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Saturday, April 6, 2013

Tales of Moni - Chapter II

I met him the following week near his house in Humayunpur, a suburban village near Safdarjung Enclave. He was sitting at Rosang, a small restaurant run by a Paite couple, where they served all kinds of North-east Indian, Tibetan and Chinese cuisine, with framed pictures of their culture hung on their walls, along with some cultural artefacts like shawls, traditional hunting spears and knives, pipes, etc. One of the Zomi tribes of Burmese origin, Paites are one of the 33 officially recognised scheduled tribes of Manipur. The restaurant did pretty well in that area, since there were a lot of students from North-East India who stayed in the locality, and had an appetite for some good food from back home. We sat on a corner table and he ordered his favourite pork chop while I ordered an egg chowmein as we sat there and exchanged details of what transpired after we were separated at the police station. "I just wanted to quieten him down, so that I could take him out of there" he said, wrinkles appearing on his forehead. It turns out that he was in the middle, trying to negotiate with him, when Ranbir struck a cop again and all the policemen converged in on them. He got slapped and kicked in the middle, but he kept quiet and ran to the nearest wall and spread his arms above his head and stood there facing the wall, much like a seductive Urmila Matondkar from Rangeela or Madhuri Dixit in Tezaab, except there was only self-defense on the agenda instead of seduction. Once they pinned Ranbir down and put him behind bars and they took us into separate rooms behind the head constable's desk, he knew they were in no mood to listen. "Every police station has an old, much-respected constable. If you can get him onto your side, the rest of them will not lay a finger on you", he said, the wrinkles on his forehead growing deeper. In that room behind the desk, an old constable, about the age of his father, with greying hair and a scar that ran across his ear, had walked up to him and asked him where he was from. "Aap toh acche aadmi dikhte ho. Yeh kaise dost banaa rakhe hain aapne?" he asked. "Charas pee rakhi hai kya isne? Yeh lambe baal waala firangi charas bechta hai isko?"

He sat there speaking to the old constable, calling him Veerji, and offered him a pack of Shikhar. When the constablke had reached his hand out for it, Moni saw that he had only half of the little finger on his left hand left on him. "He definitely must have been involved in a few scuffles with petty criminals", he thought to himself, While  Ranbir was busy abusing everyone who passed by the lock-up he was in, and even abused a lady constable who was sitting there, I was sulking in the room because a constable had slapped me for trying to be reasonable, and Moni was making up all kinds of stories right there, ranging from how his grandfather was a childhood friend of the Hooda family, and how he was invited to the chief minister's sons wedding, but couldn't go for it, to how the Haryana Police was one of the best police units in India, comparing them to the corrupt UP Police and to the even more corrupt police force back home. By the end of it, he won the old constable over, as was apparent when the gypsy arrived to take us for the medical check-up, for we were ushered in, Moni walked out behind us, but the old constable yelled at him and sent him back into the room. As the Gypsy drove away, Moni considered the possibility of being manhandled severely, now that he was all by himself. The lady constable, whom Ranbir had called all sorts of names, walked up to him, red in the face, with so much anger that there were tears in her eyes, "Yeh dost the aapke?" He knew right then that he had to choose his words carefully. In a tone akin to that used by a class four student being confronted by the principal over a broken window pane in a classroom, he said "Nahin, yeh toh mere office mein kaam karte hain. Who lambe baal wala mera dost hai. Is jaanvar ko toh main jaanta bhi nahin hun." The lady was ready to strike him on the face, but hearing what he said, she calmed down and walked off. He sat there for nearly three hours after that. He once tried taking his cell phone from the table, but when the head constable ordered him to put it back, he quietly complied and sat in the room for a while.

After a while, the sub-inspector of the station arrived. A couple of local politicians happened to be there to witness the fag end of Ranbir's defiance, and they narrated the incident to the sub-inspector. The sub-inspector walked up to Moni and said with a smile on his face, "Mere thane me aake, mere police waale ko thappad maarke gaya hai woh. Main hota toh uske g**nd mein goli maar deta". The lady police joined in, saying that if she filed a report about the things he had said to her, he would be jailed for at least seven years. (They would have actually done that if Ranbir's wife hadn't come later in the evening with their 9 year-old son and pleaded with them for mercy). Moni's only POA all this while was to nod and agree with everything anyone in there said. Soon, they seemed to forget that he was present there, getting involved in a couple of other cases that were being reported. An hour or so after this, Moni picked up his phone again, and the constable didn't stop him this time. He went out and called three of his friends and told them to come to the police station with their lawyer if he didn't call them within an hour and a half. The inspector joined him outside and offered him a smoke, saying, "Yeh to aapki zubaan ne aapko bachaa liya aaj". He then spoke to the sub-inspector about several issues, ranging from the degeneration of the modern youth, to the POTA in Assam, and how dangerous the situation there was, and how many of the people he knew were languishing in prison for years without even a fair enquiry. Fifteen minutes later, the sub inspector asked him to take his belongings and leave. With this, Moni nodded his head in compliance, collected his empty wallet and his bag, and left the police station. On his way out, he stopped by at the tea stall at the gate and ordered a cup of tea and a double-egg bread-omelette. When he was done, he asked the chai wala to put it on the police station's tab, and waved at the sub inspector. The sub inspector waved back at him, and that was it. He had just walked out of a potential night in jail and turned it into a free breakfast buffet!

The jail was an hour's drive away from sector 56, where all this action took place. As we approached the driveway. it looked like we were heading into one of the top universities in the country, till we reached the huge iron gate guarded by cops with guns, the check-point as soon as you enter the gate, where they could make you strip naked and even probe your orifices if they wished to, or if the cops who got you there gave in a 'special word' about you. Thankfully, Ranbir had quietened down once he realised that he was inside the jail (I don't know if it was owing to his growing sobriety or if his better sense prevailed, but I was glad either way), and even when the constable he had been messing with throughout the day delivered a couple of well-aimed kicks on his backside, he took it in good spirit, and so the cops inside did not frisk us more than was necessary. Once this was done, they made us sweep the floor till they deemed it clean. There were some others who were doing this as well, and we found out later that some of them had been at it for more than two hours. We even got kicked on our buttocks a couple of times while doing this. Post this, we waited in a long corridor for them to make a record of us, watching many criminals being brought in and taken out - some bleeding, some limping, some with a look of complete resignation. I waited nervously for close to two hours before we were summoned and the formalities were completed. It was twilight and getting dark very quickly when we were eventually escorted for the medical examination, where our blood pressure levels, height and weight were measured and form that took note of our medical history, ailments, allergies, etc. was to be filled up, and the resident doctor okayed us to proceed. We were then moved to our respective wards, where Ranbir and I met the warden, a life-sentenced prisoner himself, with his salt-and-pepper hair, clad in a brown khadi kurta and a pair of jodhpuris. He was in there for having shot his brother-in-law over a property dispute. We discovered that he had already spent ten years in there, and had been appointed as the warden in return for his good behaviour. He was even allowed to leave the jail every now and then, when he went to meet his family over the weekend, and return to resume his duties on Monday. He had been appealing for a pardon in the Supreme Court for the last few years, and when he heard that I knew a certain magistrate in the Supreme Court in person (something Ranbir started announcing to everybody as soon as we entered the campus), he was extremely nice to us. The night was relatively uneventful, except for the greasy dal, the unbreakable rotis that had to be softened with saliva for them to be eaten, and the scary gossip doing the rounds in the room, amidst all of which we slept off, as a strange sense of loneliness crept in under the blankets, caressing, licking and wrapping itself around me, much like a flame or smoke, bringing about a perspective that a lifetime of education may not be able to bring. Those last few hours of consciousness drifted into stony silence, through a varied field of contemplation in that near-dark, moonlit room, as I closed my eyes and wondered what fate would fetch for us the following morning.

We were woken up at 6 o clock with a whistle and the sound of a gong. I don't remember if there was a place to bathe; maybe it was quite far away. Either way, I didn't bother to explore that option. Once we washed our faces and had been to the toilet, breakfast with similar levels of grease as the dinner from the previous night was served. However, before we could pick up the greasy plates from the night before and make a crazy attempt to wipe them clean, the warden whisked us into his room, where he had laid out three plates and asked us to sup with him. His food was much better in taste and hygeine and felt like haute cuisine in coparison. He instructed us to remain in the room post that, and we soon found out why. One by one, various groups of workers would come in and take the prisoners with them - some to break rocks, some to pluck weed, some to sweep the campus, etc. The strongest and fittest looking ones went first, followed by the feeble ones. It somehow reminded me of the camel fair in Pushkar. From the safety of the wardens room, we these parties go their respective ways, after which the warden took us with him to show us around the campus. This is when we realised that the ward we were kept in was for the petty criminals who had to spend less than two days in prison, or where the graver sinners were kept only for the first two days. Post this, across the huge play field where the prisoners came out to play all kinds of sports in the evening, they were taken to the main prison cell, which is where most of the disturbing action took place. We were, as we realised, just at the base camp, so to say, with a wonderful view of the Everest, and that was about as far as we wanted to go. He told us how he spent ten years of his life in there for just a spur-of-the-moment reaction, where he pulled out a gun and shot his brother-in-law three times. He said that a lot had changed in those ten years, and that he was not even the same person who pulled the trigger anymore. "Zindagi mein har cheez badi soch samajh ke karna. Ek galti zindagi chheen sakti hai, aur kabhi dubaara mauka bhi nahin deti", he said, with the voice and demeanor of a person humbled by time, by age, by an environment that could squeeze the childhood out of anyone. I imagined how it would feel to have to spend ten whole years in there, and I was almost glad that I had come in there, for it made me a whole lot more thankful to have all the blessings in life that we so take for granted and often abuse. Ten years without friends or family, where all you have for company is goons and hooligans, trapped within the four walls of this fortress, a prisoner of the state. I shook myself out of this reverie, shook the tears that had welled up in my eyes and thanked my stars that I was getting out of there soon. Yes, soon it was, for by evening that day, Ranbir's wife had found us, and so had my friends, and having hired a lawyer together, they bailed us out of that mess.

Maybe it was pure luck that had saved Moni out that day, but maybe there was something he had learned from experience, something he had done just right. "You were being an ass that day!" he said looking his bowl of pork, and then suddenly turned towards the waiter and asked him to get some fermented bamboo shoot from the kitchen. "You should have just shut up and agreed with whatever they said, but you went on about policemen and their responsibilities towards citizens and how they should not have slapped you because you hadn't done anything. There is basically just one rule with all policemen, particularly when you are in a police station - 'The police are always right!'. I had to learn it the hard way during my college days in Bombay." He seemed to go into a trance for a couple of minutes after that, as if he were reliving some of those experiences in his head, eyes wide open and gazing into the distance of a decade. He then picked up his bowl, emptied its remnants down his throat, and ordered a bowl of Thukpa to follow it up. "Olop paatla ku ri bi" he said to the little Naga waiter in Nagamese, a creole based on Assamese that is widely used in Nagaland, a state inhabited by several tribes that speak mutually unintelligible dialects. He looked at me and realised that I was eagerly awaiting his story, so he took out his handkerchief, wiped his moustache and his lips clean, and took me back in time - to his college years and his several encounters with the Mumbai Police. (to be continued...)