(It was quite a job, editing out the sexual and the scatological, not to mention the scathingly vitriolic from “Friends, Foes etc.”, so I have culled an account of things - call it fictional if you like - for my gentle readers. This is a vignette picked up at random. If anyone fancies resemblance to the character described herein, he may please himself. I take no responsibility.)
At the same station, we had some comic relief in the shape of another of my superiors. This character seemed to have materialized straight out of some Rabelaisian farce. Fat, paunchy, and perpetually hungry, he blamed his obesity on the two prolific cows that he owned. He had a tremendous appetite, and during visits to my station he would really ply himself with goodies. I made it a point to invite him over for meals, whatever the time of his arrival. His opening gambit was, of course, “I have had my fill at home”, but his entire being gave lie to his statement. It demanded to be fed, to be loaded to the brim. But he was honest enough. Immediately after his meals, he would visit the loo and promptly deposit the best part of what he had consumed. My wife – poor victim of my urge to be hospitable – always treated him as a thing; as one gigantic waste and biogas producing machine.
Notwithstanding his comical appearance, he was imbued with a Spenglarian sense of destiny. He looked upon himself as a later day Alexander, Charlemagne and Chanakya, all rolled into one. He took his work seriously; but he looked at the problems that it presented, through the prism of his many idée fixe. This led to great quixotic adventures with him at the head of a marching column of sniggering, joking and half-reluctant followers. His exploits in the area of mistaken identity must await some later day Shakespeare to immortalize him. Such was his tenacity to his idée fixe that in one remote village, all the persons bearing a particular name abandoned their homes and ran away - fearing interrogation or arrest. The ostensible reason was that a person with the above name was wanted in a criminal case. In another village, people stopped riding ponies because riding a pony rendered them suspect in the eyes of my boss. Some outlaws had reportedly used ponies in the commission of a crime and this particular incident got fixed in his mind in such a manner that the association of man and pony became, for him, the surest sign of criminality. The gentleman always saw things in generic terms. If one event had a particular outcome, the class of all such events must have the same ending. So on and so forth. And often enough he made reality confirm to his idea of reality. It left in its wake some avoidable embarrassments; many clues that went a begging, and sleepless nights of futile adventures for all of us.
He was in his elements during one of the visits of the prime minister to his area of responsibility. Leaving the surging mass of people to the care of his juniors, he walked up the considerable distance to the VVIP, stood to attention and barked “Good morning, sir”. The exalted lady was none too pleased at his mixing of genders and asked him to go and do his duty. But he came back grinning from ear to ear, satisfied with his performance.
Once he kept the entire hierarchy - from the Chief Minister to the IGP (as the head of police was designated in those years) - on the tenterhooks, by interpreting literal ducks, with the metaphorical ones – some big catch. This episode needs some re-telling, even though it has become part of police folklore.
It was a cold winter night, a little more than three decades ago, in an obscure little place in the most backward part of the state. Those of us who have served in the remote areas of North-Eastern Bihar would have an idea how the winter chill and fog transform the place into a surreal locale. In the evenings, the countryside seemed to float upon invisible stilts of fog and thin air, and the three dimensions of space got horribly mixed up. The high road, smooth and eminently motorable, flanked by the low lying fields, spread on and on like a black ribbon, and like a ribbon it effortlessly curled up - sometimes, unexpectedly. One had to be careful in conditions where visibility, late in the night, could be as little as only a few feet. You drove more by instincts and gut sense. The villages were few and far between but they showed no signs of human habitation, as the people around got up with the sun and their activities came to a complete halt with the sunset. Centuries seemed to have left them by. Electricity was a rarity in the countryside and reserved for the district and the sub-divisional headquarters. The whole countryside was submerged in primeval darkness. The policeman was more like a lone voyager on a lonely planet, or when moving in groups for raids etc., dressed in overcoats and jackets, they appeared to be marauders from the outer space.
On that cold winter night, I got a call from my boss. He was conspiratorial as usual, and asked me to get ready fast and assemble as many armed personnel as I could muster instantly. In the days prior to the automated exchange, the utility of the telephone set was only marginal. It was, at best, an amplifier - a mechanical augment to natural lung power, because one shouted so hard in the mouthpiece to be heard on the other end. The circle of confidence, as far as the sharing of sensitive information was concerned, included the operator of the exchange as a necessary party. So we barked our instructions and received it in the canine form of speech as a matter of course. But my boss was an exception. He would whisper in the mouthpiece, and the subordinates had to decipher the susurrations on the other end. I guessed that we were to raid a particular village three districts away at 4:00 in the morning. Nothing more. The objective was not spelt out. He did not share his intelligence with anyone. He was a firm believer in the saying: three can keep a secret, if two of them are dead; the trouble was, sometimes he hid it from himself as well. He said he would be there in a jiffy.
It was 8 in the evening, we had a drive of about sixty kilometres on metalled road, then about three kilometres on the sandy kas -lined fields (kas is a hardy shrub which grew wild in the riverine areas). From there we had to cross a river in a country boat and then, by various modes of locomotion, travel another 18 kilometers. A near-impossible task, given the conditions. But with him, you could not reason. The physical constraints apart, everyone knew the worth of his intelligence assets. But we had no choice in this matter. It was a one-way street. We only carried out orders.
The entire fleet of three jeeps – one each borrowed from my local civilian counterpart and the Executive Engineer of the irrigation department, and my own official jeep - and the FC vehicle of the police station were lined up and loaded with about 35 or 37 reluctant policemen - chowkidars, writer constables, sub-inspectors, all of them deeply convinced of a futile night’s adventure.
The boss did not keep us waiting for long, and we were on the move just a little past 9:00 PM. I remember having made a long entry in my diary about the charge of the asinine brigade. Even the motor vehicles shared the mood of the menagerie and the forward control vehicle would splutter , then threaten to come to a grinding halt but would miraculously pull up and pick up speed – as much as it could, given its vintage model and the dense thick fog. After a couple of hours, it was clear that we were going to miss the tryst, whatsoever it was . The mood of the medley was anything but pleasant.
Just three kilometres short of the river – or rather the dhar, as an extinct stream was called – we sighted a contraption which appeared to be advancing towards us, in the middle of the road, ambling its way into infinity. We surmised it to be a bullock cart in the dim light of a lantern, which was hanging by the small bamboo canopy. Neither the urgent honking of the vehicles, nor the manifest of important dignitaries on board the jeeps, affected its slow and steady progress. Wrapped in a nirvanic calm, it trudged its way. Orders were promptly given to discipline the bullock-cart driver, but it transpired that he was asleep. A half-asleep, half-confused inspector was ordered to take over the reins - or whatever was the term for the mechanics for navigating the bullock cart - and turn it in the reverse direction. Having performed this task, he marched with a great swagger, as if he had just broken an Olympic record, saluted the boss and took his seat at the back of the jeep. This one incident recharged my boss and we were exhorted to move on with renewed vigour on our voyage.
The ambience was a perfect setting for movies in the Woh Kaun Thi (Who Was She?) genre and I always wondered if I would bump into some eminently beautiful and mysterious woman, wrapped in pure white sari, sleepwalking with a candle in her hand. However all that one found was some fisherman, out with his net, or some other unfortunate creature with a lota (a small metal pot to carry water for ablutions etc) in his hand, victim of an unruly and indisciplined bowel. In the eyes of policemen, such figures were ex-officio suspicious, strange incongruities, stragglers from the ordinary work-a-day world, which had obligingly receded undercover for the dialectical contest of thieves and cops to be played out. The police men would invariably demand to know what was the fellow was doing out at that time of the night. But this was preceded by some very informal greeting, which suggested an unusual degree of familiarity with him, extending to their knowledge of his incestuous relations with his mother, sister or daughter. These preliminary courtesies were followed by some light hearted, almost playful, pummeling. Some of the sundry slaps and jabs went only to show the boss that they were not callow or cowards. I think each one of us had his own fantasy, and found it betrayed. The vigorous mode of questioning was in large measure fuelled by this collective frustration. But this bullock cart scene was unscripted, and full credit to the boss that he wrote an impromptu role for us then and there.
To cut a long story short, we arrived at our destination about five hours late, exhausted and famished, ready to disintegrate at the mere touch of a human hand. Our contact was a rich local landowner who used to host duck-shooting trips for police officers from the State Headquarters and influential civilians from the State Secretariat. He was visibly surprised. It appears that he had sent a QST invitation to my boss through the local Thana about the arrival of the migratory Siberian ducks, the geese and graylags, the teals and the pintails. My boss, who lived on a single level of obsession, deconstructed the laconic message “the ducks have arrived” as some metaphorical big catch. The boss could never be accused of nursing even an incipient inclination for poetry, but his misreading of a literal statement for a metaphorical one had led us to this situation.
I think our cognitive faculties were not at their best, because immediately this bit of news did not quite make sense to many of us. We just looked blank and barmy. But when the import of the message seeped in, the undifferentiated and listless bundles of khaki stained by mud and slush, and wisps of kas and other vegetations suddenly achieved critical mass. Murder and mayhem was uppermost on our minds and the boss did sense the mood of rebellion. But the hospitality of the obliging host did a lot to assuage our frayed temper. Our hunger stilled we gradually returned to being our humble disciplined selves.