It was sweltering, it was humid, was cacophonic, frenetically pulsating, and jam packed with humanity, as the city was always wont to be. It was Mumbai in May. All of the above compounded in magnitude, to a cool Bangalorean.
Working the corporate ladder however, meant a move to the financial capital of India. And so there was J, my son, on a typical Mumbai day in May, frantically looking for parking space in the southern heart of old Mumbai. His little burnt sienna automatic runabout, having survived the brush-in with a rashly driven motor bike, way back when she was new *, had also been relocated to this metropolis, from his airconditioned home town. J lived in less fashionable suburbia, close to his work place, and the south of the city was not quite so familiar. There seemed to be Mumbai Traffic Police ‘No Parking’ signs at every likely roadside parking spot. The remaining spaces abutting apartment blocks, had their self designated ‘Visitors Parking Only’ for ‘Hill View’, ‘Rajat Mahal’, ‘El Dorado,’ and similar, inappropriately named apartment blocks, none of which even remotely connected to their so-named buildings. As if by magic, in this tony locality, on a decent stretch of road, J found parking for his humble Herbie, under the cool shade of a welcoming Banyan tree. Anxiously scanning the surrounds for any discreetly concealed ‘No Parking’ signage, for the Mumbai traffic cops were a notoriously efficient force, his relief knew no bounds at having found suitable space close to his appointment. An hour later, work done, he stepped onto the road, hurrying to get to the car and back to office. Up ahead were the welcoming arms of Lady Banyan, overhanging that neat stretch of empty road-but devoid of his parked car!
A few desultory customers were hanging around the grimy chai cart parked on the pavement under this tree, shooting the breeze, sipping tea. A mangy cur was investigating the spilling contents of a malodorous cardboard carton, serving as a dustbin. It was overflowing with used plastic tea cups, biscuit wrappers, and suspect edible leftovers, swarming with flies. Nobody had noticed his vanished car. He walked ahead, asked some auto-rikshaw drivers if they could help him trace the whereabouts of his car. With a laconic twist of his head, and a wholly evil grin on his face, one of them enquired,
“Had you parked your car under the shade of that large tree, some way back from this spot?”
“Yes, yes!” Replied my son eagerly, hope swelling his anxious breast.
Another chicken for the police plucking, illustrated the man’s expression.
“There is a yellow line along that curve in this road. And this is Mumbai, mere jaan. That yellow line means ‘Parking Prohibited,’ with no exceptions. Your’s is not the first parked vehicle falling foul of the law!”
“So, now where should I look?” my son almost wailed.
“Arrey yaar, tenshun matt lene ka! Thoda aagey janeka. Vahan ek pulis tation milega. Vahin- icch pulis gaadi tow kiya hoga. Phaine bharney-ka, aur gaadi chuda dene-ka, utna icch. Kaam khatam!”
Taking the cue, J increased his pace, striding ahead, having deduced that the helpful advice, translated from the local Hindi dialect to mean, “My friend, don’t stress. Walk a short distance ahead till you reach a police station. Your car would have been towed there. Pay the fine, and have your car released, that’s all. Work over!”
A small dilapidated, but sturdily built building, circa pre-independent India soon loomed ahead. A low wall surrounded this structure, confining the fairly ample yard within, bursting at its seams with dead and dying, dusty, dilapidated and rusting vehicles, variously awaiting the sentence of the long arm of a painfully slow judicial system. My son thought that most of the original owners of the ‘impounded’ vehicles must have long gone to meet their Maker. A white lettered sign reading ‘Police Station,’ marched stridently over a flaking red painted background. Peering over the wall, there she was, his orange Herbie, one of the latest occupants of the cluttered area. The car displayed a wheel clamp, like a badge of honour, and a few new scrapes and scratches on her body. He walked hesitantly into the holy of holies, to meet the lowly of lowlies, the junior most policeman in the pecking order of the police station. That worthy who guarded the outer perimeter, to the inner power centre.
A desk stood dead centre of this room, flanked by two faded, grimy plastic chairs. A fly ridden Notice Board, displaying photographs of various offenders of the law adorned the rear wall, cheek-by-jowl with a likeness of the Father of the Nation, and the mandatory pictures of the ruling political party head honcho. A two Way Wireless Hand Set stood upright at the table corner, chattering away incoherently to itself, largely ignored by the denizens of law. One of these, occupied the chair behind the table, along with his not inconspicuous paunch. His peer, perched precariously on the table edge, was giving him, by all accounts, a minute description of the latest run-in with his ever-vigilant wife, the previous night. That harried woman apparently had not swallowed the friend’s reason for his late return to home and hearth. She had smelt the odour on his breath, of the couple of quick shots he had been generously served in that seedy little back alley unlicensed bar. She had also not missed the suspicious scent of jasmine on his clothes. She, his wife, who couldn’t afford to adorn her hair with flowers, while he wasted his money on buying tokens for some cheap tartlet? An appreciative guffaw from his corpulent companion greeted this anecdote. This man was minutely examining the contents of his wandering fingers, which had recently explored a facial orifice. My son simply stood, a mute spectator, totally ignored, waiting for one of them to notice him. It was then that he looked along the dim recesses of the far corners of the room. There seemed to be many members of the human species, sprawled on the floor. Both men and women, flouting different laws, who, not commanding the wherewithal of paying the penalty fine, now cooled their heels to sober up or mend their erring ways, in the confines of the police station.
A hesitant, “Ahemmm,” alerted the two constables to my son’s presence in their midst.
“Vot you vant, vai are you standing there?”said Constable Proud Paunch.
“Sir. Sorry for disturbing you. I can see you are busy. But may I please have a word with your good self?” responded my son, in an appropriately servile tone and manner.
“Taal me, vot is the problem?” I cannot vait the whole day phor you to esplain me the matter.”
My son, bending respectfully forward, in a rush, launched into the said problem of his towed and impounded car.
“Ah! So you are owning that illegally parked car? Do you not know that vaicles cannat be parked at your conveyance anywhere you vant?” Saying which Proud Paunch started scrabbling around for what my son thought might be his ‘Fines’ Receipt Book.
Picking up a grimy note book, he licked his fingers, and turning the pages reached the last entry pertaining to J’s crime.
“Lat us see now, vai yore car vas tow-ed.” So saying Proud Paunch, his raconteur colleague and I, trooped out to inspect J’s car.
J hurried forward, pipped-open his car with the remote key, and leaning into Herbie’s innards, opened the glove compartment with a flourish. Empty. He scrabbled about, peering under the seats, delving into every crevice and cranny for the papers. All squeaky clean, with nary a hair out of place, and no papers. Horror slowly dawned, he had given the car recently, for servicing, and not put the documents back.
In slow motion, sweat now streaming down his face, his shirt sticking clammily to his skin, J turned back to the upholder of Mumbai’s traffic rules. He explained the reason for no car documents, upon which, Proud Paunch, smote hapless Herbie with his Receipt Book, and barked.
“Tinted glass windows, out of State registration plates. No documents. Vat you mean by all this nansense? And do nat tell me that you have just recently driven in to Mumbai, I will nat listen to you. Aall will be lies, lies, lies!”
J’s mouth had opened to say exactly what he had been told, by the now very irate mind reader. He quickly decided that discretion was the better part of valour, and holding his peace, squared his shoulders.
“Saar. Vokey! Show me your Driver’s Licence.”
In slow motion J took out this sacrosanct pan-Indian ‘Proof of Identity.’ In trepidation he hoped for a bolt of thunder to strike down his Nemesis, while handing it over.
Nemesis scrutinized the licence, his eyes opened wide, the eye balls bulged, a button on his shirt almost popped, as he swelled visibly in disbelief. As if from a distance, J heard the roar.
“Expired Licence! Expired two months back, two months? Have you no civic responsibility? I will put you behind the bar in my Station, and throw away the key! Do you hear me?”
Since Proud Paunch’s voice had by then pitched up some considerable decibels, not just J, but the entire locality would have heard the diatribe. There were a not inconsiderable number of the guilty criminal inmates and sundry passersby, enjoying this unexpected Matinee, and for free. J thought that if Proud Paunch did not have an apoplectic fit, he himself was sure he would suffer one.The policeman stormed back inside, with J scuttling behind.Settling back into his favourite chair, eyebrows raised, Proud Paunch began the negotiations, with the well worn opening line.
“Vat you vant we should do? I will book you phor many serious offences, you will have to pay a big amount in fines. Your car needs to remain here.You have to produce all proper documents, but in any case, we will be booking a case against you, for such a such offence, under Section…and……….” his voice suggestively trailed into silence.
J waiting with bated breath, wondered why there was no further conversation. It suddenly dawned on him, that he had been presented with a hot hint, and he had to bite the bait.
The parleying began.
The prevailing inflation was crippling. The present government had done nothing to help ill paid officers of the law, make a decent living. He had hoped to have bought himself that snug little cottage in his village. But that was a distant dream, as how was he expected to produce the money to pay for it. His monthly pay packet barely lasted through the month. And then there was the small matter of paying the local Councillor to put in a word about his tranfer to the Central Business District. It was supposed to be El Dorado for the police.
“Sigh!” but I am a hohnest officer.” What am I to do…….you tall me?”
They went back and forth, and finally after many hours, for that is what it seemed to J, both sides arrived at a happy figure. Notes changed hands, one minute in my son’s out held fingers, the next whisked under the table, like a Houdini’s sleight of hand. Obviously, Proud Paunch had had occasion to practice this art regularly for many years. Thereafter the policemen’s entire demeanour changed. He solicitously offered my son many bits of seriously sage advice.
“Drive slowly. Do not run a red light, or break any other traffic rules. Next policeman will not be so kind as me. Sunna?”
He heard and left. J wearily extricated his car from the dusty confines of the station yard, after chasing away a few street dogs who were catching forty winks under it’s shade. It was past 1 PM, and he was to have been back in office hours ago.His head was splitting, as much from the sun as from the events of the day. Hunger pangs emitted sonar pings from the innards of his digestive system. He needed a long cool drink, and some food to help sooth the gripes of acidity. He was driving into Mumbai’s suburbs. Many famous Bollywood stars and cricketers had palatial mansions in this area. A small “Multi Cuisine” restaurant caught his eye. He knew that the fare that they offered their hungry customers would be high on refined flour, swimming in oil and loaded with taste enhancers, and taste of neither robust Anglo Saxon, Satvik Hindu, nor true blue Asian cuisine. He was beyond caring. He was fortunate to find a small deserted side road to park his car. He walked wearily into the cool, dim restaurant interior and ordered his meal.
Quite a while later, headache gone, his frayed nerves combed back into place, and with a gentle, contented burp, he walked out to finally drive back to work. He knew he would have to give a very convincing explanation to his boss about how a minor appointment could be stretched so long into early evening. Anyway, the alleyways afforded more secluded parking, but he seemed to remember parking his car much closer to the lunch place. Ah, maybe he overshot the road. He turned back, retracing his steps, and saw the post box at the head of the road that he had parked his car.But this was a one way, narrow street.
“Was the ‘One Way’ sign there earlier?” thought J.
He didn’t remember noticing it! He turned into this road, and thought that his eyes were playing tricks on him. Or maybe that recently imbibed thirst quencher was, well, rather strong. But no, his eyes hadn’t played tricks. Horror dawned-his car was gone, vanished. Not even a farewell drop of oil marked the spot he had parked her. This time round Mumbai’s traffic police had thoughtfully chalked directions on the road surface,about the Police Station which now imprisoned his car. His Herbie’s adventures had beaten all odds.
The tale provided me good entertainment at parties for the rest of the year….!
* My post, “Madame Siddons”…featured an earlier anecdote about Herbie.