Tanya parked parallel to the curb about a hundred yards from her destination. She was driving her own car, not her official vehicle. A parking attendant ran to her, swinging his arms like the blades of a windmill. She flashed her ID in his face. He was empty, deflated. Parking attendants generally do not bother the police.
Tanya had not only driven her own car, she had forfeited the services of her driver and her bodyguard, “personal security officer” (PSO) in police jargon. Sheonath Singh had objected to her leaving alone. If something happened to Tanya and the shit hit the fan, his ass would be on the line, not Tanya’s. Sheonath was also a conscientious man, genuinely loyal to and concerned about his boss, who has been by her side since moving from the districts to Calcutta many moons ago.
Tanya had allayed his fears. “I’m not going to hunt a serial killer,” she assured him. “I’m just going to meet a friend.”
Sheonath had capitulated, but not before reminding her that his cell phone would be on and the driver and car would be ready. If there was even the slightest hint of trouble, she had to call immediately. Tanya gave him her word. Sheonath took his job seriously, but he didn’t take himself too seriously, as many conscientious people tend to do. It was a code instilled in him from childhood.
In accordance with the convention, Tanya wore her khaki uniform on Mondays and Fridays, whether or not she checked in at Lalbazar, the headquarters of the Calcutta Police Department. ‘Kolkata Police’ actually, since the city was renamed Kolkata. But Tanya, now past the forty mark, hadn’t been able to reconcile with the new name of the city and the army she served. For her, the city of Calcutta and its police force remained, consequently the Calcutta Police Force. Except in official announcements. Today was different. Even though it was a Friday, she didn’t report to headquarters. She met a journalist in a cafe.
She’d been to Lalbazar in the morning, where she’d been given an oracle by one of the few journalists she almost liked. Raina Aqeel, a bright young reporter for The Times of India, had called to make an urgent appointment.
This afternoon she had insisted. Tanya had asked her to call back, and when she checked her calendar, she found that there was no unavoidable obligation to stop her from saying yes. When Raina called back, Tanya had tried to sound as brusque as possible, just to keep things businesslike.
Tanya had gone home and stripped off her uniform before going to the rendezvous. The short winter in Calcutta hadn’t really arrived yet, though it was mid-December. So getting out of the stiff uniform was a bonus. From khaki, she usually dressed “sensibly.” Sometimes she thought she had been with the police for too long. She hardly ever wore a saree. Her usual outfit was either a nondescript salwar-kameez (loose pants and loose tunic) or pants with semi-formal tops or shirts. If she really let her hair down, she’d opt for jeans and a T-shirt. Makeup minimal. That had been instilled in her by a senior colleague in the bureaucracy. She also hardly wore jewelry. The one piece she’d always worn was her wedding ring, but it had come off after her divorce and converted into a pair of stud earrings. She didn’t regret it any more than she missed her former husband, the bastard who had serially cheated on her.
On this uncomfortably hot day, she had stripped her gear even further. She wanted to be as inconspicuous as possible. But no matter how hard she tried, she couldn’t really go unnoticed.
With a height of 1.80 meters, Tanya towered above almost all Indian women. She was also taller than some of her male colleagues. And with her slender figure, thick, shoulder-length hair and not hard to look at face, she got the second look more often than not. She was also beaten before the men realized she was a cop. Then they usually beat it.
Tanya’s footwear, like her clothes, was usable. Today she was especially glad she was wearing floats, because the potholed streets and broken sidewalks were puddled by a short, sharp shower after a monsoon-like downpour in the early hours that left the day uncomfortably damp. She stepped around the water because she hated wet feet. Finally, she reached Wise Owl, the laid-back cafe where she was to meet Raina.
Tanya still wore a watch all the time, unlike the increasing number of people checking the time on their cell phones. She felt naked without her watch. Not only did it tell her what time it was without the inconvenience of finding her phone in her carrying case, it also doubled as a bracelet because it was made just for that purpose. It was a gift from her parents on the occasion of their joining the Indian Police Service (IPS). Tanya wore it for almost two decades and took good care of it. It was right and it looked good. This was the only “jewelry” she always wore.
When Tanya found a table, her watch band told her she had arrived ten minutes early. Besides, she thought, Raina will be late. Indians were almost always late to appointments and, in her experience, journalists inevitably. Tanya could steal a few minutes for herself, which she almost never could. Her job and Shaman, her 12-year-old son, kept her on her toes. He demanded attention and got it because Tanya had to double up for her unceremoniously kicked out husband. She didn’t mind, but these few minutes were an oasis. She almost had the place to herself. Come at 6, it would be hard to get a table, with the young crowd on it.
Extracted with permission from The Hunter of Lalbazar, Suhit Sen, Speaking Tiger Books.