Monday, February 2, 2009

Doing Time

It was really the first time I had seen the inside of a jail and it started off like this.

It was about 7:30 one muggy evening, wretched as any in Madras, when someone—I can’t remember who—called on me at the hostel. A couple of guys had gotten into trouble with the Adyar police and maybe I wanted to know. So why was I selected for the unique honor of this singular update, you might ask? Well, I was the hostel GenSec (General Secretary) and was supposed to keep tabs on stuff like this whenever I took my eyes off any mess staff pinching rice and provisions.

Less than an hour later, I arrived at the Adyar police station on a borrowed motorcycle, and was led away to a cell before I had opened my mouth and asked anyone anything. Indeed, I spotted two blokes from Narmada and Godav—both my friends—looking much like the weary prisoners they were, squatting and sulking in a corner. Their shirts were worn and ripped and had several bruises between them. One of them was in bare feet, missing the trademark blue Hawaii chappals that could have been had at the hostel SAC for twelve rupees, on account.

The Narmadite looked up, relief breaking over his face as he caught sight of me. “Curly, you got to get us out of here”, he blurted. “These guys are going to fuckin' kill us”. I followed his eyes across the dim room and caught sight of these guys for the first time: Five or six roughs, bunched together like a rack of bananas, staring daggers at my friends. My brain creaked as it struggled to hook together the pieces in this bizarre puzzle.

The events of the evening had started off at the Runs Hotel, by the IIT gate. Two final-year students (we were in our 3rd year at that time) had come in for dinner and were likely working through a stack of ceylon-egg parotas, when things took a turn from the ordinary. A discussion—on whether they could drink inside the premises—turned into an argument. But liquor wasn’t on the cards at this Muslim joint and many IITians knew that! Watering hole, this was not. I suspect this valuable point might have been lost on my tipsy friends.

In any case, the appearance of a bottle had caused one of the waiters to fly into a rage. Scooping up the offensive item, he dashed it against the table—an eye-witness would later report as he sat on a concrete blocks at Tarams gate, sipping a single SP—instantly flipping a lively argument into a nasty brawl. Things must have gotten really out of hand for when I got there later that night, Runs was a mess of broken lights and shattered tables, strewn around like flotsam after a depth charge. The fighters were still at it when the cops showed up in rolled up sleeves and lathis, cursing and clenching their teeth.

But let me get back to where I left you stranded…

“Curly! We need to get the fuck out of here. Call the Dean!” he implored, as I stood outside the deplorable cell.

I didn’t know what to make of the whole thing. My GenSec training manual had omitted this chapter. But something told me not to involve any official if I could help it. These guys were a month away from graduation and calling in the brass now could only make a bad situation worse. They could well be suspended from IIT, I reasoned, and what would they tell the American universities they were to join just months away, in the fall. A night in the cooler might be the right medicine to sober things down a bit. Besides, it looked like the combatants had struck up an uneasy truce and called off hostilities for the night.

So making false promises sincerely, I slid away.

I showed up the next morning at the police station and found the cell empty. The show had moved to Saidapet Court, I was told.

Chaos ruled at the courthouse as I arrived there. I saw my friends and the Runs’ staff awaiting their turn with the judge. It soon came up. A man brushed against my left shoulder and asked if I needed his services as a lawyer. I sized him up, as soon as I realized he was promoting himself. He wore a frayed black blazer that was worn almost white at the collar and was draped over a formerly white shirt.

Did we really need a lawyer? I had no idea. “How much”? I asked feebly. “Six rupees”, was the flat response. I could handle that, so I pulled out the money and hired my general counsel on the spot.

“Jusht plead guilty”, was his sage counsel. I relayed this to my sorry friends.

The hearing started. The Runs’ guys were behind a podium. Across the room from them, my friends were listening to the charges read out in Tamil that neither could understand. I was all ears.

One of the Runs’ guys motioned the judge. Saar, he started in Tamil, and proceeded to explain how he was just a customer who had been dining innocently the night prior, before he got caught up in the crossfire. The police had dragged him along, his entreaties notwithstanding. His arms, more than his mouth, bore the brunt of getting his story across. Pausing, the judge asked his companions if this was indeed true. They nodded in agreement.

Clearly a case of having been in the wrong place at the wrong time, the poor fellow was let go. He clambered down, brushed down his shirt, and left with a small smile and no further complaint.

The case resumed. The judge found a new gear when he discovered that the accused were from IIT. “You must be ashamed of yourselves,” he said, switching to English. “You are from IIT and you simply start drinking and just fighting”, he said. “I am going to talk to your Director”, he thundered. The crème-de-la-crème withered under his gaze.

I felt a nudge at my left. It was our general counsel. Kudi-aa saar? (was it alcohol?) he asked nervously, raising his thumb to his lips to drive home the query lest it be lost in translation. He was certainly getting down the facts of the case now.

Finally the verdict was announced. Each Runs’ employee had to pay up a fine of 150 rupees and the IITians had to come up with 250 each. Now back in 1985, this could have been a privy purse for an IITian. The guys came up to me and asked what we were going to do about the money. I don’t have it, I said, but I could get it. So off I went, back to campus, to raise the funds.

It took me a couple of hours to pull it all together and get back to the court where my friends had long given up on me as their savior. The clerk had been threatening them with various dire consequences, like months in jail, should the money not turn up. We paid up the fine and got their release.

It was almost three in the afternoon. The three of us rode back to campus astride the borrowed motorbike, starving and bone-tired. The prisoners hadn't had anything since their interrupted last supper. Not a word was exchanged until we reached the gate, when I enquired if we wanted to dine at Runs.

I can’t remember now if anyone laughed or if I got my head cuffed.

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