Thursday, November 27, 2008

The Crossing

About two days back my wife and I were crossing Park Street at a particularly congested place. Seeing a zebra crossing we went towards it and patiently waited and for the flow of cars to stop, with a few tentative attempts when things seemed crossable. This is just a few steps away from St Xavier’s College, and Park Street Police Station. A constable was on duty. He watched us for a bit of time. Now I am not amongst those who find a fantastic rush of adrenaline negotiating rush hour traffic rushing to his/her destination as if the fate of the world and beyond depended on it. Plenty of people have accidents on the streets and I have no intention of becoming another statistic. My wife is not the patient kind, but she also understands that losing limb or life is not an option. So we take care before crossing anything.

This particular place has a peculiar character. It has a “T” crossing. Since it is a one-way road cars freely flow into the stem of the “T” and they as freely move forward. There is nothing that stops them as such. Only the signal in the last crossing thins the flow a little. So even the best civic mannered person would have to be dashing and we were preparing ourselves for such a window of opportunity. But this was not to be. The cars kept on coming relentlessly. It was almost 15 minutes and we were naturally getting impatient. All on a sudden we saw this constable coming running, taking a hard look at the two of us, then going to the middle of the road, stopping all the cars, and waving towards us to cross the road. We did that and I nodded a bit of thanks which he regally brushed aside – a gesture which doubled as a signal for the cars to move forward again.

The question is: why did he help us? It was not his sense of duty, which is almost negligible in most Indians these days, particularly in the law-business kind. Did it have something to do with something of sexual nature? He was looking at the both of us – so can it be that he was quite taken in with either of us and was trying to impress us with his show of strength as all juvenile minds do? I did say this to my wife and she was none too happy with this explanation – according to her apparently I was the one with the juvenile Freud-infested mind! What else do you expect from a person standing practically in front of a Mother and Childcare Hospital! The other option was that this cop-man was trying to impress his superiors or some ministerial personage – but at that time of afternoon happy-hour all the big bosses were safely tucked in within their dreamy bubbles.

The explanation I am left with is one of human nature. I have this favourite story by Shibram Chakrabarty. This gentleman, in the story, was arrested by the police (in our pre-independence days) for slapping a white woman. When the British judge wanted an explanation he gave an elaborate explanation. He was in a bus with the lady. When the conductor came she opened her big bag, brought out a small purse, then closed her big bag, opened her small purse, took out a coin, closed her small purse, opened the big bag, put the small purse inside, then closed the big bag. By this time the conductor had gone away. So she opened her big bag, took out the small purse, closed the big bag, opened the small purse, put the coin inside, closed the small purse, opened the big bag, put the small purse inside and closed the big bag. By this time the conductor was back. So she opened her big bag, brought out a small purse, then closed her big bag, opened her small purse, took out a coin, closed her small purse, opened the big bag, put the small purse inside, then closed the big bag. Again the conductor was gone. She opened her big bag, took out the small purse, closed the big bag, opened the small purse, put the coin inside, closed the small purse, opened the big bag, put the small purse inside and closed the big bag. The whole thing was repeated twice.

The judge could not take it anymore. He came down and slapped this man. And the man said, ‘Your Honour, I have done nothing more!’

I believe this was the condition of the constable. He saw us go two steps forward, then come back one step, then jump back another three steps because of a too enthusiastic car coming towards us, then go another couple of steps forward, and then come back again on the pavement, and then venturing again and so on. He simply could not take it anymore. It was not the goodness of his heart, but simple impatience. He simply got sick of us and doing his duty, he got rid of us.

Apology: I am probably doing injustice to a good soul. We thank him for whatever little he did for us. Even a little is much in this world.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

In Custody

My wife and I were traveling to Hyderabad. This was in January 2006. We came back by plane (cheap Deccan tickets) but went by Falaknuma Express. The train leaves Howrah Station (on the other side of the river Hooghly, but the main railway entry to Kolkata) at 8:30 a.m. and we were there right on time. As always, we were a bit apprehensive about our co-passengers – particularly so since it was to be a 40 hour journey. Our apprehensions were somewhat increased when we saw eight extremely rough looking men, with two extremely emaciated and nervous type of fellows taking the cubicle right next to us. We were on the side lower and side upper births (which I always prefer because we can have a bit of privacy). The cubicle was for six people and the presence of ten did not bode well. But I still have some faith in the Ticket Inspectors, they always try to maintain a semblance of propriety. But the Inspector came, asked about the extra four, some mysterious conversations occurred and the men remained exactly where they were. Needless to say I was not exactly relieved.

After the train left the district of Howrah, and we were deep into the Medinipur (Midnapore in the Anglicized lingo) area one of the emaciated lunghi-clad men wanted to go to the toilet. They were speaking mostly in broken Hindi and gesticulations, but I understood that the head-rough-looking fellow was saying that both of them would have to go. The other lunghi-clad timidly objected. But ultimately both went. At that point I saw a chain was attached to the window next to which the two lunghis were sitting. Luggage chains perhaps! When the two came back I saw they were tied together to the window with that chain! Obviously my curiosity peaked. My wife was busy looking at the scenery outside, while I was busy catching the drama inside. What I could not get was chance to enter into their conversation.

The chance came soon enough. One of the rough guys came to me and asked if he could keep his bag on the side-upper bunk. Apparently he had bought an image of the goddess Kali and it was in the bag. He did not want to keep it on the floor at daytime lest someone steps on it. I had no problem. Then he introduced himself. As did I. He was a constable, a part of a Andhra Police contingent which came to Kolkata to arrest some dangerous criminals. The two chained were notorious criminals. They had the occupation of drugging passengers on trains and looting them. One of their victims found himself unconscious in Hyderabad and lodged a complaint there. Based on that complaint they had come to Kolkata and picked these two up from Metiaburuz. This oldish guy very kind to us and introduced us to all of his colleagues. The two robbers were happily ignored.

Although the prospect of spending a night with two notorious criminals was not exactly inviting, as uninviting as spending the night with a bunch of policemen, yet there were a lot of advantages. Throughout the trip we had free special tea from the pantry car. They simply would not let us buy any tea at all. Then none of the beggars or any other riffraff dared to come to our side of the compartment. This was the best night’s sleep I ever had on a train because there was no tension of losing luggage or shoes. At night they did indulge in a bit of drinking, after politely putting up a drape. But the noise of the glasses and bottles is far too familiar.

When we reached Hyderabad after a two-hour delay they offered to give us a life to our hotel, something I very politely rejected. I did not want to get off from a police-car in front of the hotel. Somehow I did not feel it would make a good impression.

What was wonderful was the behaviour the two criminals got. They were never for once misbehaved with. They were given food, taken to the toilets, the senior officer told them if they were innocent then they had nothing to fear. I don’t know what awaited them in custody, but on the train they were given due respect apart from the chains.

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