Burn after reading

Monday Musing

[Asok Pillai]

When we reached the cell, the stench hit me like a gale: a miasma of faeces, urine and cigarette and beedi butts pooled up in one corner of the cell, surrounding a western commode overrun with excrement.

To our left was a smaller cell with two women inmates inside.

The constables shoved Vicky and me into the men’s cell, which must’ve been about 18 square feet, and turned the key.

Saturday night. Busted. I could’ve been back in my apartment, drinking on my own and reading a novel. But here was I, in the ‘main thana’ in Police Bazaar, sharing a jail cell with five others, including Vicky. The four others, we learned later, were mules who had been nabbed somewhere near Cherrapunji, carrying loads of uranium from one party to another. They didn’t even know what uranium was, they claimed. They were just poorly paid mules.

Anyhow, there we were, and it was all Vicky’s fault. Had he not punched one of the four non-tribal lads we were sharing a booth with in a bar in Laitumkhrah, neither of us would’ve been arrested on a Saturday. Saturdays were for fun.

The kid started bawling after Vicky punched him on the forehead. To bring back some order, I immediately slapped Vicky with the back of my hand, and pulled out the Rampuri switchblade from my jacket pocket. “Shut up!” I told the kid and stabbed the table with the knife. Its tip broke. I folded up the knife and put it back in my jacket pocket as the boy stopped crying.

Meanwhile, the manager of the bar had called the police, and we were arrested outside the bar and taken to the Laitumkhrah police beat house, where we were shaken down. The cops took away everything, my watch, my belt, my Phil Collins album, even my sneakers. I was in my socks. Vicky never removed his boots, I noticed; he just kept pretending at it.

Thence we were taken to the famous Civil Hospital in a jeep, where a lady doctor asked us how much we’d had to drink. Just that.

After the medical formality was over, we were put back into the back of the jeep, and away we went to the main thana.

En route, Vicky told me forebodingly that being lodged at the main thana was the first step towards the central jail, which was nearby.

“Have you ever heard of homosexual rape?” he asked.

“No,” I said, expecting the worst.

“That’s what happens in the central jail.”

Before we formally became inmates of the main thana, we were allowed a phone call. Vicky called his mother.

“Hello, Mariam? Mummy ko phone doh… Mummy, listen, we have been arrested for no reason. What? – Anand’s brother. Yes, he’s with me. It’s not his faul-.”

His mother cut off the line.

“Hello? Goddamn b-!” Vicky didn’t complete the word, but it was understood.

Anand, my elder brother, was in Arunachal, and was expected to return to Shillong in a day or two. He was extremely close to Vicky’s mother – in fact to his whole family. I was friends with Vicky but never quite got close to his family. That’s just the way I was.

Once we’d settled down in the cell, sitting with our backs against a wall, Vicky had more bad news.

“Tomorrow is Sunday and the court will be closed. We can’t get bail,” he said.

“Why the hell did you have to punch that guy? He’d done nothing to you,” I said.

“I had an old score to settle,” Vicky replied. “You shouldn’t have slapped my in the eyes.”

“Right. I should’ve punched you on the nose,” I said.

We slept on blankets, wrapped up in old, smelly bug-ridden blankets. It was a cold and dreary night, and, oh, I missed freedom. I missed it so much I wanted to cry.

The next morning, I woke up with a light hangover. By this time, my sense of smell had adjusted to the stench in the cell.

At around what I guess was 11 am, Vicky’s father and the husband of the city judge came to see us. Vicky’s father was the vice chancellor of a reputed university in Assam, and Vicky’s family was well-known in Shillong. The city judge and her family were apparently on great friendly terms with Vicky’s family.

Facing us from the other side of the bars – standing as free men – the two said, in essence, that they would see what could be done but no guarantees. It was a Sunday. Neither of the two displayed any form of friendliness towards us. In fact, the judge’s husband – a tall, large, curly-haired man with a loud voice – yelled at us. “You two deserve to be behind bars!” he yelled at one point. Vicky’s father kept his composure all the while, but there was anticipation in the air that we would get out somehow.

After Vicky’s father and the judge’s husband had left, we began to wait for good news. But as the day progressed, our hopes turned to uneasiness, then to doubt, then to painful anticipation, and, as twilight came, Vicky had more bad news.

“Today is Sunday. You know what cops do on Sundays? They get drunk and torture the inmates. They remove your clothes and beat you with stinging nettles; they roll iron rolling pins on you shin – stuff like that. If we are not out by 5 pm, we’ll have to spend the night here.”

“How the hell do you know these things?” I said, suddenly realizing that Vicky knew more about jail and the law than he legitimately should have. “Have you been behind bars before?”

“If I answered that question, I would have to kill you,” Vicky replied.

“Very funny. You’re a jailbird, and I don’t know why, I’m not at all surprised.”

“What are you now?”

“It’s all because of you. So you’re going to do everything in your power to get me out of here.”

The minutes passed. We had no way of knowing the time. Our watches were at the Laitumkhrah beat house. We saw the twilight sky through the barred ventilator high up in one of the walls. We waited. And we waited.

It was just as we had lost all hope that two constables came down the hallway, announced our names, and started unlocking the cell door.

We were put into the back of a police van and taken to the judge’s house in Dhankheti, where Vicky received a resounding slap from the judge.

After facing a barrage of scolding and advice from Vicky’s mom and the judge, I was thoroughly repentant, having understood the value of freedom after a night in jail. I was glad beyond measure, but I kept a low profile, my head down, eyes to the floor, fingers interlaced behind my back – a picture of pure regret. At one point during the ‘scolding’ period, the judge asked whether we wanted to go back to jail.

I said, “No, ma’am.”

Vicky said, “Yes, ma’am.”

That was some belligerence. But then I realized how close the two families were. We were in the drawing room, and Vicky and I were standing near the door, while the judge, Vicky’s mother and an elderly couple were seated in sofas in a semi-circle in front of us. The judge rose from her seat, took four quick steps towards Vicky and delivered a thundering slap on his left cheek. It turned red.

Vicky stood absolutely still, didn’t even raise his hand to massage his cheek. “Thank you,” he said at length, smiling stingily and nodding his head slowly several times.

“I’m sorry, K****n,” said the judge to Vicky’s mother. “I had to slap him.”

“You did the right thing, A**a. He deserves to be slapped,” said Vicky’s mother. “Look at Asok, he is so apologetic.”

Eventually, we were set free, and I spent that night at Vicky’s house in Lower Lachumiere, which was nearby. I slept in Vicky’s bed while he slept on the sofa in the drawing room downstairs. Having had a good bath and a good dinner, I felt so light and tired that I fell asleep minutes after laying my head on the soft pillows. I was a free man. I could dream of anything now, achieve anything in life.

It was not that Vicky’s parents and the judge had come to some arrangement to get us out of jail on a Sunday. It was that the judge had done Vicky’s mother a huge favour free of cost. A week later, Vicky’s mother asked me to give Rs 5,000 to buy gifts for the judge. I paid promptly.

I was free, and that’s all that mattered. I vowed never to get arrested again in my life; but alas, I was arrested two more times, in different places, for different reasons, in different phases of my highly eventful life. But that’s a story for another day.