The infant in my lap was asleep in a drug induced slumber. A smear of opium on her lips has done the trick. She looked as if she was dead. I sat on the busy footpath outside Masjid Railway Station and looked around with hopeless eyes. A small pile of coins and notes were before me, of which I was totally oblivious. I was staring forlornly at the innocent sleeping face, tears in my eyes. My tattered but clean dress bespoke of my past glory and current bad luck.
This was my style!
People think that begging is the easiest thing in the world and can be done by anyone. I beg your pardon, O stranger! Have you ever tried to borrow a considerable sum of money from that stingy friend of yours? Have you been snubbed or given an excuse by him? Then you know how difficult it is to beg. Begging is an art. Just like any musical instrument, it has to be fine-tuned to such perfection that a single twang of the strings resonates not only through the ears, but the heart too. And, I am a master musician as far as the humble, but great art of begging is concerned.
Great? Of course great! Doesn’t our Prime Minister go and beg to the World Bank and IMF for those myriad projects, which never materialize anywhere? The only difference between us is the location and the getup. He begs at the UN in Geneva in a Jodhpur suit and I beg at stations in tatters. And, if you compare the data, my success rate is better than his. Dedication pays, my reader! Dedication pays.
“Bhai, kya hua hai ise?” (Brother, what happened to her?) A nubile collegiate asked me with concern for the infant.
“She has the incurable disease, sister. Hunger!” I replied in chaste English in a soft voice. In India, people are immediately impressed if you appear from a lower station of life and speak the King’s Language. English from a well-dressed executive is never as impressive as from a humble auto driver or a rickshaw puller. I told you. I’m a master of psychology. I excel in begging by the application of Applied Psychology.
The girl stood speechless after hearing English from such a quarter, her lips shaped in a pretty and scarlet O. I performed the coup-dè-grace. “She has major dehydration and needs urgent medication. She also needs a draught of saline and sodium.” I was suddenly a doctor too. “Her mother died in a road accident yesterday. Her body is in the JJ Hospital morgue. I was laid off from my call center job two months ago. I don’t have money to claim her body, let alone give a treatment to this angel! I’m not a beggar, sister! I was just sitting here hopelessly and then found this signature of compassion from the large hearted people of this rich city! I hope she lives! She’s my only hope after her mother…!” My voice choked in grief and my eyes welled, while I hugged the little body to my bosom.
“Don’t worry, brother. My uncle’s dispensary is just around the corner. Let’s get her there. He won’t charge you anything.”
God damn all meddlers! What business has she got to try to offer me medical help? I knew that I overdid my part and tried to cover up.
“No, sister. She’ll be fine once I pour a little milk in her mouth. The burning topic is ₹1,565, which is required to claim her poor mother’s body.” Again my voice broke. “I have around ₹1,000 here, due to the pity of the people in this great city. Thank you, sister, for your concern! I’ll manage.” I said bravely, wiping my unshed tears on my sleeve.
There’s a saying in Sanskrit:
Sthaanbhrashtaa na shobhante,
Dantaah, keshaah, nakhaah, naraah.
Teeth, hair, nails and men, these four things lose their beauty and stature once they leave their designated places.
Hair, when in their place, are called tresses and are sung by poets; but once they leave their rightful place, no one likes them. Have you ever loved a strand of hair in your plate of food, which formerly belonged to your darling? I think, tears should be added to this list. Tears are more powerful, till they don’t leave the safety of one’s eyes and flow on one’s cheeks. Teary eyes are more heart rendering than crying eyes. Eyes welled with tears show a constraint, that one is pained to the core, but still is fighting against the adversity. It shows self-respect. Once they leave their place, they lose respect and only evoke pity.
My magic worked and the nymph dug into her oversized shoulder bag. She fished around in the quagmire of lipsticks, face wash and what not and salvaged her clutch. Only a woman can keep a purse in a purse! She pulled out a ₹500 note and dropped it on the pile and left with tears in her eyes.
It was 5pm. I counted the earnings. I had ₹1,900 and some change. This was more than my regular earning of ₹1,000. Not that I was complaining! I had to pay ₹200 to the mother of the child. I was thirsting for my daily drink. I took the child to her mother in the slums below Masjid Bunder bridge and got rid of her. I went to the country liquor bar and met my other friends. They had rolled a joint of ganja. We started discussing the stories of day. The usual shop talk you white collared executives do at the end of a gruelling day.
A police van stopped outside the bar. Few constables and an inspector swaggered in. I smirked at them and told something to my cronies. We all laughed. The inspector was not amused and caught me by collar and cursed me roundly. He sniffed around and then zeroed in on my cigarette. He dragged us all to his van. I was not worried. This wasn’t the first or the last time I’ve been dragged to a police station. You may call it a professional hazard. I pulled out my wad of notes and hid it in my underwear. I kept around ₹300 and few change in my pocket. I was relaxed.
We were taken to Dongri police station and were brusquely asked to wait. Avoiding the eyes of the constable, I pulled out a quarter of country liquor and had a swig. One of my friend Ramya was taken inside. I knew that we were just picked up for the routine roundup to show arrests in their registers to fill in the monthly numbers, and would be released soon. Possibly, we would also be paid ₹100 or so for this inconvenience if we are lucky.
The terrified screams of my mate suddenly made me sober. His screams echoed in the police station. Suddenly the horrible realization dawned on me. We were fingered by some khabri as the perpetrators of some crime.
Bombay police can be very efficient when they want. They have their own intricate and efficient grapevine and spy system. They are called ‘khabris’ or, newsmen. The khabris are beggars, small hawkers, car washers etc. They know everything there’s to know about the city and supply titbits about crimes and criminals to the police in return of some small cash. Apparently, our group was marked by these Judas for some crime unknown. I started thinking furiously and couldn’t find anything heinous enough. True that I stole a car stereo last week, but that wasn’t grave enough for this torture! Suddenly the screams were silent and Ramya came out with a constable, who took him behind the police station. My eyes followed him in terror, searching for some sign of reassurance. Ramya kept his eyes forcefully down and didn’t look at me. I was summoned inside.
I shuffled away towards the lockup with a quaking heart and leaden boots. This wasn’t the first time I’d seen the inside of this particular lockup. During my last visit it was crammed with deadbeats, drunkards and pickpockets. Today was different. It was an empty room of 15X10 feet with a metal chair in the center of it. A lone electric bulb was casting eerie shadows. Two burly and sweating policemen in vests were standing in it. One of them had his wide leather belt in his hand, folded in double. I immediately fell down on his feet, crying my innocence and begging. Being the master of psychology that I was, I knew that this was a situation where unshed tears were useless. I didn’t need any respect but as much pity as I could garner. I let my tears flow like a flooded river and started howling. The bewildered constable kicked and cursed me, then ordered me to sit in the chair.
“What do you know about Chhota Shakeel?” He thundered.
“I don’t know anything about him, my lord!” I whimpered.
He loomed menacingly. I flinched. “I don’t know him personally, but his men do come in our area. They have roughed me up at times. I swear, my lord!” I whined, “I swear on my mother!” My mother had died when I was two years old, so the oath was harmless. Like all prudent businessmen, I always hedge my bets, you see!
“Listen you bastard. You are booked under MCOCA. If you know anything, sing it now. Otherwise you will never see the daylight.” One of them growled and slapped me hard.
I didn’t feel the stinging slap, neither did I flinch from the blow. My mouth was open in horror as I was numb by what he said. Booked under MCOCA? That devil spawn act! Maharashtra Control of Organized Crime Act or MCOCA (pron: Muh-ko-ka) was a draconian law, which had replaced it’s equally dreaded predecessor TADA or Terrorist And Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act. Once arrested under MCOCA, one couldn’t be bailed out for 10 months. The police has 180 days to file a charge sheet, as compared to a normal arrest, where they have to file within 24 hours of detention. Which means that there can be no bail hearing for at least six months. It didn’t take much to arrest someone under this act. Like ancient British witch-hunt laws, this act just required a hearsay or an allegation, and a person may be carted off to jail, where he will wait for months for the charge sheet to be filed. The act was cognizable and non-bailable at the outset. Which meant, one can rot in jail indefinitely, irrespective of one’s innocence. It was a good act to fight organized crime, but for poor guys like me, it was a nightmare. I didn’t mind a short stint in jail. In fact, I’ve always been a regular and an honored guest of the government in their various guesthouses. But 10 months at a stretch with more reserved in future was too much for my taste! I started shrieking my innocence. This time the fear and tears were real. I got another hard slap, which brought me back to my senses.
The cops again grilled me. I got slapped again, but mercifully they laid off the leather belt. I kept howling about my innocence, beseeching their sense of humanity, which I seriously doubted they had. I swore on all the gods of various religions, including the Parsi religion. All my advanced psychology flew out of the window. The constable looked at me thoughtfully and took his pal in the corner of the cell. They conferred for some time. One was apparently dubious and in disagreement with whatever the other said. Finally they came to me.
“Listen you asshole. I think that you are innocent… “
I immediately jumped off the chair and was in his feet, singing praises of his sense of justice. He pulled me up by my hair and slapped me. “Shut up and listen, you bastard! My partner doesn’t think that you are clean. But if you pay ₹2,500 fine, we can let you go.”
“Sir, I am innocent. I swear! I don’t have that amount, but I will give you whatever I have.” I hastily pulled out all the money and kept it on the chair. It was around ₹1,500. I managed to hide ₹200 cunningly. The other constable, God damn his soul, was still upset with his partner, who asked me to get lost before he changes his mind. I didn’t have to be told twice. I shot out of the lockup and the police station with a speed worthy of Ben Johnson on steroids, and didn’t stop till I reached the safety of Sandhurst Road railway station.
I stopped under the indicator and was panting. Suddenly I spotted Ramya, who was drinking lemon juice at the railway stall and asked him what happened.
“Oh, nothing. They just slapped me twice and took ₹200 and asked me to fuck off.” He said nonchalantly. “Want some lemon juice?”
“Only ₹200?” I was aghast! “They didn’t threaten you with MCOCA?”
“Oh, they did.” He replied happily, “I asked them to go ahead. At least, I’ll get a roof and meals. They slapped me few times, searched me and kicked me out.”
And, I paid all my money to those thieves on this threat! I was appalled! “But why did you scream?”
Ramya looked at me with pity, as one does to a child. “Why, you idiot! Didn’t you see that leather belt? I screamed as soon as they slapped. So, they didn’t use that belt on me. It’s simply a use of Applied Psychology. You won’t understand.” He sauntered off without paying the stall keeper.
So, in spite of my superior expertise in psychology, I was taken in by the oldest ‘Good Cop, Bad Cop’ routine in the world and paid ₹ 1,500, whereas I could have got away by simply paying ₹200! The stall keeper asked me for money. I threw ₹10 at him in disgust and walked off.
I looked up towards the roof of the station. Beyond which was the huge blue sky. Somewhere above that sky sits a very old man called God, who is a bit hard of hearing and like all old men sleeps most of the times. I cursed Him roundly. I cursed all the psychologists, born and unborn. I cursed the police in general and those two cons in particular. Lastly, I cursed myself.
Then, I went in search of a country liquor bar.