In my job, your status is measured by where you stand. As part of a politician’s retinue, you are nothing but a personal assistant — opening doors of cars, shoving away the masses, dragging the chair back for them at a restaurant and standing stiff as they eat. It is our ability to wield a gun and arm-tackle wanna-be assassins to the ground that gets us there. But it is just an excuse for these netas to get themselves a bunch of helpers.
But when you are removed from there, probably because you turned up late one day or wouldn’t carry the grocery bag for the missus, and put in charge of the local mela or told to hold off a demonstration, that’s when you are seen as a police officer with stars on the shoulders. Your subordinates hover around you, waiting for a command. As you walk through the dusty and chaotic celebrations of the fair, with its disconnected sounds and colours, people make way. Depending on your speed, and the area of your influence, parts of the throng that you walk through turns honest. The man at the hoopla stall stops handing out the doctored rings, the jalebiwala stops pushing the scale with his wrist to push it in his own favour, the juggler puts on the act for as long as the ticket window promised, and the contortionist pulls out the best tricks through her locked legs and bent arms. I feel like a messiah spreading a wave of goodwill wherever I went. And I know that the instant I leave that area to move on to the next, these very good souls will double their efforts at cheating to make up for lost time, and money. But how much can a man do?
So you probably now know what a man in uniform prefers. Though I don’t think I say it for everybody. Quite a few of my fellow officers would rather be holding a VIP’s shawl while they are in a washroom relieving themselves. That thing has its own pluses. But for me, I’d go with Milton when he says that it’s better to rule in hell than serve in heaven. Which should tell you that we are a well-read lot. Don’t let out hard expressions and a habit of not paying for something as cheap as a chai from a roadside stall fool you into thinking we are as crass as the criminals we deal with.
But I am here to tell you about an incident. There are of course countless. Should I ever try to write them all down, it will outweigh War and Peace, and probably a lighter Wodehouse added to it. (If this is where you accuse me of dropping names of authors and poets much too liberally, I would plead guilty. But better be remembered as a show-off, than as one who cheated his way through school.)
So back to that incident. It left me wondering that if normal people like you — successful in their lives, earning well, staying within the sphere of law except for those short, quick jabs when they’d see a hole in it and put their hand out to grab at something outside it and then retreat back to safety — now if these people like you thought of using their fertile minds for unlawful activities, chances are you’d do a lot better than some of the craftiest criminals. Luckily for people like me, you guys don’t. But what I am about to narrate will show you what made me think like this. But before you think you are about to read a thriller where a normal office-bloke or a housewife turns out to be a murderer, this is not it. While the perpetrators were people that matched the above description, what they did wasn’t really a crime. But if they ever applied the same mind to pull a heist, they’d certainly be holidaying in fancier places than the one I was posted at.
This place is one of those small hill-stations that people like me get transferred to. Among my circles it is known as a punishment post. Why? Because nothing much happens here. The locals are a peace loving lot, the tourists are anyway taking a break from their hectic lives and are fine with being a little more tolerant with that guy who just brushed past them on a busy street, or with that waiter who served someone who ordered after them. So there isn’t much to control, and you don’t earn much. People walk past you without much fear, with the easy confidence of a pedestrian in front of a traffic cop.
As a Station House Officer, my routine was simple. I would spread my men over the busy mall road and tell them to just be seen. I would let two men stay in the police station in case someone turned up with complaints, while I myself would walk through the mall road four times a day, with one of the two men from the station. The rest of the time I would spend at the station, perched over the side of a hill and gazing over the valley. We would generally sit out in the sun, sipping chai and chatting up with the employees of the local Public Works Department who had their office right above ours.
It wasn’t all sun and chatter though. There were quite a few complaints of lost articles and missing kids. But the trouble was that none of these, we knew, were the works of the few confirmed bad characters. Our lives would be so much easier if that were the case. You’d haul up these guys any time something or someone went missing and solve the case more often than not. But most of these things were lost because the wife had either left the purse at the restaurant, the kid had forgotten the shopping bag at the video games shop or the man had lost his car keys at the pub. There were lost kids, of course. Lots of them were brought into the station crying by some tourist or a local who would see them standing alone looking around as their parents got lost in the evening crowd. Soon, the parents would follow, running up to lodge a complaint but find their kid there playing with toys. Yes, toys. We had a few to keep the kids engaged till their parents got over their picture-taking spree or having haggled successfully for that set of wooden coasters and realised they were now a happy lot minus one. This is when they would run in circles like headless chicken, calling out the name of their kid and finally commonsense — or someone — would direct them to our office.
Like that day when I had just had lunch and a man walked into the station. He was red in the face, that walk up to where we are located can do that to city office-goer types. But he surely must have hurried too. And the reason soon became apparent when a healthy kid of about 4 rolled in after him. Now I have been told often by my wife — who along with our kids continue to stay in our hometown because of their schools — that one should never call kids fat. Kids are never fat. Well, she’s not seen the world so she can say that. But kids usually grow out of this sort of thing, and anyway, what does it matter what you call a child? So I call such kids healthy. And then follow this up by referring to their movements as rolling and bouncing to get the idea across. So this very healthy kid rolled in, all smiles and eager to play with the red sand and water buckets we have hanging from a stand as a measure against fire. While my men restrained and battled with him on the outskirts of my vision, I asked this good Samaritan, still struggling with his breath after having carried that kid all the way up, for details.
“The poor thing is lost”, he said.
That was an unnecessary statement, nothing that a cop would call a lead. One, it was clear that the kid was lost. Another, it was anything but a poor thing. But I allowed the short, unnecessary statement as a filler by this poor thing in order to give me something before his pounding heart would settle down and allow him to elaborate. So I waited and gestured for one of my men to get some water. We are a good lot here, treating people well. Not the way you’d expect from a cop in a station in the cities. Must be the air around these areas. I have known hardened constables helping old ladies carry their shopping bags a day after being transferred here.
Anyhow, the water never came as neither of my men would let the other go to be left alone to chase the kid as he made for the files and pens kept on a table in the sun.
“Well, my wife, my kid and I were having a snack at the Bhola Restaurant when a couple came with this kid to have a juice. I noticed them because…”
“Because of the kid?” I chuckled.
The man didn’t look impressed as I puffed my cheeks and pushed my stomach out. He had just lugged him up the climb and didn’t need to be reminded of why the kid couldn’t be missed. Or he may be from my wife’s school of thought, about never calling kids fat. But we are cops after all, and nobody was going to tell me that, other than my wife.
He smiled weakly and continued. “So when we finished our food and walked up to the counter to pay we saw the kid still there, with a glass of juice in his hand and his parents nowhere to be seen.”
“And the kid wasn’t crying, all alone and still sipping his juice, eh?” I didn’t mean to interrogate. But even if a man dressed in khakhis asks a harmless question about the weather, it throws up images of people being tied to chairs in dark rooms with a huge bulb suspended from the ceiling. I just meant to clarify, to help the guy on with his tale but he turned defiant.
“Why would he cry? He’d assume his parents were around, wouldn’t he? Must he start screaming every time his parents go out of sight?”
“Well, you are right there. Do carry on please.” He had done a good thing by bringing a lost child here, and was entitled to his scenes.
An apology from a cop can do wonders. Pacified, he carried on.
“So we paid up and made to leave when suddenly the kid started howling. He must have seen us with our kid, and then realised he wasn’t with his parents. Obviously, the parents would have moved on, each thinking the kid to be holding hands with the other one.”
“And then you brought him here? Good thinking!”
“Of course not! We walked the kid a few meters up and a few meters down that shop and waited around the shop for something like half-an-hour to see if they’d turn up.”
“No good with that. You see, when kids get lost the parents forget where last they were all together. They think it was after the juice shop when they stopped to look at those bangles that the kid let go of their hands and ran after the candy-man. So even if they are going back and forth to look for their kid, it will be around the bangle shop, or wherever it was they stopped next.”
I said this with a lot of authority because of my experience in these things and it made a lot of sense to the man on whose face his original colour and his smile were now returning. He couldn’t stop nodding his head, as he looked at the kid now wearing one of the constable’s cap and chasing some hen that had come over the valley into our area. He had another constable’s stick in his hand and the two were maintaining a safe distance from the thing as he ran around threatening anything that moved.
I thanked the man again and asked him to give me his phone number and name, adding, the minute his head jerked up in question, that sometimes the kid’s parents want to thank the person who brought their kid to safety. He scribbled down the information, and taking one last glance at the kid now sitting on a table and hammering it with the ink-pad, he sneaked past the gate and practically ran down, knowing he had done all he could for the cause. I went up to check on the kid and in the next three hours realised why this was called a Punishment Post.
Let me tell you about four-year olds. The trouble is, while all four-year olds are broadly classified as kids, there is no guide book with rows and columns to lay down the differences. This thing wasn’t meant to be carried in the lap and shown birds perched up on a tree, or given soft rattles and train engines to play with. He would have none of this nonsense. He was interested in my service pistol, in the fire-safety equipment, in the official stamp and files, in the thick rod we never used. Well, in everything but those toys we had kept around for such poor lost souls. I had to hide my service revolver on top of the steel almirah and later I forgot where I had kept it and spent three sleepless nights waking up in cold sweat imagining someone using it to commit a murder. We lost three keys from the bunch and the locksmith made a tidy profit the day after. Almost every paper, including those glitzy girlie pictures in the day’s newspaper and the letter I was writing to my wife bore the official stamp of approval from the Officer In-Charge of the Police Station. The ink-pad dried up from overuse and one of the chair-cushions lost most of its padding. All of this happened in three hours. We thought of calling up the constables on road duty to go around hunting for the parents but nobody at the station was free long enough to be able to make that call. Even our neighbours from the Public Works Department who walked in for their evening tea suddenly remembered something important and ran back to their office.
Outside, our evening tea was getting cold as we chased the kid in the room, where he had been moved to after realising that the affected area needed to be contained. A soft knock told us someone was finally here. We all turned, hoping someone had come for the child. It was! I mean, how often have your prayers been answered? It really was. It was the mother of the child. She looked worried, red in the face and stood there, panting at the door. We knew it was the mother. You know how it is when the relatives from the father’s side gather around a new-born and exclaim that the child is an exact copy of the father, and then the relatives from the mother’s side push them aside and look down at the new-born and rubbish their claim and point out how the nose or the chin or lip is clearly a miniature of the mother’s? Well, in this case, the mother’s side would have won the argument.
She took one look at the child and called out to him in a shrill voice — Cheeeekieee!
Cheekie took one look at her and ran off in the opposite direction. After much coaxing and cajoling — all applied physically — the kid was settled in the mother’s arms and she thanked us profusely. Normally, we sit the parents down and brief them about child safety when travelling in a new and crowded place. But here we let it pass, and just asked her to give us her phone number in case the kid lands up here again. She obliged, thanked us all the way to the door and then brought out various chocolates, sweets, chips and much more from the various folds in her dresses before vanishing from view.
We ordered another round of tea and called it a day. No patrolling on the mall road for me that day. We set up the carrom board for a game but seeing that we had lost some dozen coins to the day’s adventure, we ordered dinner and I went back to my quarters. My men had to stay on till their relieving constables came.
Next day was cloudy, the sort of day that leaves you gloomy and a bit introspective. At some point it would rain and the weather would spoil things for the tourists looking to go boating at the lake. So I decided to walk over the mall road before it rained. It was only when I saw that a substantial number of people were dragging their luggage to the bus-stand or the railway station, or driving in cars loaded with it, did I realise it was a Sunday and that most of the holiday-crowd was leaving. This always pulled my mood down a few notches. I loved the crowd around this place. Everybody here had earned this break, and it was nice to see them enjoying this detour from their regular lives. Still, I had a job to do. So I walked on. In the restaurant on the right side of the road, a terrace overlooking the valley and a favourite breakfast joint with everyone, I saw the man who had brought in the kid to us yesterday. He was carrying a tray of dosas, steaming idlis, coffee — hot and cold — and other things. The sight of the food and the sight of him made me stop and walk in. I would tell him about the successful reunion his action had brought about and also have a quick, hot bite while watching the fog roll in and up the deodhars in the valley below.
As I walked in I saw the man placing the tray on a table, on which sat the mother and Chikee, the four-year old. Shocked, I stepped back, hoping my sudden action wouldn’t have alerted them of my presence. In the time it took me to step back, it all became clear to me. A couple had come on a break with their kid. But because of the child, nothing had changed for them. They wanted some time for themselves — go on a boat ride, catch a movie, have a peaceful lunch. So the father left the kid with us, with that story about having found it. And that lunch done, that boat ride taken, that movie over, the mother came and picked him up.
All this came to me in that one instant. But what I was going to do next wasn’t as easy to figure out.
Even till this date I don’t know if I should have done the first thing that came to my mind. If I should have walked up to them and caught them red-faced. If I should have made them apologise and given them something to take back home, other than the pictures they would have clicked and the knick-knacks they would have bought.
But I did the other thing instead. I just turned and walked away. They had come on a holiday, probably after saving for months, lying to their bosses about the real reason for taking so many leaves, not telling their relatives lest some of them stuck along. And then they played a small little trick to make the holiday just perfect. Could I blame them for that? But it did get me thinking, as I walked up the way they had walked up to play their part to con the law, that if they ever decided to use such thinking, such guile, to get more than just a few precious hours for themselves, the law and its guardians would have a lot more to do than baby-sit in small hill-stations.