Writing the first piece of my maiden column, I feel like an expectant mother, father, midwife and doctor all rolled into one – and all first-timers too! There’s excitement in the air and butterflies in the stomach. My first ‘offspring’ is coming six months after another unprecedented incident in my life – my first challan. And that’s why I’m dedicating this one to the terrifying traffic cops of the City Beautiful.
But let’s begin from the beginning. Thanks to my first job, my Chandigarh Landing happened in the summer of 1996. This was no less historic an event than the Moon Landing of 1969. For a guy from Punjab (Jalandhar, to be precise), Le Corbusier’s baby was an altogether different world with its open spaces, lush greenery and organised traffic. In the mid-1990s, with terrorism as good as dead and buried, youths like me wanted jobs, not guns. And in those days, netting a ‘naukri’ in Chandigarh (or Mohali) was nothing short of asking for the moon.
I was among the lucky ones who got down at the Sector-17 bus stand, armed with a job letter. The Open Hand gripped me instantly (and it hasn’t loosened its hold so far). I soon got a scooter for commuting, and that’s when I first experienced another kind of ‘terrorism’. It was perpetrated by the cops in white-and-blue, better known as ‘mamey’ (unfriendly uncles).
What I sorely missed on the UT roads was overtaking-from-the-left, lane-switching-at-will, hair-raising short cuts and a helmet-less existence. All this was commonplace in Punjab, but here it was punishable. I developed a great fear of being challaned, almost as frightful as the paranoia of being stripped in public. I used to stop a good 100 metres away from a red light and would avoid eye contact with cops. But there were occasions when I had to throw road rules to the winds, especially when I was racing against time to reach somewhere.
Once, a cop caught me jumping lights while I was rushing to office. Luckily, it was my birthday, and that too the silver jubilee edition. ‘Mamaji’ was about to do the needful when I informed him that I had landed on this planet quarter of a century ago. That did the trick. Giving a once-in-a-lifetime smile, he let me off, but with an unspoken warning that everyday was not going to be my b’day. Later, when I entered the potent portals of journalism, my ‘press card’ came in handy. My spotless record lasted more than 16 years, only to be shattered at one stroke.
In a crazy attempt at supermanly multitasking, I had barely two hours to attend a marriage and later pick my three-year-old kid from school (my wife wasn’t in town). I left the wedding venue after having just two pieces of cheese tikka (which cost me Rs 250 each in shagun terms). I was speeding towards my next destination when the COPS signalled me to STOP. ‘70-plus’ one of them said, mentioning my car speed (and probably his age as well). I flashed my ID card to the man in charge, but he ignored it as if it was in Greek. All my protests and claims of innocence fell on deaf ears. He seemed to have had a fight with his wife that morning over burnt toast (and he looked like one too). I took the challan slip with one hand and handed over Rs 700 with the other. Case closed.
Since then, my life has slowed down considerably as I largely keep my foot off the pedal within city limits. Now that I have lost my on-road virginity, I feel a sense of loss, but also pride and relief. After all, I kept the formidable ‘mamey’ at bay for a decade-and-a-half.