The knock had the tone of entitlement. So I was only mildly surprised when I opened the door to find two policemen in starched khaki standing briskly in the Delhi sun.
“You have to leave Katwaria Sarai,” the taller one said, clearly not a fan of introductions.
“There are no foreigners here.”
I was tempted to point to my face with a sarcastic expression, but thought better of it. They were both in my living room now, and I’m not sure how that had happened. The way that authority can move you along in the wake of its own presumptions. The second officer was carefully studying the first. I was studying my body language, determined not to look as intimidated as I felt.
“Why do I have to leave?”
The policeman sighed and his forehead creased, causing a uni-brow to form like a drawbridge above his nose.
“There are no foreigners here,” he repeated. And then added. “You’re not comfortable here,” as if feeding me a reason to vacate.
“Actually, I’m quite comfortable.”
“You must come to station.”
He was referring to the hut (chowki being the local term) that stood on the main road at the entrance to the neighborhood. There was little point arguing. I knew enough to know that he wasn’t the one I needed to persuade. I told him I’d be there in a few minutes. I didn’t like the idea of walking the streets in broad daylight flanked by cops. He paused and we looked silently at each other.
“I’ll come, don’t worry,” I assured him.
“Okay,” he said, and they left.
Ten minutes later, winding my way through the narrow criss-crossing streets of Katwaria Sarai, as usual I drew more attention than a pink giraffe. The only Westerner in ten city blocks, and a middle-aged woman living alone, dynamited all traditional social convention. My every was move scrutinized by multiple pairs of eyes. The women looked at me accusingly; the men, hopefully. I squirmed under the gaze of both.
I was ushered into the police hut by the same officer who’d come to my apartment. He looked relieved to see me, his unibrow now relaxed and parted into two furry hyphens. What next? I wondered. Once inside, in a area the size of a slightly larger than average garden shed, an officer who appeared to be the other’s superior, invited me to sit. Around me were five plastic chairs, a calendar with a painting of the blue-skinned god, Shiva, a rickety desk upon which lay a large dog-eared log book. I counted seven policemen while I was there, but as they couldn’t all fit inside at the same time, they took turns strutting in and out like cuckoos in a constabulary cuckoo clock.
It was at least ten minutes before anyone spoke to me. I amused myself by guessing the chain of command through observing the thrust of a chest, the speed of gesture (the higher in rank the more leisurely he will move), and—the ultimate measure of the Indian civil servant —the size and grandeur of the moustache. Outside the window, the commercial life of Katwaria Sarai was in full bustle. Indian police are notoriously corrupt and I wondered how much this was going to cost me. I began to think about what had led me to this place, in a city that choked me half to death on its fumes and clobbered my senses with a sledgehammer. Cheap rent had been one reason. A friend nearby. A decent landlord. And the area had proved better than its reputation. Katwaria Sarai is like a village within the city, populated mainly by Jats from Haryana, who own and supervise most of the apartment buildings. Haryana Jats tend to make the news for things like female foeticide, their support of honour killings, and the high incidence of rape (one blogger calling Haryana ‘a rapist’s Republic’). A middle-class Punjabi friend once eagerly pointed out that the British had labeled Jats a ‘criminal class’ when he came to pick me up for dinner one day. He refused to park his SUV anywhere near my house, insisting on picking me up on the main road because he was so nervous about the “thugs” that hung around my apartment building. But apart from the pink giraffe stares, I hadn’t had a problem. Until now.
I’d become so absorbed in my own thoughts that when the officer who had been studying the log book finally said something, at first I wasn’t sure he was addressing me.
He looked at me only after he had spoken, one eyebrow raised. I handed it over.
“American?” he said, leafing through it.
This didn’t seem to require an answer.
The other and younger officer in the room leaned forward in his chair, his carefully greased moustache twitching with vigilance.
“How long have you been living here?” he barked.
“What are you doing here?”
“Well, it’s over the internet. It’s a correspondence course.”
“How do we know you’re not working for the CIA?”
I was actually lost for words.
“Do you have any proof that you’re studying here?”
“Well, yes, but not on me right now.”
“Hah!” he exclaimed, apparently delighted by my reply. “How do we know you’re telling us the truth?”
There was something in the way he said this – a smug petty relish in imposing his authority on me – that got my goat. I was suddenly convinced that he had little more authority than a traffic cop. I decided to trust my instincts. And I’d had enough.
“You don’t have the authority to ask me these things,” I said, surprised by my own firmness. “I’m going to call the American Embassy to get this sorted out.”
Though I didn’t actually have the embassy’s number, I stood up as if I meant it.
He gestured lazily for me to sit back down. I remained standing, sensing the energy in the room shift with the invocation of possible American intervention. I visualized bodacious diplomats in double-breasted suits shinnying down ropes from black helicopters, flashing their business cards and saying things like, “We’ll take it from here, ma’am.”
Sergeant CIA left the room and returned almost immediately with a large civilian man with a huge paunch, sporting a Russian Ushanka hat and cream-coloured polar-neck sweater two sizes too small. Three officers almost fell over themselves getting him a chair. This was clearly the real authority on the block. I found out later that he was an influential local politician. He spoke to me quickly, as if he wanted to wrap things up.
“Your landlord is in trouble. He didn’t submit the proper forms when he rented the apartment to you. He’s in danger of going to jail. I’m sure you don’t want him to go to jail.”
I had only met my landlord twice but I didn’t want him to go to jail, and certainly not on my account.
“We can find a way to avoid this, don’t worry. But it would be better if you leave Delhi for a few days.”
Now, strange coincidence that it seems, I had actually planned to visit Jodhpur in Rajastan that weekend.
“Okaaaay,” I said, not understanding the logic of any of this. “I guess I can do that.”
“Where will you go?” snapped Sergeant CIA.
“Erm…I think maybe I’ll go to Jodhpur.”
“What business do you have in Jodhpur?” he asked searchingly, throwing a glance at the guy in the hat that begged to impress.
“I don’t have business in Jodhpur,” I said exasperated (biting back my desire to add ‘you toadying twat!), “You just told me I should leave Delhi.”
But he couldn’t help himself. His dormant penetrating interrogation skills had awoken from their thirty-five year slumber.
“And what do you plan to do in Jodhpur?”
“I don’t know!” I exclaimed. “Visit the ancient fort and marvel at the famous blue city. What would you suggest?”
They all fell about laughing. Except Sergeant CIA.
As I walked back to my apartment, trying to figure out what had just happened, my landlord rushed up to me, grabbed my hand and shook it profusely. His breath reeked of hard liquor. Maybe they had threatened him with jail after all. Why they needed me to leave the city was beyond me. Perhaps so the jokers in uniform didn’t lose face. Why hadn’t they asked me for money? Was it my imagination, or were the looks being lobbed my way even more suspicious than before? Now I wasn’t just the only Western woman in the vicinity. I was a suspected agent for the CIA.
The next time the laundry wallah loses one of my blouses, I thought, he’s in serious trouble.