Lady Singham’s Mission Against Love

We’d almost crossed the stadium before she saw them. A boy and a girl. All you could see from across the boundary wall were two heads pressed against each other; easily missed if they weren’t plonked on the last row of the stadium steps. But there was no fooling Lady Singham. She could smell out love like it was rotting corpse. It was time for action.

We had been patrolling the streets for signs of forbidden love, our two vehicles tearing through the post-lunchtime calm of a small town in southern Jharkhand. In the leading vehicle, a police jeep, sat six uniformed policemen strapped with rifles. Trailing it was the Maruti 800 I’d borrowed from my parents for the trip. In its back seat, Lady Singham and I sat next to each other, the family driver steering it like a racing car from the moment it was commandeered for the mission.

Three hours ago, I’d arrived outside the women’s police station in Simdega to find Lady Singham waiting for me at the gate with a bouquet of yellow daisies. She looked younger than forty-three; her smooth, olive skin glinted in the sun and a fitted uniform complemented the sturdy build. Her medaled beret was tilted at just the right angle, and her brown leather boots were polished to perfection. When she jumped across a large puddle to greet me, she didn’t disturb a single drop of muddy rainwater. The flowers were followed by a warm hug and a kiss on the cheek. It’s a well-known fact that the farther a Delhi journalist travels from the capital, the more respectfully he or she is treated. Even so, I was still thrown off balance by Lady Singham’s free-flowing affection.

Raje Kujur had achieved local fame for launching a violent mission against love. In a news report from three weeks earlier that had gotten people talking, she was described as a policewoman who could “deliver a mean karate chop and a deadly kick”. She’d earned the nickname, the report said, because she could punch and kick as hard as the most daredevil police officer in Bollywood of recent times, a character called Singham (meaning lion). Uprooting love from public spaces — streets, colleges, parks, lakes — was her personal passion and professional specialization. Before she spotted the snuggling heads on the stadium steps, Kujur had pointed at the litter-strewn streets of Simdega and said: “See how clean the place looks now? Before I came to this town, young couples roamed the streets hand in hand. The parks were overrun with them. Even vegetable markets weren’t spared.”

*

Raiding on romance is a venerable Indian phenomenon. The thinking behind the idea remains the same, although its execution keeps changing. The only way to keep current with the constant upgrades is to follow the regional newspapers and television channels where reports of these raids make up the daily news. You learn, for example, that the web of tip-offs has widely expanded. At the top of this network are newspapers and television channels; the quicker a reporter can alert the police about an immoral activity, the stronger the chances that his organization will run an exclusive, or live, report. It was on a tip-off from a television reporter in 2013 that the police in Raipur busted a private “Friendship Day party” and intercepted what was reported in local news, improbably, as a “naked dance”. In 2005, the Meerut police collaborated with a local channel on a hunt — “Operation Majnu”, named audaciously for one of Indo-Persian literature’s most famous lovers — through the public parks to expose hundreds of young couples for the viewing pleasure of a live television audience. Parents, too, get a role to play in the system. In Indore, it was a group of parents who alerted the local police to a dangerous practice: their daughters had taken to covering their faces with dupattas (scarves) as they rode off on their scooters. The parents were convinced that the young women weren’t protecting themselves from sun and pollution, as they claimed, but were trying to avoid being identified when going to meet their lovers.

The town authorities must also invest in finding out where the action is. It’s easy to guess the places lovers would avoid; the parks are often monitored, the rare coffee shop too bright to get cozy, the restaurants too expensive, and the bars too crowded with aggressive, single men. It pays to watch over the local hookah lounge, though. There’s a reason every up-and-coming city in India has at least one hookah lounge. It’s where the young can “be themselves”; the darkened, smoke-filled interior is a license for playfulness, the act of smoking a flavoured hookah, instead of drinking “hard liquor” in a bar, induces an acceptable degree of abandon.

Few things represent the new anxiety of Tier-2 India as comprehensively as the raids on hookah lounges.

“SURAT, 2015: The Umra police swooped down on a hookah bar in the posh Vesu area on Sunday and arrested 27 youngsters. They raided XHale hookah bar operating on the third floor of a newly constructed commercial complex. The accused were charging Rs 600 per hookah and a wide range of flavours were offered, as per customers’ demands.”

“BHOPAL, 2014: Notorious hookah lounges, serving young boys and girls, have now started spreading their wings in Bhopal. A raid was conducted at Sunshine Garden and Restaurant in Santnagar on Thursday. When the team entered into the restaurant, boys and girls were seen making for the exit in a hurry. Officers have seized hookah, and different flavours of hookah. Some allege that information of the raid was leaked to the hookah lounge staff, which allowed them to get rid of the young clients just in time.”

“LUCKNOW, 2012: The police conducted a raid inside a hookah lounge located opposite Senior Superintendent of Police camp office at Sapru Marg on Sunday evening. Police detained and questioned several boys and girls present in the lounge. A large crowd gathered outside the lounge as the police raid lasted close to an hour. Officials allowed the girls and boys to leave the premises after taking down their personal details such as place of residence and contact numbers of their local guardians and parents.”

*

After the elaborate greeting I received, she led me into her office where selected members of the town’s police department sat in a circle with files in their laps, prepared to regale me with facts regarding the state of affairs before and after the arrival of Kujur:

“The situation in the town was really messed up. The reason was the increasing influence of Bollywood films, all of them glorifying big-city culture. Girls and boys cruised about the place as if it was Bombay,” said a sub-inspector from the main police station.

“Before she joined us two years ago, you saw girls and boys enjoying each other’s company in full view of the public. It was setting a very bad example for society,” said Kujur’s male predecessor.

“Before she was posted here, no one in the town used to pay any heed to lady inspectors. No one had even seen a woman police officer riding a motorcycle. Once she’d settled here, she started to go on patrols. If she saw a man chasing after girls on a motorcycle, she would follow him in her official jeep and once her vehicle had overtaken his, she would get off the police jeep, order the man off his bike, grab his keys from the ignition, and ride the motorcycle to the station, directing her assistants to throw the man in the jeep and bring him to the police station,” said the resident lawyer.

On some days, at the end of her patrols, she would have a pack of young men waiting for her in a special cell. Some of them were picked up for having dared to take a girl around on a motorcycle. Once she arrived at the police station on the last motorcycle she’d seized for the day, Kujur first stopped by her office and selected a lathi — a long truncheon — from a fat bundle she had put together. “Then I would go into the cell and beat them left and right, black and blue. By the end of the session, they’d be begging me to let them go.”

She knew, she said, the tricks they used on girls — waiting outside their college, following them around on their motorcycles, giving them flowers and chocolates, making missed calls on their mobile phones — and Kujur frequently caught them before they could make a move. “One day, a guy dials my number by mistake. I tell him it’s a wrong number, but hearing the female voice on the other end, he starts to flirt. I decided to play along, changing my voice to sound sweet and romantic. At the end of our conversation, I said to him: ‘Darling, come and meet me at this place and this time, I will be waiting in a red dress and dark sunglasses.’ When the man showed up there, having fallen into the trap, I pounced on him. You know what I told him as my men surrounded him: ‘Jaante ho hum kaun hain? Tumhare baap.’[‘Do you know who I am? Your daddy.’]”

Scanning the streets every day, she kept an eye out for girls whom she could identify as possessing a marked weakness of character. It was a certain shiftiness of manners: they could be looking around themselves as they walked, or coyly whispering into their mobile phones, or appearing to be waiting for someone at a secluded spot. “One day as I was passing by on my motorcycle, I see a girl standing by herself at a bus stand. She was dressed up and speaking to someone on her phone in a low voice. I knew something was wrong. I parked my bike close by and snuck up behind her. I quietly waited as she urged her lover on the phone to come fast. Ten or fifteen minutes later, I see an older man get out of his car and walk towards her. From the sight of him, I knew he was married and using her for fun. I dealt with both of them at the spot.”

The job keeps her on her toes day and night. There are no hookah lounges in Simdega yet. There isn’t even a coffee shop or a cinema hall. The lack of private spaces doesn’t deter the lovebirds however, Kujur explained to me gravely. The territory of trouble was ever increasing: the streets around the local college, the botanical gardens (security guards at its entrance are under orders to alert the police station at the sight of a young couple), the famous lake, the cricket stadium. “You know how doctors are specialists in various fields — eye specialist, heart specialist . . . I am a specialist in matters involving ladka-ladki [boy and girl].”

*

A ladka-ladki pair was waiting for Kujur at the police station when we returned from lunch. The matter was serious: the nineteen-year-old girl had recently complained to Kujur about the twenty-one-year-old boy’s refusal to marry her, in spite of a four-year-long prem sambandh (romantic relationship). Furious at the boy for his lack of commitment, Kujur had ordered the couple, both of them practicing Christians, to go to the local church, get married, and bring her the proof. Now, a month after Kujur’s diktat, the boy, tall and lanky in an untucked striped shirt and a pair of loose trousers, stood quivering before her.

“It is taking too long at the church. We have made several rounds already,” he said.

“Don’t you talk to me like this, you hear me?” growled Kujur, instructing him to unfold his arms and stand to attention.

“Remind me how long you have been together in the relationship?” Kujur turned to the girl, who stood sulking at the boy’s side in a crumpled salwar-kameez with messy hair.

“It’s better you ask him. He will contradict what I say in any case,” she said, rolling her eyes.

“Alright, we’ve been together for four years,” said the boy in defeat.

“Well, if you have been in a relationship with her for four years, then you have got to marry her,” said Kujur calmly. “There is no other way around it. If the church is taking its time, go directly to the district court and apply for a wedding date. Go there tomorrow, in fact.”

If they had been Hindus, she said after packing off the couple, she could have gotten them married then and there; it is for precisely this reason that she had restored a crumbling temple next door and hired a priest on a monthly salary. At an early stage in her mission, Kujur realized a good way to minimize the number of lovers was to marry them off to each other.

She encouraged young women in relationships to file written complaints at the police station if the men dithered about marriage. Often, basic scolding was enough to lead the couples to the temple and around the quickly-lit sacred fire. If the men acted up, she’d refer them to section 90 of the Indian penal code; according to the law, a man could be charged with rape if he’d convinced a woman to have sex with him by leading her to believe that he would marry her later. Within a few weeks of conjuring up this plan, complaints were piling up on her desk by the dozen.

Kujur, I learnt, dealt with them with an efficiency that shocked the town. As an in-house lawyer promptly read out to me from the file in his lap: “In 2015 so far, fifteen cases closed: seven in March, five in February, and two in January. In 2014, we closed fifty-two cases.” Alerted to his cue, the resident pandit, tall and potbellied, woke from his nap to say his piece: “All in all, madam has seen to over fifty weddings in the temple since she came here. The spell of our chants is so powerful that not one of these couples have gone back on their vows since.”

Someone handed me a file containing records of some of the closed cases. Each case was a series of three documents: in the first, the girl complained of being cheated by her lover; in the second, the man apologized for his behaviour and declared his intention to marry her; in the third, the police station summarized the agreement and declared them wedded. On the notice board at the entrance of the police station, the photographs of the married couples were arranged to psychedelic effect; the faces of the new brides and grooms merged into a multi-coloured cloud of shock and confusion; standing behind them in each photograph, Kujur and her team loomed over the flat surface like a spectre.

Back in the restaurant at lunch, where Kujur had been relaxed enough to be cracking jokes, I’d asked her if she believed in love. Her face hardening, she had said she believed in only the kind of love that one was allowed: “People are free to love, but they should do that after getting married.” I asked her, obliquely, how important love was in her own marriage. It was an arranged marriage, she said in response. At twenty-five, her family had found a young businessman from a Christian family and she had married him without any doubt or reservations. She loved her children, though; a twenty-year-old son and twenty-two-year-old daughter, whose photos she proudly showed me on her phone. She also loved her dog, a well-groomed Pomeranian who was showered with her affection; every night he retired to his private bed with a Disney-themed bedsheet and pillowcase.

And she loved God. Religion, she said, was above everything. If earlier I’d thought of her personal mission against love as a device to stand out in a career dominated by men, the only route to glory available to someone in her position, I could see now that there was more to it. She had indeed made a name for herself. Enough people in town felt indebted to her for having “cleaned up” its culture. The last time there had been a rumour about her being transferred, the public had protested against it on the streets. Kujur certainly believed it was a part of her official duty to impose cultural decorum in her jurisdiction; but what guided her was also the idea that love was not a thing to enjoy. To do so was to insult God.

*

Kujur was worried about the morning drizzle that day. If it continued through to the evening, she said, nodding disapprovingly at the thought, there wouldn’t be any couples roaming about, and she wouldn’t be able to show me how she dealt with them. By the afternoon, though, the clouds were parting and we were off on the prowl. The first stop was the famous lake, outlined with rocks and surrounded by forest. The lakeside was deserted when we got there. Kujur and her team were convinced that lovebirds would show up as the sky cleared more; we decided to wait. Someone in her team suggested we take group photos against the splendid view. Everyone agreed it was the best way to kill time. For the next quarter of an hour, eight of us stood smiling, in changing configurations, against a series of picturesque backgrounds, photographed by a rotating set of volunteers among us. It was while everyone was bent over the screen of the police camera, examining the quality of the photos, that Kujur heard the whirr.

It was a motorcycle, pulling into a clearing between the rocks a fair distance from where we stood. You could make out a young man driving it and seated behind him, two young women. The moment Kujur saw them, she gave out a cry and ran in their direction. They saw her before she could reach them. They were back on the motorcycle in a second, their belongings hastily scooped up; a plastic bag containing wafers and soda untouched. Driving up to Kujur in our vehicles, we found her hysterical with fury, throwing about her arms in an I’m-gonna-get-you fashion. “What’s with them?” she yelled to herself. “These girls? Two of them, not even one. It’s like ‘buy one, get one free’ for the guy.” For the next thirty minutes, we chased the motorcycle through the streets only to lose sight of it in a traffic jam. I felt Kujur simmering beside me in a sweaty rage.

When we turned into the cricket stadium shortly afterwards, alerted by the sight of nestling heads, I was filled with dread. Ordering the cars to stop in front of the steps, Kujur realized the teenage couple huddled on the last row weren’t the only ones out this afternoon for a bit of fun. In the front row sat a gang of college boys swigging beer straight from one-litre bottles. Distributing her rage between the sets of offenders, Kujur went after the boys herself and ordered her deputy to drag the young couple down the steps. Signalling me to shoot a video of the proceedings, Kujur fell upon the boys, punching one while she dragged the other by his hair. When she finally swung around, spent from the exertion, the young couple was presented to her ceremoniously. Kujur took one look at the girl, facing her with a scowl, and sensed defiance. What was she, a sixteen-year-old girl, doing with a nineteen-year-old boy in a cozy little corner, asked Kujur? “I wasn’t aware,” said the girl, looking Kujur in the eye, “that it was a crime to go out with a boy.” What she got in response was a slap, the thud echoing through the stadium. Ordering the couple to do fifty uthak-baithaks — squats — Kujur launched into a tirade about the dangers of losing one’s morals. Later, as she wrapped up the session with a warning to the couple to never be seen together again, Kujur seemed pleased to see them facing away from each other. Her work for the day was done.

As we drove back to the police station for a last round of chai before she bade me farewell, Kujur recounting her best jibes from the session to roars of laughter all around, we passed the girl from the stadium. She was riding a bicycle — her back upright, her pedalling fierce; it was as if she was saying something with her body language. And then I saw her face: framed by the shadows of the early-evening dusk, it glowed bright with rage.

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