Volume 30, Number 3

The Dancing Policeman

Satyaki Kanjilal

The rusted iron pulley clanked when Ashok Das pulled the nylon rope to draw a bucket of cold water from the well. He sighed as he considered how he had to get promoted to a constable’s job. He had spent fifteen years as a home guard, and the new government’s decision to force the home guards into early retirement and replace them with civilians through private contractors would, simply, ruin him.

Perched on the bael tree by the well, a crow cawed and ducked as three black drongos tried to peck on its back. Bucket of water in his hands, Ashok looked up at the bigger bird. He cussed at the black drongos to scare them away, but his hoarse cuss words scared the crow, too, and it flew away with the black drongos in pursuit.

Ashok shook his head. Poor crow, he thought and poured the water on himself. This bath in the morning by the well in the courtyard of his house was one of the few things Ashok enjoyed. His wife had forced him to put a shower in their bathroom—a major investment. They both worked hard: he worked overtime, and his wife took extra orders to sew, hem and embroider saris.

“Why don’t you shower in the bathroom?” Kakuli sometimes asked, pushing the strand of hair from her face, and putting her hands on her curvaceous hips, “It’s more civilized than bathing from the well.”

“I’ve been putting mustard oil on my body and taking a bath by our well since I was a boy,” was always his reply. “My father used to insist on it.”

Ashok knew Kakuli always bit her tongue when he brought up his father, checking herself from reminding him that his father was dead.

Ashok lowered the bucket into the well, tightened the knot of his gamcha and wiped off the droplets of water on his lean, hairy chest. A yard away, an old seventies Bollywood song by Kishor Kumar started to croon on Kakuli’s radio. Ashok listened to the first lines of the lyrics as he poured the second bucket of cold water on his head. With the bucket in his hand and water dripping from his body, Ashok started humming the tune. He could feel heat radiate in his chest. Ah, this was one of his favorite songs when he was in middle school. And for a moment, he didn’t care about the memorandum from the state’s new home minister. For a moment, he didn’t care that at the age of forty-two it would be impossible for him to find a new job, competing with men half his age, not to mention single men. For a moment, he didn’t care how he could provide for his son or face Kakuli—still the love of his life. He lifted the empty bucket over his head, stepped back on his left foot and then twirled on his right-foot toes.

He slipped. Landed with a crash. The clatter of the aluminum bucket on the moss-covered courtyard brought Kakuli running from her kitchen.

“What happened?” she asked, wiping her hands on her green sari. Ashok always liked the color on her, and the brown stripes on it.

“Nothing,” he said. “I slipped.”

Yes, he knew better than to tell her that he slipped while he was dancing. Kakuli didn’t approve of his dancing. “You’ll never get promoted to constable if you dance,” she always said. “Men don’t dance in our culture.” No, it was better to lie than to admit the truth, Ashok was sure.

“I’ve been asking you to clean that moss with coconut shells,” she scolded. “When will you listen to me? Are you hurt?”

“Yeah, I think I broke my back,” he said with a fake moan. “Please ask the neighbors to get me a rickshaw. I need to get to hos—” Ashok couldn’t go on. He knew his wife’s wincing and wiping of the nose too well: she always did that before she burst into tears.

“I’m fine,” said Ashok and laughed.

“That’s so immature! Some day you’ll give me a heart attack!” She shook her head but laughed as she did.

Ashok noticed her hair was still wet, and a dab of flour was stuck on her right cheek. How she managed to wake up every day, sweep the house, take a bath, light incense sticks and pray to gods while most of Natihati was sleeping always amazed him. Every day, he woke up to the clink of her spoon stirring the sugar in a steel cup and the smell of her cinnamon tea.

“Come on, get up. Didn’t you say you have someone secret to visit?” she asked. Ashok noticed her slight emphasis on the word “secret.”

Prabal Dutta, a friend of Ashok’s late father, had been elected to the state legislative assembly six months ago and was a close friend of the state’s home minister. Dutta babu was his last shot at getting promoted to a constable’s rank. Ashok didn’t want to get Kakuli’s hopes up before he knew for sure that Dutta babu could help. Fortunately, Dutta babu had sent word yesterday that he wanted to see Ashok alone this morning. Hope was there… Perhaps that was portended by the song he danced to.

Ashok walked into his bedroom and bowed before the garlanded picture of his late father in his head constable’s khaki uniform that hung on the wall and the framed picture of the god Shiva next to it. He then picked up and put on his faded khaki uniform, which Kakuli had ironed and left on the bed for him to wear. His toddler, Abir, was sleeping peacefully with his thumb tucked in his mouth. Ashok was fortunate to have Abir after long years of no children. After dressing, he kissed his son’s forehead and walked out of the bedroom. Kakuli had already placed his sitting mat and his steel plate with five chapattis, a bowl of yellow lentils and some fried okra. Ashok sat on the mat and started on his breakfast before Kakuli brought in his glass of water and that day’s newspaper. He skimmed through it. The headlines covered political violence in some western districts of the state and, as usual, allegations of the corruption of the new state government.

“Are you on the gossip pages? You can tell me if you’re having an affair,” Kakuli said from the kitchen with a laugh.

“Sure,” said Ashok. “I’ll let you know when I start one!”

Ashok loved it when she joked about his sleeping with other women. Years ago, when he was newly married, Kakuli suspected him of infidelity and went back to her parents’ place in town. It took Ashok a month and testimonies from multiple people to convince her that he wasn’t cheating on her. Now she was so confident of his fidelity that she felt comfortable joking about it.

“Can you please check on the jeweler’s progress for me?” asked Kakuli when Ashok was about to leave.

It took him a moment to realize what she was talking about. For over three years, Kakuli had been saving up the money she got by embroidering and sewing saris and frocks to get a pair of gold bangles with thin vine-like creepers encrusted on them. It was going to cost about fifteen thousand rupees. A week ago, she had finally managed to save up more than she needed and placed an order with a local goldsmith. Both of them had been eagerly monitoring their joint-account passbook as their savings grew slowly. Ashok had never been able to get Kakuli any jewelry or a nice sari, and she had never complained.

“Sure,” said Ashok with a smile. She deserved this. As he left his home to meet Dutta babu he wished there was more he could do to make her happy.


Ashok noticed a new luxury SUV parked outside the single-story house, which was covered in bamboo scaffolds and tarpaulin. Bags of cement and sandbags placed in the small garden made the house look like a border outpost in a B-grade Bollywood movie. The front door opened into Dutta babu’s living room.

“May I come in?” asked Ashok at the door.

“Oh, Ashok!” Dutta babu said with a smile. “You know you don’t need my permission.”

It had been six months since he visited Dutta babu to congratulate him on winning the election by a narrow margin. Ashok noticed that the furniture of the living room had changed. There was a new mahogany writing desk, with a dusty plastic-wrapped black flat-screen monitor on it. A brown leather couch had replaced the torn spring sofa, and a flat-screen television stood in place of the old analog TV. A framed picture of the state’s chief minister adorned the wall behind the TV where a torn calendar with Mahatma Gandhi’s picture used to hang. Dutta babu sat in a black recliner chair and was scribbling on a notepad when Ashok showed up.

He stopped writing and looked up through his thick, black-rimmed glasses. Ashok noticed the bushy mustache and thinning hair that used to be gray were now colored jet-black. He no longer looked like the retired sexagenarian schoolmaster Ashok knew. Rather, he now looked just a few years older than Ashok.

Ashok entered the living room, walked around the table, bent over and touched Mr. Datta’s feet to show him respect.

Dutta babu put his hand on Ashok’s head. “It’s so nice to see you again, son. What took you so long to visit this old man?” he asked with mock anger.

Ashok took off his blue beret, sat on a green steel folding chair on the other side of the writing desk and smiled a shy smile. Ashok had shown up three times at the house since his last visit, only to find that Dutta babu was never around. He was politely asked by Mrs. Dutta to call before he showed up. But Dutta babu’s phone was either busy or switched off whenever Ashok called.

“How’s your wife?” asked Dutta babu. “Didn’t you have a son? I haven’t even seen him.”

“They are both fine, thank you,” said Ashok. “I came as you sent word yesterday.”

“Right,” said Dutta babu. The smile disappeared from his face. “Could you please shut the door?" The construction workers had taken the day off, Dutta babu explained as Ashok did so. “One has to be very cautious these days,” he added.

Ashok sat down, breathed hard and looked at Dutta babu. He felt his fingertips tingle.

“You know that you’re like a son to me, do you not?” asked Dutta babu with his eyes on the notepad.

“Yes.” This wasn’t good. Nothing good came out when someone started a sentence with “You know.”

Years ago, in high school, Ashok had skipped classes one day to watch a popular Bollywood movie. He forged his father’s signature and sent a letter to the school, claiming he was sick. Dutta babu, who was his math teacher, phoned his father at work and asked after Ashok’s health. On his way back from the movie Ashok was happily sipping tea at a tea stall near the clock tower across from the railway station when his father caught him and physically disciplined him in public. The next day at school, Dutta babu lectured him on the merits of honesty. He had begun his lecture with the phrase “You know …”

“Well,” Dutta babu cleared his throat. He glanced at Ashok for a moment and then looked back at his notepad.

“What is it?” asked Ashok. “Please …” He could feel someone pounding a hammer in his left frontal lobe and, suddenly, he found it hard to breathe. Two weeks ago, Dutta babu stopped at the tea stall near the clock tower near which Ashok was posted to manage traffic. Ashok had pleaded with Dutta babu to look into his promotion. Dutta babu had asked Ashok not to worry about it.

“You know that our party just won this election, right?”

Ashok nodded.

“We promised to crack down on corruption in our manifesto,” said Dutta babu. “But change is hard. So … the reality is you will need to pay.”

Ashok wasn’t surprised. Dutta babu had insinuated he might well have to pay a bribe. “You know how things are,” Dutta babu had said and winked, though he promised Ashok he would try to make sure he didn’t have to pay a lot.

“Fifty thousand rupees will secure your promotion. That’s the best I could do. I wish I could do more.”

Dutta babu looked at Ashok. There was shame in his eyes.

But fifty thousand rupees! That was ten months’ salary! And twenty thousand more than he had budgeted.

“The going rate is about two lakh rupees. I had to pull a lot of strings. Had to remind them your father was a hero who won a police medal. Fortunately, some senior police officers remembered how he died on the job, saving the lives of his colleagues during that raid on that notorious bandit’s hideout. What was his name?”

“Choto Kanai.” Ashok felt a thickness in his throat. Although it had been over fifteen years, it still pained him whenever someone brought up his father’s death. All his life, he had lived in his father’s shadow. He had taken multiple tests to get promoted to a constable, but every time his senior officers informed him with pity in their eyes that he’d failed to make the cut. He noticed the same pity in Dutta babu’s eyes now.

“I understand,” Ashok said slowly and nodded. “I can get the money. When do you need it?”

“That’s the thing,” said Dutta babu. He took off his glasses, blew at them, and wiped them with his off-white muslin kurta. “You have three days.”

“Three days?” repeated Ashok.

“Look. You need to understand, it took a lot of convincing, and there are lots of people who will pay two lakhs for that job.”

Ashok nodded.

“Do you have the money?”

“I have thirty thousand rupees saved up in the bank.”

“You could take a loan for the rest.”

“But the bank asks for collateral!” said Ashok, his voice desperate. “My family home… it’s already mortgaged to the bank.”

Dutta babu nodded. “The chairman of our municipality lends money. You can use me as a reference. I’m sure he could lend you twenty thousand rupees at short notice.”

Ashok had heard stories about the chairman’s ruthlessness. Often, his henchmen beat up those who defaulted on payments. Even Ashok’s senior officers refused to register a complaint against the chairman. They were on his payroll, for sure.

Ashok stood, bowed, and touched Dutta babu’s feet.

“I will get the money,” he said before he left. Not getting the money was simply not an option… although he wasn’t sure if asking the chairman was the right thing to do.


Later in the afternoon, Ashok was at his usual spot below the clock tower in the middle of the crossroads, in front of the railway station, directing traffic. The old tea stall where his father punished him for forging his signature was a hundred yards away from his spot and still in business. Ashok had to direct traffic for eight straight hours, but he was fine with it. He had gotten used to bus drivers honking at him if he wanted them to wait a little longer to allow a pedestrian to cross the busy intersection. He had gotten used to commuters cussing at him from buses and auto-rickshaws if there was a traffic jam. “Which damn traffic school did you attend?” they often shouted. At times, some goat or a scared stray dog being chased by other feral dogs found its way to the busy intersection. Ashok always chased them away to the safety of a sidewalk.

Ashok stopped the buses, cars, rickshaws, bikes and auto-rickshaws to allow an elderly lady with a stick to cross the road as impatient drivers honked at Ashok. The lady, clad in a torn and spotted white sari, took forever. Two rowdy bike riders broke the signal and sped away before he could turn and get their license plates. By the time the lady reached the other side, a black ox had appeared at the intersection. It stood near the clock tower, chewing as it gazed at the buses and cars. Ashok shooed the ox. It tweaked its right ear and batted its eyelids in reply.

“Kick the damned thing!” cried a commuter from a bus window.

“Why don’t you just beat it with your baton?” called out a passenger in an auto-rickshaw.

Ashok looked at the ox, noticing the three sore wounds on its back and the flies buzzing around them. The animal’s rib cage stuck out on its side. No, he couldn’t beat this poor ox. So he simply nudged it a couple of feet and stopped.

“Your father would be proud of you, Ashokda!” shouted someone. It was a young man on a bike with a red t-shirt and a gold chain. He wasn’t alone: his friend, darker and about six feet tall, was perched behind him. Ashok knew them both. They were lackeys of the municipality’s chairman. Neither of them had helmets on.

Ashok pushed the ox. The ox didn’t budge.

He shooed. The ox stayed put.

Drivers honked, commuters yelled obscenities, and Ashok began to feel the blood flow to his head. His ears felt hot. Maybe it was a good thing the government was forcing him into early retirement.

At least I won’t have to put up with all the cussing, Ashok thought.

He wiped the perspiration from his forehead and pushed the ox. It moved another foot and stopped again.

Suddenly, he felt someone snatch his baton from his hand. It was the tall man from the bike! Ashok noticed he had a cut on his right forehead, and he smelled of cheap liquor. The man started pounding the ox. Before Ashok could get his baton back, the ox started moving. The man landed two blows on the ox’s wounds, for good measure, causing the ox to break into a run. Still the man chased it, Ashok’s baton raised above his head, with the commuters, the drivers, the rickshaw wallahs and the bike riders egging him on. A few whistled and hooted as the man chased the ox to a near-empty sidewalk, before finally stopping and walking back to Ashok.

He extended the baton for Ashok to take, looking at him in disgust. “That’s how it’s done!” he pronounced.

People clapped as Ashok took back his baton. A commuter from a bus put his head out of the window and yelled, “He should have your job!”

“You’re right!” Ashok shouted back and made a fist at the passenger. That was it! He was done being a home guard stuck on traffic duty. He would get the money, but he was not going to ask the chairman for a loan. No, he would not have these lackeys end up terrorizing him and his family when he defaulted on the loan.


It was a couple of hours after the incident with the ox. The traffic was slower now. Ashok checked his wristwatch: 3:00 p.m. … still three hours for his shift to end. Perhaps Kakuli would lend him the twenty thousand rupees she had saved for her bangles. Maybe she could persuade the goldsmith to wait a little longer till she paid the full amount. She had waited for three years. Perhaps she could wait two or three more years.

An auto-rickshaw disobeyed his signal and sped on. Ashok didn’t bother to note the license plate. He had failed as a husband and as a son. He felt his throat itch. His father was an honest cop who never took bribes. And Ashok failed to crack that damned test to get promoted to a constable. Now he must stoop to pay a bribe.

Ashok continued to direct the traffic, oblivious to the sweltering July heat of Natihati. He thought of Kakuli’s hands. He often pretended not to notice the Band-Aids on her forefingers, pricked from working on embroidery and stitching. But she never complained or seemed to mind. How could he ask her for the money she worked so hard for? No, he couldn’t do that Kakuli. Yes, he was worthless. Maybe he was better off retiring…

The sound of a trumpet forced Ashok to pay attention to the traffic at the intersection. A band was approaching from one of the roads near the intersection. It wasn’t a big band, he soon saw. Just three trumpeters and a trombone player, two drummers on either side … ah, and a cymbal player behind them. The band members were dressed in red tunics and steel buttons, seemingly oblivious to the summer heat. They were following a tricycle rickshaw van with a statue of the goddess Kali on it. The small statue was covered in red chrysanthemum and red hibiscus garlands, barely visible from where he was. But he recognized them, nonetheless. The musicians were playing an old eighties song, at times out of rhythm—but no one seemed to care how off-key they were.

Ashok realized that he was tapping his feet to the beat of the music. Well, it was a song that was very popular when he was in high school, a love song that he later used to sing to impress Kakuli when they were newly wedded. Ashok moonwalked backward and raised his left foot, twirled around on his right and brought himself to a sudden stop. After that he signaled the band, and the traffic following it to proceed. Ha! This was fun! He raised his left foot and spun around on his right toe. He felt dizzy when he stopped. Perhaps he shouldn’t spin like that. It would hurt if he fell on the road. He moonwalked, took a sharp left turn and raised his hand. Drivers stopped. No one honked. Dancing on the job seemed to work. But should he keep dancing? Ashok bent his waist, twirled his torso to the right and signaled vehicles to pass. Yes. He must dance Why not, after all? He would soon be forced out of his job. He should have some fun while he still could.

Ashok noticed commuters in buses and auto-rickshaws filming him. He was sure his senior officers will disapprove of him dancing, but he didn’t care. He didn’t have enough money to pay the bribe, and he would be forced into early retirement. What had he got to lose? The band had moved off down the road, and he could no longer hear their music.

Ashok took out his cheap smartphone, with its cracked screen, from his front chest pocket, set the highest volume level and tuned to an FM radio station playing a 60s Bollywood song. Then he made a sharp spin left and swung his right hand like a robot, signaling one side to stop. He then stepped back on his left foot, lifted his right, and spun right and brought his left foot down. He then started shaking his pelvis—just like Elvis, he hoped—and signaled another side to proceed. Someone whistled. Ashok didn’t care. He was happy.


The next morning, when Ashok was about to leave for his job, he almost bumped into Dutta babu at his door.

“We need to talk,” his old teacher said and put a hand on Ashok’s shoulder to force him back inside his house. “Daughter-in-law!” he hollered. “It’s been a while since I saw you last. I’ve come to see your son!”

Ashok looked at Dutta babu with his mouth open agape. Never in his life had he seen Dutta babu act like this.

“Daughter-in-law… Ashok,” he said, moving his gaze from Ashok to Kakuli, “I have something to show you.”

He took out his phone from his kurta pocket and showed them a video on YouTube, captioned “Natihati’s Dancing Policeman.”

Ashok gasped.

“What did you do?” asked Kakuli, her eyes wide in disbelief.

“He danced yesterday,” said Dutta babu, his voice shaking with excitement. “And I got a call from the personal secretary of the home minister at eight in the morning. This video has been trending on social media. The home minister thinks we can use this to spin a new story cycle. It should distract the media for a few days from writing about corruption! We can even use you to promote businesses in our town.”

“What about my prom—”

“Oh, don’t worry about that!” said Dutta babu waving his right hand. “I’m working on it. It shouldn’t be a problem now that you’re a YouTube celebrity. Who knows? You may not even have to pay!”

Ashok felt his chest tingle. Could this be true? Would he get to keep his job and not pay a rupee in bribe? Dancing saved his job? That was incredible.

Dutta babu looked at his wristwatch. “You’ll be late for duty,” he said. “Now go. Direct traffic. And keep dancing.”

Ashok looked at Kakuli. Her eyes were still wide with disbelief.

Ashok tapped his feet to an imaginary beat. He was happy he would not have to worry about providing for his family.

“What are you waiting for?” asked Dutta babu.

Ashok touched Dutta babu’s feet and left.