Traffic Police Academy
The weirdest thing happened the other day.
It was a bright morning. Nothing starts a fresh day like changing into t-shirts, tracks and sneakers and popping over to the building gym and then around the back to Murugan’s teashop for a couple of good hearty cigarettes.
I exhaled in quiet satisfaction.
Across the road the usual traffic brouhaha was already on in full swing. Two BEST buses were wedged tightly in between the bus-stop on one side and a broken down taxi cab on the other. The taxi-cab itself was blocking the path of a milk truck that was clearly running behind schedule. And just when the milk truck had consented to back up a little so that the taxi could be pushed away, an energetic little school van had parked itself a whisker behind the milk truck.
Screaming and swearing erupted in the filthiest language. People were throwing things at each other and at least one person was lying unconscious after stopping a flying empty bottle of whisky, mid-trajectory, with his bare nose.
And that was just the scene inside the school bus.
But thankfully the local traffic policeman, Mr. Maarpade, was on the spot. And by spot I mean next to me at the tea shop sipping on his favourite milky tea and brun. “Terrible traffic today again?” I asked him smiling whimsically. “Eh? Oh yes. Terrible. I must do something about it. One second. Watch my tea will you?”
He ran across to the commotion, blew on his whistle shrilly, waved his arms around, slapped about miscreant drivers, or randomly picked passer-bys I am not sure which, and after a minute or so returned for his cuppa.
“Not bad eh? I think that was productive!” he gloated as he sipped.
“But the traffic is still deadlocked. Look!” Behind us the vehicular chaos resumed unaffected by his brief efforts.
“You disappoint me sir. This city is reeling under a thousand traffic jams just like this. And all you can do is go and make a scene of yourself and come back. I am ashamed of you!”
“Chup! Unproductive shmunproductive… Look at this!” He extended a palm with what looked like two hundred rupees in assorted paper currency.
I looked at the money and then up at his face.
“I collected those fines in that little policing trip you just saw.”
I let out a deep breathe and sighed: “Outstanding sir, simply outstanding. Here you are making a cruel, evil living by milking the poor citizenry in their moment of crisis. And here I am trying to make an honest living writing little humor pieces and columns. I have only thing to tell you Mr. Maarpade:
How can I too become a traffic policemen sir?!!”
He looked at me intently for a few seconds. Then he banged his glass down with uncommon resolve and shouted at me: “Let me take you for a ride young man. Hope onto my vehicle.” For a moment I was overjoyed. And then I calmed down when I saw him walking towards his motorbike. “Let me show you what it takes to make a good traffic policeman in this city.”
We were off.
I cannot reveal the location of our destination. That information I will carry with me to the grave. But I can tell you what I saw.
It was the Mumbai Traffic Police Academy. This was where legions of traffic policemen were churned out year after year. It is hidden away in a top secret compound somewhere between Sewri station and Ballard Estate.
And boy was I impressed.
As you enter you sign into a book and they take away all your belongings especially cameras and mobile phones. They want noone to know what goes on inside.
Fresh recruits are taken through several different types of training and after a thorough examination procedure, they are presented with a ceremonial set of gold-rimmed Ray-Bans, a leather notebook and generously elasticated waist belt at graduation.
The young men who come out of the Traffic Academy are the very elite of traffic policemanship. They may not solve crimes or apprehend underworld dons. But drop them at a busy as hell traffic junction anywhere in Mumbai and within moments they have the entire area cordoned off with steel trolley type things so that traffic has to be diverted through a four-feet wide lane in Dadar. No traffic. And therefore, sheer genius this, no traffic jam. They go to the root of the issue.
They are specialists.
First I was taken to some of the lecture sessions. Here budding paandus were taught things like how to keep important signboards in prominent, easy to find places like inside a tree, behind a billboard, under a rusting road roller etc.
They were taught the answer to the question: Why roads must often, and without warning, be made either “one-way”, “no-entry”, “no trucks” or even “no parking on weekdays starting with T but not containing H except between 3 and 8 P.M. in those years which are perfect squares”. (“To keep the drivers on their toes and not at all to induce more fines that help policemen to live better lives and periodically donate a little to the Traffic Academy fund” was the right answer.)
After these theory classes trainee policemen go through a rigorous practical training program. Mr. Maarpade was particularly proud of these course modules. “The real secret behind a good cop” he observed.
The first practical was set in a mock road setup. When I looked around I saw not a soul on the road. “Now see what happen” Maarpade said as he pushed a bicycle through a little mock red light. Suddenly and without warning twenty four policemen leapt out of the surrounding trees and building and swarmed the miscreant.
Next we saw a group of trainees standing in front of a BEST bus and whistling and waving the bus forward with their arms frantically. The bus had no wheels and was mounted on wooden blocks. “This is how they learn to look busy and hard working even if the traffic is moving by the inch.” I nodded as a flood of images of hardworking policemen flooded back.
At another location I spied a bunch of intrepid trainees stand in merry groups chatting while around them instructors ran cars into each other and created mayhem. Points were deducted if any of the trainees got distracted and tried to interfere in the ensuing chaos. “Nothing is more important than working as a team you know.”
Finally I was taken to be to the venue of the final exam. Trainees were called into the room one by one. They were faced by an examiner, who played a traffic violator begging for mercy. The trainee was to stand unflinching and finally he was given a glimpse of the perpetrator’s wallet. Without a moment’s hesitation he was to demand a fine. Too high and the trainee would say he had too little money and continue to plead thereby preventing the cop from apprehending other lawbreakers. Too low a demand and the perpetrator would get away lightly.
It was a tough test and only a select few made it through each year.
I thanked Maarpade as he dropped me back home. “Great trip sir! I really learnt a lot today. I have great respect for all of you now.”
“Good. Bye for now Duty calls.” He got on his bike and rode away into the sunset looking every bit the hero.
As behind him an auto crashed into a pick-up truck.