I am depressed. Not the usual blahs that eat us up once in a while, no-no, this is a bit more serious. Perhaps it is the grimy potholed roads of Mumbai, the beggars or the absolutely chaotic and chocker block traffic that has soured my mood? Or is it the sight of two squatting kids lost in process of bowel movement next to a garbage dumpster on the Western Expressway that has triggered my cheerless hormones? This happens in declining age, I have read somewhere, among the hundreds of useless email that are forwarded warning me of this and that, with related miraculous remedies. Perhaps? Or maybe it is just a reaction from having just returned from a month long tour of the West where traffic discipline and pothole free roads are not a novelty?
So I am dwelling in this awful mood when Mohammed, my driver, brakes hard and the car screeches to a sudden and uncomfortable stop; I turn and glare at him. He wanted to beat changing traffic lights and decides not to risk the rapid change from amber to red. There are, however, others glaring as well; at my car. Two traffic cops, one tall and lanky with a drooping mustache that practically covers all his lips and dark shades all his eyes and the other, short, stout and well built, pregnant with years of beer, rich food and lack of exercise perhaps, the buttons of his uniform straining for relief, are staring towards us; Mohammed frets uncomfortably.
As if on cue, the taller one strides to Mohammeds side and gestures angrily for the windows to be lowered, khirki kholo, khirki kholo he shouts, then changes into a verbal onslaught of insults in Marathi, of which paagal ghaandu is the only one I can understand – mad asshole! Mohammed rolls down his window fearfully, he is aware of past violent treatment of non-Marathis in Mumbai, especially Muslims. The cop reverts to Hindi, seeing we are non Marathis. Is this how you drive? Paagal hai kya? He speaks but we can barely see his lips move through the brittle curtain of his moustache.
What did he do wrong, I open my mouth for the first time, making my voice as authoritative as possible. He jerks his head back and cocks it sideways, regarding my face, trying to make up his mind if I am somebody he can intimidate. His eyes are invisible with shades, so are mine, so we can’t tell whose emotions are about to unravel. I know Mohammed has not done anything wrong and the bastard wants a bribe to meet his day’s quota.
What did you do? What did you do? The cop echoes, stops to think, unsure, his demeanor slipping a bit. Ah, he blurts, the shade of glass on your car is an unacceptable dark shade. Come, come, bring your vehicle to one side, I will give you a challan! A ticket. I am convinced he wants a bribe and I feel a flash of rage through me. I could fight this and end up in court but it would cost me several frustrating trips to the court that will cost ten times the bribe, not to mention elevated high blood pressure enough to smack the cop silly. Spending time in a Mumbai jail is not my cup of tea…
Mohammed maneuvers the vehicle to one side, bringing relief to a long line of honking, fuming drivers backed up behind us. How much? I ask Mohammed. Pachaas rupaae lagenge saab, he tells me and I slip him a fifty rupee bill. The cop returns with a device that he slips into the window pane. See, he barks through invisible lips, see, 50 percent! A shower of spit escapes the curtain of hair on his lips and settles on the glass pane and on Mohammed who flinches ever so slightly. Not more than 20% allowed! A challan, let me have your license! More spit follows. Mohammed fists his right hand and offers the bribe. What! What is this? Ah, how much? Fifty? Are you crazy, gaandu saala? Not less than a hundred. Come give me your license, I don’t have all day! Mohammed looks at me helplessly; I want to scream obscenities and hurt the cop so bad I can taste bile in my mouth but hand over another fifty which is snapped up by the cop faster than a chameleon its prey. Now phutto, go, and change the tinge in your car, I have noted your number plates and if I see you again, I’ll pull you in. Having directly paid my first bribe in India, we drive off. I glance at the other cop standing at the corner; he gives me a mock salute, the ugly sneer of his face torments me for a long, long time.
I have known corruption growing up in Tanzania but never really dealt with it personally. Having left the country at age 18 and lived in Dubai and US for over 32 years, it is a challenge to accept it living in India. I read India is a democracy; maybe. To me, still, it is a democracy that can be bought and bribed, a networked system in which corruption is deeply embedded. From school admission to driver’s license to booking a train ticket, the system rules you and must comply; there is no choice. I could leave, of course, but the small joys of making a difference in marginalized lives, where it really matters, outweigh these turbulences. For now.