Alex Pandian leaned against his Bullet, shielding his face from the mid-morning sun, his wet back finding just the right spot against the handlebars, his body relaxing into comforting predictability. The walkie-talkie fixed to his belt hummed frequently with static, but Alex Pandian had tuned out. He knew the wait was going to be a long one and his instructions were to stay put till the Collector had left the Directorate of Health and Rural Health Services building. The crowd outside – 100 people at best, Alex estimated – were looking just as bored as he with the wait. The sun seemed to be working insidiously from behind a murky sky, the humidity relentless like a machine gun. Next to his Bullet, the white Chennai Traffic Police van looked like a well-fed beast in slumber, and the police standing sporadically on either side of the road in Teynampet, the overcrowded business and commercial hub of Chennai, looked like people visiting a funeral house – unsure of what to do or when to leave but rooted to a moment none of them could comprehend.
Alex Pandian, too, couldn’t quite comprehend the situation. He knew the crowd, made up entirely of men, was from Dindigul. They were farmers, dressed in faded lungis and ganjis, the dirt of the earth transforming into the colour of their skin, uncomfortably conspicuous under the glare of angry city folk in cars and buses and cycles and bikes stampeding through and around not just the crowd but also the messy Metro Rail construction site. He had a vague idea why they were there – something to do with the recent spate of farmer suicides according to the Whatsapp message they received in the morning; the politics of details rarely trickled down to his level – and that at the first sign of trouble of any kind, he needed to move. Till then, like a stationary chess piece arranged on a forgotten board, he would wait.
The boy materialised next to him, barely above his waist, holding out a glass tumbler of cutting chai that Alex Pandian knew would have more sugar and milk than tea. He nodded to the boy, took his cup, and adjusted the belt pushing against his stomach for the tenth time in the last hour, mentally telling himself to begin running again in the morning. He sipped the tea with the tips of his lips, blocking out the image of countless other lips that would have touched this glass. He drank it in quick successive sips, placed the empty glass on the seat of his bullet and looked into the side mirror. He wiped the remnants of tea off his trimmed moustache curling at the sides of his mouth, ran his fingers through his hair, and smiled, his teeth in neat rows like school children at Monday morning assembly. Yes, he looked as flamboyant as the name he carried of his screen idol from an iconic movie. He picked up his phone, took a selfie, added some filters to make the dimple on his cheek stand out a little bit more, and sent it to his girlfriend. He waited for a few seconds to see if she had seen it and then remembered she would still be in class and wouldn’t check her phone till her lunch break.
He flicked through the photos in his gallery – mostly selfies of him or his girlfriend or both together – without really paying attention. His girlfriend, a second-year physiotherapy student, was new. Two months ago he had met her when there were protests in her college over another kind of suicide – it was a case of academic pressure but sold to media as a love-gone-sour story. She was standing near his Bullet, far away from the crowd of protestors but near enough to see what was happening through the screen of her mobile phone. He had watched her for a while, wondering if the lack of drama had disappointed her or if this sloganeering was dramatic enough. He wondered if she would be just as distanced and interested if they had to lathi charge the crowd. He wished, just for a moment, that he had the power to do that, to launch into spontaneous attack, his sleeves rolled up and his biceps preening under the sun, the rigorous thwack of his stick serenading her without the pretence of melody.
But he walked up behind her, silently like a predator, and enjoyed watching her jump when she registered his presence. She seemed flustered, dropping her phone quickly into her bag slung casually on her shoulder and hanging by her side, adjusted her kurta – black with yellow flowers around the neck, a loose yellow thread tickling her neck, calling out to Alex Pandian’s hands, but he restrained himself – and shuffled her feet, her obviously frayed black slippers making confused patterns on the hard ground. He started to ask her standard questions and was always amazed at how easy it was to get personal details when he was wearing his uniform. In ten minutes he knew where she was born, how many people there were in her family, how much her father earned, where she lived and her phone number. He sent her off then, with a warning to stay clear of the crowd, but continued to watch her. She walked around the group of protestors and went into the admin building. If she turned around now and looked at him, before the door swallowed her up, he would know she was interested in him and he could pursue it. He knew this to be true from the movies he had seen and knew she would have seen the same movies too, so would definitely know the rules of South Indian love. She turned and looked. And smiled. But did not hold it for a moment longer because she wasn’t that kind of a girl. Alex Pandian had beamed then, his smile extending from his head to his toes, and he beamed now, leaning against his Bullet, looking at pictures on his phone, the oppressive heat of the day leaving him untouched. She would call him during her lunch break, which was another hour away.
He turned to the group of farmers slow-baking under the sun, and watched them drink water from cheap water packets and then douse their head and face with water. His walkie-talkie crackled to life from static coma.
“Sir, yes, Sir.”
“Yes, Sir. All okay.”
“The collector is going to leave in another hour. How big is the crowd?”
“100 people maximum, Sir.”
“Do they seem restless?”
“Good. Stand by for more instructions.”
“Sir, yes, Sir.”
Alex Pandian hadn’t moved from his position the entire conversation. He could never understand why people stood at attention to speak on the phone when their superiors called. His father had been like that. As one of the many traffic policemen in Chennai, his father seemed to Alex like he was born standing up. Alex couldn’t ever remember his father sitting or relaxing, unless he was asleep. In retrospect Alex knew that couldn’t have been a possibility, but since his father’s death a few years ago, whenever Alex had to remember him, it always came to him like one of those statues on a pedestal, the legs upright and frozen, welded to the ground. He wanted to believe he missed his father, but he knew he didn’t. At best, he was mostly angry that his father’s death had forced this job on him, this job of inconspicuous minutes piling up like bricks around him, this job of perennial uprightness. At worst, he was indifferent to his father’s death circling his head like afternoon flies – if he ignored it, he wouldn’t even feel it. Alex Pandian was the curve to his father’s line, and stood only when absolutely necessary.
A white sedan pulled up next to him and Moorthy Krishnan, Sub Inspector of Teynampet, got out. Alex Pandian was quickly on his feet, standing at attention, a smart salute thrown in. With 15 years of service behind him, Moorthy deserved that much.
“Alex Pandian. New hair cut? Trying to live up to your name, eh?”
This had become standard police joke with Alex. Everyone would make a reference to his name and the actor, a demigod revered by millions who had played the role of a police officer named Alex Pandian. Unlike his screen name, Alex Pandian did not aspire to any of that bravado. Even if he did, he knew it was impossible in his current position. Also, reality within a screen was so much more easily digestible than reality around him.
Alex Pandian laughed along with the others at the joke, and did a mock blush at the compliment and then told him the Senior Sub Inspector had called.
“What did he want?”
“Sir, he asked about the crowd.”
“Hmmm.” Moorthy looked past Alex, momentarily lost in a wasteland of thoughts, and then nodded once, slapped Alex on his back, let out a short laugh, and got back into his sedan. Alex’s phone buzzed. It must be his girlfriend. He wondered if he could check his phone on the sly, when a loud commotion from the crowd erupted. Alex sprang to action even as Moorthy slammed his way out of the sedan. A dozen other policemen came on to the scene. A car – an unassuming Alto, no money there, Alex made a mental note – had grazed one of the farmers and traffic had come to a standstill.
“Alex, get the traffic moving, I will deal with this,” Moorthy yelled.
Alex did a quick survey of the scene. Two buses needed to move for the rest of the traffic to flow. But the Alto surrounded by angry voices and fists would make that impossible. Alex moved quickly and found a narrow gap between cars and autos and mini-vans stuck in an impossible grid for two-wheelers to move out of the mix. He started to move them out, his men quickly falling into position. Within ten minutes, there was enough space for autos to start moving out. He knew cars and buses wouldn’t make it beyond that tight circle around the Alto, but he knew the drill – give the impression of moving traffic so impatience moves along too, instead of getting bottled up and exploding into chaos.
In half an hour, Moorthy had diffused the situation – Alex was sure money would have been involved, and wondered for a brief moment if he had miscalculated the situation and lost out on a few hundreds. The traffic moved on, the crowd settled into disparaging silence, and the policemen went back to their original positions.
Moorthy wiped the sweat off his forehead, his fair skin pink like the cotton candy.
“Bloody waste of time.” Good, no money.
“I am leaving for lunch, Alex. Call me if anything happens.”
Once Moorthy left, Alex quickly removed his phone from his pocket and saw a flurry of messages from his girlfriend. She was finishing early and wanted to meet. Alex suddenly felt deflated. He sat down on his Bullet and could feel the torn seat and the yellow cushion spilling out like jaundice. This was his grandfather’s Bullet, who had been a Sub Inspector for an entire district in Trichy. Alex had grown up listening to stories of his grandfather’s booming voice and arresting presence, of midnight raids and controversial cases, of sudden transfers and black briefcases. His life seemed more like the movies to Alex, and his father’s life, the choice he had made for repetitive ordinariness, like the public service films served to a captive audience in a theatre. And his own life as a senior officer in the Chennai Traffic Police Department, a sort of in-between offering between his grandfather’s grandeur and his father’s fastidiousness, stuck at intermission.
Alex put his phone away, and looked around once again. In sometime, someone will come and give him a packet of biryani wrapped in banana leaves, which would in turn be wrapped in soggy paper, the oil running into the ink. He would eat and wait. He would drink water and wait. The Collector would go, the farmers would go, the traffic will stop, but Alex would be there, waiting in eternal space, like he was trapped in a GIF that no amount of sharing would change.
At three in the afternoon, Alex’s walkie talkie came to life.
“Sir, yes, Sir.”
“The Collector has left.”
“Sir, no, Sir. No one has come out of the gates yet.”
“He has left, Alex. Stay there till the gates close at 5 and make sure the crowd disperses.”
“Sir, yes, Sir.”
“Moorthy will give further instructions.”
“Sir, yes, Sir.”
Half an hour later, Moorthy’s sedan pulled up, sirens blaring. He got out of the car before it could fully come to a stop. Alex stood in attention.
“Save the salutes. What’s the situation?”
“Sir, the Collector has left.”
“I know. What’s the situation there?”
“Sir, nothing, Sir. They are waiting.”
“Bloody fools. Let’s disperse them.”
“What Sir? Use the stick and get rid of them.”
“Sir, yes, Sir.”
Long wooden sticks were quietly distributed to the policemen there – around 30 of them – and Moorthy gave them the command from inside the car, doors shut and windows up. Alex felt the stick in his hands, the smooth surface grating against the palm of his right hand, as he gripped it, strangling it into dead attention, and along with the other policemen, charged at the group, catching the farmers by surprise, too dazed to move quickly enough.
Alex’s body bristled with the sudden activity, his legs and hands waking up to the rush of power, his muscles taut with tension, his eyes glazed with practiced indifference. The contact of stick and skin, of bodies scrambling away, of traffic coming to a standstill around him, of the gawkers and the bystanders, gave him a moment of sheer triumph. The spotlight had found him. He looked up, briefly, his dimples deeply etched in his cheek catching the ends of his smile, and saw his girlfriend’s frozen face staring out of the bus window. She did not smile. Nor did she hold the moment any longer because she wasn’t that kind of girl.
But Alex Pandian beamed. Because he knew, with every resounding thwack, that he had always been that kind of boy.
Praveena Shivram is an independent writer based in Chennai, India, and, over the past 15 years, has written for several national publications. Till recently, she was the editor of Arts Illustrated, and is currently curating and editing the Lockdown Journal Chennai. Her fiction has appeared in the Open Road Review, The Indian Quarterly, Himal Southasian, Out of Print, Jaggery Lit, Desi Writers’ Lounge, Spark, Chaicopy, and Helter Skelter’s anthology of New Writing Volume 6. Read her work at www.praveenashivram.com