Friday, March 11, 2011

The flexible policemen of Mumbai

Horn.  Screech.  Horn.  Horrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrn.  Men shouting.  "98.3 FM Radio Mirchi - It's hot!" Screeeeech.  Horn. 

The white noise of Bombay on the road.  My mind stopped processing it after a while.  I don't hear any of it any more.  Just like I don't see the beggar knocking on my car's window; or the children my daughter's age, coated in dust, lethargically wading through trashcans on what their more privileged peers call a 'school day'.  I don't see anything.  I don't hear anything.  I am in my now customary hand-to-the-ear pose, the phone totting position that is symbolic of an Indian wheeling and dealing away.  I am in my own little zone, till ... SCREEEEECH! Thud.

"Hey I will have to call you back, my car just got in an accident."

The dull thud.  The siren sound of a traffic incident that is too puny to be dramatically termed a 'road accident', but is still large enough to be an eyesore till fixed.  A fender bender, is what I used to call that - in that other life of mine all those ages ago, in Uncle Sam's yard.  It is a first for me since I returned to India, so I am a bit disoriented, unsure of the process, the protocol.  We are on the right lane, or what is half-seriously referred to as the 'fast' lane, on what is nominally a national highway.  There are a million cars on the road, and my driver has just parked the car right where it got hit from behind, has left the car and is walking towards the culprit vehicle behind us.  Soon the bender and bendee are engaged in some serious yelling, arms slicing through the air, spit flying, sweat tango-ing with the spit in mid air.  And all the while, the two cars are parked right where they were.  The backup is now really long, and getting longer every minute.  The two drivers show no signs of letting up.  To their credit, the cars stuck in the backup seem to take it all in their stride.  No one is honking at us ... or let us say, people aren't honking any more than they do anyway, just to keep things interesting.  They are rolling down their windows to hear more of the bender-bendee altercation, but 'no hard feelings' seems to be the mantra.

"Should we wait for the police?" I ask my driver, which in retrospect sounds remarkably naive.  "Nahin sahib", he replies after a momentary pitying look.  We need to go to the nearest police station, I am told, to lodge a First Information Report.  Oh Kay, I tell myself.  This is going to be interesting, if that is the word I am looking for.  The car seems to be making all sorts of unnatural noises as we take off once again, to the disappointment, it appears, of the drivers right behind, who know they have just missed some action.  To the police station, it is.

"Saharsh Swagat Ahey!" claims a big signboard at the police station, cheerily welcoming people who somehow don't seem appropriately enthused at the prospect.  So begins the adventure, I think.

"Once every few months," a wise man had said to me soon after my return to India, "you should go to a government office."  I looked puzzled as he had continued, "It is a great leveler.  It keeps you grounded."

It has been a good thirty minutes since we came in here.  Two different men in uniform have come by to look at the car, have scratched their chins lazily, and have drifted back to where they came from, with nary a word on what I am supposed to be doing.  The third man has just come out, and is going through the same motions.  Promisingly, he is holding a pad in his hand, and has a pen tucked away behind his ears.  He takes one quick look at me, incongruously dressed in a suit (Hey, what am I to do? I was on my way to a meeting!), and asks, "gaadi koun chala raha tha?"  My driver steps forward, his expression equal parts deference and indignation.  "Chalo" says the policeman, turns around and walks back in.  Now 'in' is probably not precise.  There is a little wooden bench placed in the porch of the police station, with just enough seats for the complainants to sit, and a desk at which the policeman is perched.  My driver sits opposite the man, and they get going in Marathi.  I look around helplessly for a while and as the conversation continues, slowly drift outside.

As good a time as any to browse around a police station.

There is a large framed notice outside called 'Rights of Citizens'.  It seems to list all the right things, including telephone numbers of officials whom you might call in case you are asked for 'consideration' when registering your case.  Hmm.  How many of the complainants coming here can actually read this board, I wonder.  And among those who did, how many would be able to work through the euphemistically phrased 'consideration'?

Step out some more and there are notice boards of some sort.  The first of them is blank, but for a few internal administrative notices.  But to the right of this, there is a notice board grandly saying 'WANTED'.  Wow, now here is the juicy bit.  I walk briskly to it.  There are three pictures on the board.  Black and white, photocopied from some other source, so they look like cutouts from a newspaper's classified pages.  Three grainy pictures of men with varying degrees of facial hair.  And that is it.  No names, no details, no 'Reward of Rs. 50 lakh for anyone providing information leading to arrest'.  Just three stupid pictures.  Move on guys, this path to instant riches seems to be under construction.

Hey, was that ... is that ... it is, isn't it?  It really is.  A dirty, grimy cat, with a freshly killed mouse still dangling from its mouth, blood still wet!  Hold your breath, don't puke, count, count - one. two. three. four .... Yes, better now.  Seriously, a dead mouse?  And the cat itself is being pursued by a determined dog.  What is this?  National Geographic HD?  And for the love of God what is that constable doing on the floor?  Oh, he is sweeping and mopping the floor!  Now that is a flexible job description, isn't it?  Crime fighter .... plus janitor.

My driver is walking out triumphantly, barely able to stop his grin.  "Mil gaya sahab" he says, thrusting the copy of our FIR into my hands.  I take a peek - it is three pages long!  And densely written on every page in meticulously penned Marathi.  So here is another skillset required to be a policeman in India - good handwriting!  Doctors need not apply.

It is precisely 84 minutes since I stepped into the station, and we are on our way out.  I am crossing the parking lot, filled to capacity with dust covered Maruti Omni and Daewoo Matiz cars.  (Didn't they stop manufacturing Matiz many years back?)  Each seems to have some illegible writing on them, under layer upon layer of dust.

We are almost at our car when a woman, nearly hysterical in her worry jumps out of her auto rickshaw and grabs the nearest policeman's arm.  She is speaking with great urgency and despair, and the policeman seems barely able to keep up.  I grab snippets of her story - "my handbag ... he snatched it and ran ... it has a passport in it!  Visa bhi hai, Amreeka wala! ..."

I feel sad for the poor woman, who was probably shopping for her trip to the USA, before she had to pay a visit to the house of our hawaldars-cum-janitors-cum-marathi-essayists.  We start backing out.

"Saharsh Swagat Ahey!" I read again, and we are back out.

Horrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrn.  Screech.  Men shouting.  "98.3 FM Radio Mirchi - It's hot!"


  1. Have I told you, you could write for a living? Yes, I think I have.

  2. Nishant Kamdar14 March, 2011 11:57

    Hilarious..."Doctors need not apply"...that was great..!!

    On a rather serious note, you were lucky that your complaint got registered and you managed to get an FIR...and 84 mins must be a record time to do that (suggest you check it out)...normally..these people would just shrug us off by saying that they get 100's of accident cases in a day and they cant be registering all of 'em..!!!

    Many of the times it's like....Horrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrn. "93.5 - Bajate Raho....Red F M!"

  3. What was the objective behind getting the FIR- insurance claim? Also wondering how the policeman could write 3 pages to describe the event- maybe he should start a blog too!
    And I can easily imagine how Arpita's reaction to the same incident would have been so different.

  4. @ Smoke+Mirrors - Yes, it was for getting the insurance claim. You need a copy of the FIR to get anything from insurance, it appears. And the guy who either doesn't have insurance or thinks he is at fault anyway, just goes his merry way and you need to work out all the police stuff. And yes, I have no idea what he wrote on 3 pages! Would love to learn enough Marathi to read that stuff!

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