Lewd Conduct and the Law in Kolkata


The police lights are flashing, but not as bright as you would expect them to be. They’re dim and wobbly, rigged to the top and inside of the dirty, broken-down humvee-wannabe I’m standing next to while being interrogated by a rotund officer with a grim look on his face.

“No, no, we have to take you to the station,” he says. “This is very bad.”

And the night started out so well.


Jóna and I were at Rini’s house, drinking wine and whiskey as a platoon of friends piled in, one after the other. There was smoking and banter and a delivered order of kebabs and meat-rolls. Everyone was having a good time, just relaxing and drinking and enjoying each others’ company.

We left Rini’s for a club a few hours after arriving, piling into cars and weaving our way through the relatively small amount of traffic on the Kolkata streets that late at night. We dropped the cars off with parking attendants before heading inside.

The place was called ‘Blush,’ and based on the decorations and the cover charge at the door, I guessed it would be popular with upper-middle-class Indians and the expat-student population of the city. I was right.

A crowd of button-down-shirt-wearing twenty-something guys and flouncy-shirt-and-skirt-wearing twenty-something gals greeted us after we paid our way in, and the whole club area seemed to be a dance floor, with only small clusters of non-dancy-people holding their own against the undulating tides, and a small rim of non-dancers along the periphery seemingly trying to hold the place together with their unintentionally-stern, statuesque poses.

Jóna and I fell right into step, improvise-dancing our way deeper into the room, immediately making ourselves targets of the ‘Seen and Heard’-style photographers haunting the floor, looking for celebrities and drunk people to immortalize in the pages of their gossip rags and blogs. The flashes of their cameras were so frequent, Jóna assumed they were disco lights.

After dancing enough to build up a thin sheen of sweat, our crew headed toward the door, intending to take a smoke break, and Jóna pulled me aside and whispered that we should go home: she was having a great time, but she was interested in a different kind of activity that doesn’t (usually) involve a large group of people.

I announced to the group that we’d be taking off, and after a round of hugging and grand goodbyes, Rini and Nisha insisted on walking us out to the street to help us find a cab back home. After a little haggling with one cabbie (who was intent on earning a massive lump-sum fee for delivering Jóna and I back to our apartment on the outskirts of town), we decided on another, who would charge according to the meter, plus 20 rupees more as his inconvenience-and-it’s-late-so-deal-with-it fee.

We cruised along the late-night streets at a steady clip, and Jóna clung to my arm — she still wasn’t accustomed to the bumper-car-like style of driving that cabbies adopt in Kolkata — and rested her head on my shoulder. We were almost home when the cabbie started to pull over, pointed to the rearview mirror and said ‘Police.’


I was surprised that we had been pulled over for two reasons.

The first is that people drive so crazily in Kolkata I assumed traffic laws were the local equivalent of unicorns or honest day-traders: something you hear about, but which probably doesn’t exist.

The second is that it seemed to me we were driving less-crazy than most of the cars around us, and in fact were going fairly slow for the street we were on. No dodging or weaving was taking place. No nudging of the cars in front of us. We were law-abiding citizens as far as I could tell. I wondered, as the cabbie got out of the car and went to talk to the police (who had pulled up behind us), whether he was some kind of criminal who had just been recognized and apprehended while we sat in the back seat and watched.

My curiosity was soon sated. The driver came back up to the cab, opened my door, and gestured for me to get out and go back to talk to the police. He motioned for Jóna to stay put.

“Well this can’t be good,” I said out loud to no one in particular.

A Squaring of Shoulders

The officer I’m talking to seems disappointed that I’m not drunk. After asking a few questions (“Who are you? Why are you here? What do you do? Who is that woman?”) and gesturing wildly for a bit, trying to explain some deeper concept but failing, he hands me his phone and says, “You talk. My superior.”

I take the blocky, old plastic Nokia from him and say hello to the voice on the other end of the line. That voice asks me the same questions the officer asked mere seconds ago, but with less of an accent. He says I need to come to the police station and pay a fee. I look up at the officer whose phone I’m listening to and notice that he seems to be watching me closely, waiting for some kind of indication that I’m going to…what? Offer a bribe?

It’s at this point that I decide my tactic of going with the flow and being completely cooperative wasn’t working. I solidify my stance, square my shoulders and make firm eye contact with the officer standing in front of me. Into the phone I say, “My wife and I have already registered at the police station. We had to file paperwork in order to rent the apartment that we are now living in. Perhaps this is something you should bring up with the landlord if there’s an issue.” I then proceed to list off a string of names of other people he could take it up with, the tone of my voice indicating these are names he should recognize.

Apparently, something in my presentation is working, or otherwise they’re just getting sick of dealing with a Westerner who apparently knows enough locals (and enough about the local legal system) to earn them nothing but grief and paperwork. I hand the phone back to the officer, and his face and stance softens. He says “You and your wife cannot,” he holds his arm up as if sitting with a woman in the back of a taxi. “It’s not done here.”

My jaw mentally drops as I attempt to confirm what I think he’s getting at. “Are you saying that in India, my wife is not allowed to lean against me in the car?”

The officer puts up both hands as if defending himself against an attack, and says something quickly in Hindi, which I don’t catch, but is apparently funny, as all the other police sitting in the back of the car burst into riotous laughter. The officer puts his hand on my shoulder, like a father explaining the ‘facts of life’ to his son. He says, “No, it is fine at home, but,” he smiles at me, “it is not done. Taxi, it is public.”

From there, I’m walked back to the cab, and we drive back home, arriving a few minutes later.

During the ride, I explain to Jóna that I’m pretty sure the cops were looking for a bribe, a not-uncommon occurrence hereabouts, but that because I seemed willing to go back to the police station with them should it come to that, they didn’t push the issue and instead leaned on the excuse they had used to pull us over: indecent conduct.

“I’m a little disappointed that it was something so bland and unexciting that led us to almost get arrested for indecent conduct in India,” she says. “Had I known, I would have started doing something more interesting.”

50 Rupees

As the cab rolls up to our apartment building, I pull the cab fee from my pocket — plus 20 rupees, as promised — and hand it to the driver.

He puts his hand out but doesn’t take it. “Plus 50 rupees, for police,” he says.

“No, the fee plus 20, as agreed. You kept the meter running while we were pulled over.”

He looked like he wanted to argue more, but I was firm in handing him the cash and getting out of the cab.

It’s taken me a few weeks in Kolkata to come to this realization, but it seems like in a land of paperwork, the easiest way to get things done is to not just play ball with those who are supposedly in charge. In many cases, it’s those very people who will do their best to take advantage of the situation and rip-off anyone foolish enough to trust their authority.

Corruption is a huge problem in this country, and I’m starting to understand why the measures they have in place to prevent such underhandedness is what allows it to exist in the first place.

Update: February 14, 2017

I wrote about this encounter later, in my book Iceland India Interstate, and I definitely pulled some punches in this rendition of it. I was concerned that if I said too much while I was still in the country, it might come back to bite me somehow, but the demand for a bribe was fairly explicit, and it was clear that this was the only reason we were pulled over. Also, it seems likely the taxi driver signaled the cops to inform them there were Westerners on board, and that he probably would have gotten a cut of whatever the take might have been, had we paid up.

I don’t know that I can blame anyone for acting pragmatically based on the rules whichever system they find themselves, but it is sad that overt corruption of that kind forces so many people to play along, or to be punished for it. Locals as well as visitors.


Hang Me Up to Dry

Before I started traveling full time, I had never hung laundry up to dry.

This isn’t to say I never did my own laundry. For years I insisted on doing my own, feeling this was something I would need to know how to do, and that if I could master the skills involved with washing, drying, and ironing my garments, I would be at the top of my man-game, needing no one to help me on my way to wardrobe splendor.

But then I left the US and found myself afloat in a sea of unfamiliar services and skill sets.

In Argentina, for example, I couldn’t find a washer and dryer to save my life. The closest nearby option was a shop down the street that advertised itself as a fluff and fold. The service was scary cheap, and I actually had to have a friend come over and confirm that they would indeed wash and dry my clothing for such a low price. I found this hard to believe, because the same service would have cost a month’s rent in Los Angeles.

Most other countries, though, have had washing machines, and I would happily load the metal box with shirts and pants and detergent and turn it on, only to realize, after turning the knob, that there didn’t seem to be a dryer nearby. I’d peek around corners and ask my landlord, and I would always get the same answer: “What’s a dryer?”

Growing up in the US, hanging clothing is considered old school. It’s something that poor people and hipsters do (just to be alternative), and though I’m sure there are some people somewhere for whom laundry is still dried that way (out in the country, perhaps: I picture mountain people with no electricity washing their clothes in streams and then hanging them out to dry by the cows and chickens), it’s simply not a common enough sight that I can remember ever seeing people hang up laundry as a child, teenager, or even as a poor college student.

No, in the States, we use machines. Big, loud, solid machines that pump in hot air and dry clothing quickly.

And sure, sometimes that clothing shrinks in the process, but sacrifices must be made for progress, and sometimes that sacrifice comes in the form of a little black dress or American Apparel t-shirt, which transforms from ‘just right’ to ‘children’s clothing’ after 20 minutes in the big metal beast.

But now I find myself on the other side of the world, sitting in the living room of my apartment in Kolkata, India, surrounded by furniture draped with bed sheets, pants, and underthings, the chairs and couches spaced out to allow for optimal ventilation, the doors open just a little, allowing big, fluffy towels to be hung from them without being smashed in the door frame.

Every once in a while I glance up from my computer screen, look around my apartment, and smile at the ridiculousness of it all.

I’m sure I’m doing it wrong. I’m sure people who often hang up their clothing are good at this, and have figured out a way to make it work without decorating their home like a haunted house, socks and pillow cases dangling from every available perch instead of fake cobwebs and giant plastic spiders.

Walking around town, I can see that the locals hang their wash outside their windows and over their balconies, but I can’t bring myself to take that step just yet. I know, logically, that as long as I use enough clips and watch the weather, it’s unlikely that I’ll lose my bed spread to an errant breeze. But knowing how steep the learning curve on this kind of thing is for me, I still haven’t worked up the nerve to walk out onto the balcony of my 19th-floor apartment and think, “Yeah, this would be a good place to put my freshly washed underwear.”

Baby steps.

Update: February 14, 2017

That apartment was so huge, but I still managed to fill a substantial portion of it on laundry day. Spreading out those colorful sheets and blankets and clothes, using the few pieces of furniture that came with the place as racks; it was quite the adventure. A experience that was remarkable to me, but agonizingly commonplace to most people around the world.


Accept Your Exceptions

When it comes to almost any default, I tend to be the exception.

Local phone numbers that are required to acquire a local phone number, local references in places I’ve never been or met anyone from, and identifiers (like the Social Security number-like kennitala in Iceland) that I wasn’t born with.

I notice this distinction when I’m filling out online forms that have certain required fields which don’t apply to me. I spend a handful of minutes checking the right boxes, giving away my privacy in exchange for some kind of membership or subscription or required certification, only to get to the end and find a box I have no honest way of filling in.

This can be upsetting. It draws a clear line in the sand between ‘us’ and ‘everyone else.’ Those who can fill out this form, and those who cannot. If you can’t, sorry. No (desired item) for you.

I’ve grown accustomed to this status over the past few years, however, and now I tend to embrace it.

Being the exception makes doing vanilla tasks difficult, but it makes everything else a whole lot easier. When there are fewer standards to uphold, there are fewer boxes for people to cram you and your actions into. If you’re an unknown quantity, it means that anything you do could be normal. Any strange habits or alternative lifestyle choices you wish to make are suddenly okay, because those around you have no yardstick by which to measure your actions.

It’s liberating.

Being the exception, whether it’s because of your geography, your background, your professional path or anything else, gives you an excuse to be exceptional.

Don’t waste that opportunity.

Update: February 14, 2017

Today I’ll usually describe this in terms of sharpening our rough edges instead of sanding them down. Being uniquely us-shaped, rather than trying so hard to fit underneath society’s pre-built cookie-cutters.