This story is from a milieu long past, and from a place I left almost a year and a half ago – a not-so-fair city on the banks of a beautifully grey river called (somewhat aptly) the Cooum; a city that was once called Madras.
This most riveting anecdote had almost slipped my mind - consigned to my long-term memory and apparently lost to humanity forever. My readers would never have known of it if it were not for the fact that I stumbled upon this little titbit on the web – the muppets at the Chennai Police have been gifted Hyundai Accents, with revolving lights and wireless communication devices to boot.
This, of course, does not make much of a difference to the life of the average Chennaiite. The average mama will continue to actively solicit contributions to the ‘Chennai Police Tea/Coffee/Whisky fund’ from law-abiding citizens. But now, the aforementioned mama can do it while ensconced in an air-conditioned vehicle a grad student like me can merely dream of. And what’s more, he can do so while letting the pretty revolving lights revolve and saying cryptic codewords like, ‘Code 4392 in Gandhinagar. Scramble scramble!’ (translation: I’m fleecing this hapless engineering student here. I can buy all of y’all a peg at Kandan Wines later in the evening) into his spanking new wireless.
I can hear the eggs, beans and crumpets reading this post – the same chaps who seem to take such strong exception whenever I digress – clamouring for me to get to the story I was about to unravel. Since I do not wish to be remembered in posterity as the chap who denied eggs and beans (and even the odd crumpet) their heart’s desire, I shall now delve deep into the mists of time – to more than a year and a half ago. To August 2005.
I was late. But that was nothing new. I am forever late, being a strong proponent of Indian Stretchable Time (IST). However, the British Deputy High Commission, I knew, was obstinate in its refusal to partake in traditional Indian rituals. As I glanced at my watch, awareness stole upon me that they would not keep their portals upon for a minute longer than two in the afternoon.
I wanted to hurry, but my mother’s Scooty Pep, while admirable in several other respects, was not built for speed (or for getting women to drool all over one; but that’s another story altogether). I gunned the engine, and was setting the road ablaze at 40 kmph (25 mph) when I came to a traffic signal (the traffic signal near Sathyam Theatre, for those in the know).
This traffic signal was, rather interestingly, switched off. After having expended considerable amounts of my grey cells on this perplexing problem, I decided that the police department probably wished that I use my own discretion before doing anything foolhardy. Following their wishes, I looked right, left, straight ahead, behind me, and above my head (which is what one does as a matter of course at any Indian traffic intersection) and turned left.
I had hardly moved hundred metres when I saw a huge, jiggling belly make its way to the middle of the road. Huge, jiggling bellies on the middle of the road do not often perturb me, but this huge, jiggling belly happened to be clad in the uniform of the Chennai City Traffic Police (Official Motto: To Serve and Protect*). And what was worse, the hand attached to the belly seemed to be signalling to me to pull over.
Since I was on a 60cc moped, I decided that gunning the engine and racing away, while screaming ‘Eat my dust, mama’ was out of the sphere of practical politics. Besides, I was a law-abiding citizen.
I watched interestedly as the policeman waddled towards me.
‘This is a one-way, and you’re going the wrong way!’, said the policeman, peremptorily.
I was nonplussed. I had plied this very route a hundred times before, and had never espied a No Entry sign. I articulated the same to the policeman.
‘Yes, I know there’s no sign. That’s why I switched the traffic lights off!’
‘Okay, driving the wrong way on a one-way street is a cognisable offence under Section 230 of the IPC. You’ve got to pay a fine of Rs. 1000’
Under normal circumstances, I would probably have asked the policeman to produce a receipt, and then take me to a mobile court or a police station (this usually takes the wind out of the average mama). But, as I had reason to mention earlier, I was in a tearing hurry.
Which is when I made my first mistake.
‘Sir, I am in a real hurry. Couldn’t we not argue about this later?’
The policeman looked more curious than anything else.
‘Where do you have to go?’, he asked.
‘I’ve got to get to the British Deputy High Commission’, said I, in a pleading note that I hoped would melt the hardest copper’s heart.
‘Are you a British citizen?’
This was when I made my second mistake.
‘Er…no…I’m an Indian citizen.’
‘Ah!! If you were a British citizen, I would have let you go. But you’re an Indian citizen, pay the fine.’
I had heard of xenophobic authorities around the world mistreating foreigners. But this was the first experience I have had of foreigners receiving preferential treatment over the heads of locals!
Still reeling from the shock of the policeman’s decidedly anti-India bent (his father was probably one of the worst of the angrezon ke zamane ke jailers), I asked him what the fine was.
Note: Though both the policeman and I were still euphemistically discussing fines, we were both aware that what I was going to pay him was a bribe, and not a fine.
The policeman was a forthright chappie. A ‘fine’, like a trinket at Burma Bazaar, was something that could be haggled over.
‘How much do you have?’
This is when I made my third (and costliest) mistake.
I took my wallet out, and began counting the notes and coins.
‘Er… three hundred and fifty three rupees and fifty paise’
The crook in khaki appeared to think long and hard.
Then, in the manner of a Persian potentate doing a supplicant a signal favour,
‘Well, that’s what the fine is.’
‘Please, Sir,’, implored I, ‘I need this cash to pay the processing fee at the high commission.’
He decided to hand me a concession, and magnanimously said, ‘Okay, fine. Just pay me three hundred and fifty rupees. You can keep the three rupees and fifty paise.’
I know people who could have, by begging, pleading and making ominous references to powerful contacts, brought the fine down to a hundred rupees. But I was not one of them. I went back home, broke and cursing the policeman and his immediate family in the choicest words possible. (I still have no regrets at all – if any of my terrible curses did come true, it merely vindicates my belief in a supreme being. If none of them did, it merely vindicates my equally strong belief in atheism.)
Well, in another twelve days, I shall meet the Chennai police again. At least, this time, I have the opportunity to get fleeced by a pot-bellied crook in Khaki who is driving a neat car. Maybe he’ll let me take a short spin in one of them wondrous machines too! (
P.S: Before anybody starts abusing me for being anti-Indian Police, anti-Chennai and anti-India, let me pre-empt them by saying that I love the Chennai Police. At least, they don’t shoot me seven times in the head at tube stations, or beat my skull in at parking lots. If that’s something to be grateful for, that is.