Monday, February 13, 2017

Man of the House


I have been at the Police Station since 8 AM. Swatted away from every desk, I am now perched on a bench at the far side of the hall. Like a housefly maneuvering around a lunch spread, I have tried every angle and tack, and quite literally so. Walked up to the “walk-up” desk fronted by a gruff of a Constable, who over the last hour and several visitations of mine, had learnt to ignore me. Or any one of the half dozen desks, each equipped with piles of paper of varying crumble, and a single Constable of type gruff. Apparently, not one was hired to serve, and they were all doing a fine job of protecting their time from me. Alternately I tried tail-gating into the Inspector’s cabin or accosting the several humorless uniforms buzzing in and out of the place. All to no avail. “Wait, we/they will call”, was the standard issue response. The appropriate quip would have been why they did not wait enough before calling me in. But then, I let the wise crack be.

The adage about an Indian police stations was indeed true; the only ones getting any amount of attention were either in cuffs or uniform. The crowds have barely thinned since I made first contact with “Reception”. The wronged and the innocent (all latter, it seems, until proven otherwise), allowed to mill around a variety of desks for their minute of reckoning. I wonder if they were assigned to each based on the severity of their (alleged) offence; drunks at 1, pick-pockets at 2. Apparently, I did not fall into any category with any degree of severity, at least not which would warrant an immediate audience.

I let my mind wander, a grumbling stomach often reminding me that breakfast was long overdue. My watch staggered to 11, and my mind was still mush from the previous night. All I felt was an overwhelming sadness, and a fatigue I had never known in all 20 years of my life. I’ve been here before, same dance, a stern ticking-off, and no more. Only today seemed a longer wait.

I wonder what my Dad would be up to, and knowing him, he would not show for a day or two. Last evening went far worse than usual. He was at the door, back from any one of office, Rummy or long walks, in increasing order of occurrence. None my Mother ever fully approved of. But he has not been the same since opting for severance, now forlornly counting down to retirement. The dark moods and often foul temper were recent affectations.
He used to be different, even ‘cool’ to some of my envious friends. He taught me to fish, fly kite and when Mom was out of earshot, even swear a bit. With me as the only other panelist, he could hold forth on Platini, Hendrix or Direct Tax. He held me tight as I broke my heart over a pet no more. Another age and time, he let me be, as I sullenly watched a neighbor move away, taking an unspoken love with them.

Nevertheless, it would have taken me a minute (yes, all of 60 seconds) from hearing the bell, finding Mom too busy cooking to get the door, to grabbing the keys, and finally opening the gates to the barbarian.
In his defense, he had been to the market. He also had to lug two heavy bags all the way, since he had decided to help himself to a walk. Defense rests.
He rushed past and plonked the bags on the table. The darkness seemed to cling to him like a soggy blanket. What followed was the reason most of my time was spent between tuition classes, campus and any place other than home. It just hurt to watch good people being mean to each other.
Often the fusillade is returned in kind by my Mother. Almost as if this event was the high point of her day, where their shared tragedies could be shouted past each other. There always seemed scores to settle between them, real and imagined. Once, it was over who caused a flight to be missed, from a decade ago, on an airline long out of business. That particular episode may have ended in an embarrassed chuckle, but recently most of these seem to trail off into silence.

Yesterday there was a menace in the way my father rushed on, beyond the customary slamming of doors or flinging of an umbrella. A line was crossed when he swept the chopped garlic to the floor, as if marking a new low for all to see. As the recriminations flew by, I stepped in. Unintended, just that I felt they were inching closer with each pointless insult. It had come to this; I might have been the glue that kept us all together, but at that moment I became an overcautious referee denying them a good fight. Yet I leaned in, only that I ended up shielding my Mother while pushing back at my Father.

Slack-jawed, he staggered back, his mouth still forming inanities, but his voice badly trailing off. My Mother still held on to my arm, but the solace she drew may have soured to disapproval now.
“No, you don’t. You don’t. Stay out of this”, she pleaded.
She stepped across, her other arm held up mid-air, reaching out to her partner of three decades, as if willing to lift the spell. He, or whatever possessed him, again took a step back.
Slowly rocking on his ankles, his voice hoarse as he caught his breath, whispered, “You, dare. You?”

He had aged. Not in that very instant, but the sheen seemed to peel away. He looked about, dazed, hunched over, a boxer losing badly, hoping the next jab would end the misery. Then, just as abruptly, as if roused by thunder, he spun around and walked out. My Mother slipped away to the silence of her room, ever careful not to let her sobs tell her story.

Where would I go? I had no one to run to, or flee from.

The call from the Police Station arrived early next day. Brusque. No nonsense. Expected.
“Mr. Anil Gulati?”
“Yes”
“’Daffodils’, 24/B, 1st Main?”
“Yes”
“From East Cross Station. There is a complaint. You need to report here.”
Here we go again. ‘Disturbing the peace’, I’m sure. For the record, minus this particular push-about, most of their skirmishes have been sound spectacles. As evidenced by at least four complaints over the last couple of years, made by disturbed, yet particularly uncaring neighbors. I knew the drill.

Finally, at 2pm, the minion closest to my bench waved me over. Short, stocky, he was boxed in on all sides by files and folders of every possible vintage and type. I guessed as Constable Rumpelstiltskin, his salvation were the gold he would spin off all these.
Without looking up, he pointed towards the Inspector’s cabin.
“Meet the Inspector. There.”

I walked up, and recognized a vaguely familiar face. Oh, the same Inspector from the last couple of instances; this was getting awkward. He looked up, and then motioned to the chair before him. This one always insisted that I be the one summoned to the station, not the two-ring circus I left at home. He simply brooked no argument, or mention of the source(s) of the noise, and I always solemnly nodded as he gave a short speech on good neighborliness. Sign here, and here. That was about it.

By some miracle, the minion had managed to escape his tomb, and slowly rolled up next to the desk. He thrust a thin file before the Inspector. Without a word he took it and started poring over, all the time a ball pen flipping between thumb and index. This was unusual; the time normally spent was minuscule, especially considering the hapless still waiting in line. I did feel something was off. The minion was not helping, hands on hips, alternating a wild-eyed craning over his superior’s shoulder, and then at me.

Obviously bursting with child-like curiosity, he chimed, “This is that case?”
“Hm-mm”, his boss dead-panned, eyes never leaving the file.
“What to do?”
The Inspector sighed. Out of pity, I’m sure in equal measure for the other parties at his desk.
“Son, sign here”, he said, passing the file over. No talk this time, and I could not care less.
Being familiar, I quickly sped to the bottom of the second page, to the pair of rectangles holding up the garbage above.
My signature, as respondent, went on the right.
On the left, the aggrieved party, typically left blank
This time it enclosed the very familiar signature of my Dad.
My head still down, I felt my face twitch and burn, a tear not far away.
“Go home, Son. Sometimes, the closest stab the deepest.”

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