Last week, at 8 a.m. on a rainy morning, Wife and I visited the local police station. Wife had received a summons, and the policeman named on the letterhead – Herr Wittmann, dressed in plainclothes and not fully awake yet – led us to an office on the first floor.
The room looked like an ordinary office, with files, calenders, monitors, stationery, and except for a blue cap on a hatrack nothing about the place suggested that matters of crime were discussed here. Wife’s offence, we discovered to our relief, was minor: in a seventy speed zone she had driven at a hundred. A letter seeking the driver’s confirmation was sent home; we had ignored it – hence the summons.
Herr Wittmann opened a file with Wife’s name on it and pulled out sheets of paper. Among them was proof – a photograph of the offender, caught in the speeding act by a camera – and penalty – a fine of eighty Euros, and three points to her name. Herr Wittman tried to play down the seriousness of those points. They’re nothing, he said, avoiding eye contact; wait for a couple of years without further points and they’ll go away – so don’t worry about it.
He also offered a mild apology about the summons. If you’d answered the letter, he said, the agency would have contacted you directly for the fine; since you didn’t, they asked us to find out more.
Oh don’t worry about that, Wife replied. We simply assumed that if it was a fine then we’d get the letter directly; like the previous occasions, you know.
So you’ve been fined for speeding before? Herr Wittmann raised an eyebrow.
Yes… but, you know, small amounts; about twenty Euros or something.
That’s alright, he said. Anything less than forty Euros will not result in points. Please sign here; you’ll receive the fine receipt directly at your address.
Wife signed, and thanked Herr Wittmann. Then, after wishing him a nice day, we got up and left the police station.
* * *
The encounter brought to mind some fictional incidents at Indian police stations. I’ll begin with The God of Small Things, where the situation at the Kottayam police station is murky.
At the Kottayam police station, a shaking Baby Kochamma was ushered into the Station House Officer’s room. She told Inspector Thomas Mathew of the circumstances that had led to the sudden dismissal of a factory worker. A Paravan. A few days ago he had tried to, to … to force himself on her niece, she said. A divorcee with two children.
Baby Kochamma misrepresented the relationship between Ammu and Velutha, not for Ammu’s sake, but to contain the scandal and salvage the family reputation in Inspector Thomas Mathew’s eyes. It didn’t occur to her that Ammu would later invite shame upon herself – that she would go to the police and try and set the record straight. As Baby Kochamma told her story, she began to believe it.
Why wasn’t the matter reported to the police in the first place, the Inspector wanted to know.
“We are an old family,” Baby Kochamma said. “These are not things we want talked about…”
Inspector Thomas Mathew, receding behind his bustling Air India mustache, understood perfectly. He had a Touchable wife, two Touchable daughters – whole Touchable generations waiting in their Touchable wombs…
“Where is the molestee now?”
“At home. She doesn’t know I’ve come here. She wouldn’t have let me come. Naturally… she’s frantic with worry about the children. Hysterical.”
Later, when the real story reached Inspector Thomas Mathew, the fact that what the Paravan had taken from the Touchable Kingdom had not been snatched, but given, concerned him deeply. So after Sophie Mol’s funeral, when Ammu went to him with the twins to tell him that a mistake had been made and he tapped her breasts with his baton, it was not a policeman’s spontaneous brutishness on his part. He knew exactly what he was doing. It was a premeditated gesture, calculated to humiliate and terrorize her. An attempt to instill order into a world gone wrong.
Next, a scene from Sacred Games, in a Mumbai police station, where parents of a wayward teenager want the police to discipline him.
Kamble now had a family standing in front of him, a mother and a father and a son in blue-uniform shortpants. The father was a tailor who had come back home from the shop early in the afternoon, to get some suiting material he had forgotten. On the way he had taken a short-cut and seen his son, who was supposed to be in school, playing marbles against the factory wall with some faltu street kids. The mother was doing the talking now. ‘Saab, I beat him, his father shouts at him, nothing helps. The teachers have given up. He shouts back at us, my son. He thinks he’s too smart. He thinks he doesn’t need school. I’m tired of it, saab. You take him. You put him in jail.’ She made the motion of emptying her hands, and dabbed at her eyes with the end of her blue pallu. Looking at her hands and finely muscled forearms, Sartaj was certain that she worked as a bai, that she washed dishes and clothes for the wives of executives in the Shiva Housing Colony. The son had his head down, and was scraping the side of one shoe against the other.
Sartaj crooked a finger. ‘Come here.’ The boy shuffled sideways. ‘What’s your name?’
‘Sailesh.’ He was about thirteen, quite wise, with a stylish floppy hairdo and flashing black eyes.
Sartaj smashed a hand down on to the table. It was very loud, and Sailesh started and backed away. Sartaj grabbed him by the collar and twisted him around the end of the desk. ‘You think you’re tough, Sailesh?You’re so tough you’re not scared of anyone, Sailesh? Let me show you what we do with tough taporis like you, Sailesh.’ Sartaj walked him around the room and through a door and into the detection room, lifting him off the floor with every stride. Katekar was sitting with another constable at the end of the room, near the squatting line of chained prisoners.
In another Mumbai police station, an Angry Young Man:
Finally, two young men in the clutches of a police officer who is looking for someone to lockup in his brand new police station.