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Photo: Ragesh Vasudevan (on Flickr)

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That night, around quarter past ten, The Policeman walked in, smiled at us, kept his two mobile phones on the teapoy, and pulled his favourite chair. He then did something unusual — he placed the wireless handset on his lap, and before joining our conversation, switched it on.

For about a week, threats of bomb blasts had been piercing our city, via SMSes, e-mails and phone calls, and some of these had turned out to be hoax alerts. Tonight, voices spat from the police radio and The Policeman was listening in.

He is less than 30 years old but as chief policeman of the city, he is the one we look up to for our security. At the end of a long working day, when I turn the lights down, and pull up the blanket, I do not stop to ask whether the Police Commissioner sleeps. I assume that he does, when I bid him goodbye every other evening.

But that night would be different — I would not sleep peacefully.

Because at some point in our chat, The Policeman moved forward, as if to get up. I looked at the clock; it said two past twelve. I recalled how, a few weeks earlier at his house, at the stroke of twelve, The Policeman had politely thrown my friend and me out. I told myself, “This guy is disciplined and here comes the farewell line, as usual.”

Whence The Policeman said, “Come, let’s go out and have coffee.”

The hostess shrieked. “Are you insane? Do you know what time it is?” Her husband turned to us and said, “You guys go ahead.” And that’s how, in a small city on the western coast of southern India, at half-past-twelve one Saturday night, I ended up with the city’s chief policeman in my Maruti WagonR.

Every good South Indian knows that coffee isn’t the first item on the menu. Barely had the car moved a few metres, when The Policeman switched off the wireless set and said, “We’ve set up checkpoints in the city. Let’s see how they are working.”

As we approached the first checkpoint, the car in front of mine was being searched, and I slowed down. A police constable walked towards us, while his colleague got excited by my car’s numberplate — DL9, out-of-town car, and that too from Delhi (for some reason, many south Indians believe that north Indians are criminals unless proved innocent.) I expected the car’s Delhi registration to spice up the proceedings. The first constable saw my co-passenger, and snapped a salute. My companion said, “Go ahead. Search the car. You stopped it, right?”

Frankly, I didn’t expect this. I had thought that I was part of the hunting party. It struck me late that I was the bait.

After The Policeman reviewed the register of vehicles checked that night, he rolled up the window-glass, and we resumed our journey. Less than a minute later, he switched on his wireless set. Had the news of the “inspection” already been relayed on the network? No, it seemed.

At the next checkpoint, guess what…there was no checkpoint. There was no “Stop and Proceed” barrier, and the two constables on the spot allowed my alien car to cruise.

For a brief while, we stopped at the police headquarters in the heart of the town. When we resumed our journey, we crossed an intersection twice, but none of the policemen standing there flagged us down. Perhaps my DL9 had got a “stealth” shield thanks to my co-passenger.

About a hundred metres past the intersection, I stopped the car and The Policeman got out irritated. He walked back to the intersection, stood a few metres behind the constables, only to discover that mine was not the only car going un-searched. After five minutes of “non-stop” entertainment The Policeman had had enough. He phoned the officers in charge. Two police jeeps with flashing lights appeared on the scene, and The Policeman explained the scene he had been watching. The officers passed on lessons to the constables. A few constables came towards my car to inquire what I was doing there, and on their way back, woke up a guy who was drunk and sleeping on the nearby pavement.

The Policeman and I moved on, towards the railway station. Seeing policemen a few metres away, I swerved to the left, as if to evade them. Two constables rushed in waving their hands, indicating that I should pull over. This time, the policemen were on my side of the car, and hence did not see my co-passenger. They peered through the window and upon finding the backseat empty, asked me to open the boot. The search over, one constable’s eyes fell on my co-passenger, and out came the salute. The Policeman reviewed the register. As we moved on, we crossed the previous intersection — the inspectors were still giving lessons to the constables.

Time for a break. Burger, french fries, and coffee (finally!). We talked about policing, people and the personal, and hit the road again at 3 am.

This time, we drove towards a distant checkpoint. “That’s a good team,” my friend said and it was being manned well. We turned back towards the town, and about a kilometre from the checkpoint, noticed an injured man lying by the roadside. He had fallen off his motorcycle, and lay there vomiting blood. His friend, attending to him, seemed relieved to see us. The Policeman took the wireless set and radioed. A “flying squad” of policemen raced in and took the injured man to the hospital.

A few kilometres later, from a bend in the road, we verified whether the first checkpoint was still working well. It was. So, we decided to head home.

When I stopped the car at The Policeman’s house, he said, “Sorry to have ruined your sleep. We’ll meet for brunch at some nice place.” I was overcome with emotion, for I felt that I had contributed my mite to keeping the city secure ahead of Independence Day. So I replied, “No, no. Not at all. I don’t mind losing sleep for something like this.” And then I added, “After all, such inspections are unusual. They happen only once in a while, on special occasions.” The Policeman opened the car door, looked at me, and said, “Ashok, I do this every other week.”

* * *

I know that the Indian police force is far from perfect. But as I drove home, in the wee hours of just-another-Sunday, I prayed that Anup Kuruvilla John (1997) would retain such zeal throughout his career in the Indian Police Service. And I mentally saluted the policemen of this country who lose a good night’s sleep so that we may have ours.