinks.” I drawled, deliberately in English. I do excellent arrogant drawls. Wrong move, you say? Well, in a manner of speaking, but you cannot be prudent all the time. It was a quarter to three, we were bone tired, hungry and sleepy and five sordidly unattractive men who wanted our money were checking us out, lingering on my breasts and A’s belly button. Apart from everything else, there’s a wrongness of principle in leering at women you intend to extort.

“Who’re you?” asked the sub-inspector rudely, clearly not happy to have an adult male in the happy company. Young unescorted women dressed ‘inappropriately’ at three in the morning – I imagine he thought his walkover game was about to be interrupted.

“My father.” I said, not removing my eyes from his face. “My id card.” I held out my hand. He chose ignored that.

“Daughter?” he asked, with as much disbelief and scorn as he could put in a word. “Really?”

“Yes”, said my amiable dad. “What’s your problem exactly?”

“Let’s see your id.”

“It’s upstairs”, said my dad, indecisively, looking up at my mother in our balcony looking anxiously down.

“Fine, let’s go upstairs.” Said the bastard, making a gesture of movement.

“Absolutely not.” I cut in. “I’m not letting a sub-inspector without official documents to come anywhere near my house. The question doesn’t arise. And I’d like my ID.” I grinned nastily. “Please.”

The guy looked like he’d refuse, but then he reached in and brought out my ID card. I jerked it out of his fingers and stuffed it in my purse.

“Right, so, sir, how long are you planning on keeping me here?” yawned A. “We actually have work to do, so I need to go home and sleep.”

“Yeah, sure,” said the cop. “I suppose your kind of work is rather tiring, coming home this late at night…”. Applause, ladies and gentlemen, for the wit in the house.

Meanwhile, our project coordinator was in Goa on holiday, phones of other important numbers were all switched off, so finally, I got another colleague – male—on the phone, instructing him to act like he was the project coordinator. It didn’t work, of course. Because nothing was meant to. We were accused of being prostitues, basically (there was this extremely tiresome verbal speed-volley where the cop just shot off questions at Daddy, Aditi and me – “who’s she?” “who’s he?” “how do you know he’s her father” “how do know she’s your daughter?” “what if she isn’t your OWN daughter?” – yeah, the last two were asked, and the former was asked thrice), either coming home or arriving at a client’s place, and of course our quaking driver was our pimp, and therefore the it’s the righteous cops’ RIGHT to bleed us dry and fuck us in the bargain, if they can. Or gang rape, if he and his ‘patrol’ were into that sort of thing. A nice little warm up on a winter’s night.

Finally, my mum couldn’t take it any more. She called me on my mobile. “Tell them I work for SR”, she said. “Let’s see how they deal with that.”

I did. Not outright, of course. The cops were anyway getting edgy, since apart from yawning in their faces, we showed no signs of cowering, or more importantly, parting with our cash. So, suddenly galvanized, the sub-inspector called the three constables – all stinking of strong country liquor – and asked them to “get these ‘madams’ in the jeep”.

“I’d like to see you try”. Said A, bristling. “Touch us, and you won’t…”

“One minute”, I said. Turning to my dad, I said, “So, since there seems to be no way out…let me call SR, then…” Daddy picked up the hint. “Yeah, wait, even better…I have AN’s direct number…”

Now, as smart readers have figured out, AN, who is SR’s relative, is the local rep of the ruling party in the state. The cops are his lapdogs and part of his election machinery. And local elections of some sort were either coming up or just over. The iron was still hot.

The rest, they say, is the tale of a tail securely inside the crack of a cop’s arse. The guy went from suspicious to full of futile rage to leering threats of “these girls come to us sooner or later…we’ll pick you up some other night” and slamming their jeep door shut.

“A,” I said loudly, “get in the car and get out of this jurisdiction. We’ll keep them here for a while. And don’t hesitate to call if…”

“Sure” Said A. “See you tomorrow. Oh, sir, we’ll be coming home at around this time, perhaps later, tomorrow. You’ll be on duty, perhaps? See you then.”

I leaned on the jeep’s bonnet, setting the alarm in my phone for the next afternoon, when I’d get up and bathe and eat hastily and leave for work.

“Is this the decent time for women to come home at night?” said the now-petulant cop. “If you didn’t mention AN, I swear (here he looked at me with malicious yearning) I’d have picked them up for the night. For the police station, you know.” And he smiled a lecherous, yucky smile and deliberately, it seemed to me, licked his lips.

By then A’s car had a five or seven minute head start, so we – my father and I – walked in to our building and climbed up to our apartment. The jeep revved a couple of times, then the cops were gone.

Should I tell you the truth, though? Beneath all that cold contempt and all that cockiness, I was terrified. Had we not had AN’s name to toss about, what would have happened to us, do you think?

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2 comments

  1. Remind me to tell you sometime about the time that A. visited me in my hotel room in Kochi and a few minutes later the room phone rang with the desk calling, assuming that she was a prostitute and reminding me that girls were not allowed in the room. Or the time that she and I were walking on a moonlit beach in Kochi and ended up surrounded by local men aggressively reminding us how dangerous the waves were. (I would have fought them if she’d not stopped me, and I would have got my arse kicked too.) Or the several times at which we were walking towards a bar entrance and someone explained to her, “Madam, family restaurant is that way.”

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