Aakriti took a deep breath, hoping that the man standing in front of her would hear it. She regretted it immediately; the smell of urine invaded her nose. A few months after she first started using the metro, Aakriti had noticed that the smell of urine will, at some point, sneak up on you every time you entered a metro station. It could be on the stairs, right outside the station or, as she was to find out today, in front of the customer service centre. Aakriti didn’t want to think about why this spot, which was almost always visible to people, smelled like a public toilet. Instead, she tried to burn a hole through the man’s neck with her eyes. She had been standing in line for fifteen minutes, and he was still arguing with the metro employee about the hike in fare prices. Aakriti sighed. Very audibly. But the man went on ranting about the government and its evil schemes.
Aakriti should have been home by now. But her boss, who was best friends with Satan, had made her stay past five. Thanks to him, she had got to the metro station at seven, bang in the middle of peak hours. Rajiv Chowk was crawling with people, and she had to take the accursed Yellow Line. She would have to spend the next thirty minutes of her life being mushed half to death by sweaty strangers. To add a cherry on the top of her urine-sweat-people cake, her metro card was empty. While people ran down the stairs, hurried through security, and rushed to the platforms to enter the air-conditioned coaches, Aakriti stood in line, sweat making her nylon shirt and stiff pants stick to her body. After what felt like an eternity (or two), the man standing in front of her went away, muttering under his breath, and Aakriti recharged her card.
Rajiv Chowk was like a modern day agnipariksha. It was as close to the Hunger Games as you could get in twenty first century Delhi. Kill or be killed. Get a seat or get squeezed to death.
Aakriti was at the top of the stairs when the train from Samaypur Badli pulled into the station. She could wait for the next one, which would come in five minutes, but she really wanted to get home. Like an action hero in a chase scene, she weaved her way down the stairs. She elbowed people out of her path to reach the front of the crowd, and as soon as the doors of the train opened, she went in—without waiting for the disembarking passengers to get off.
Inside the compartment, Aakriti spotted an empty seat to her left, but a woman with a child attached to her arm was already gunning for it. Aakriti managed to slide into the seat two seconds before her. The woman (who was wearing a yellow-gold suit as bright was the sun) glared at Aakriti, and staked her claim over a pole before anybody else could. The woman kept throwing dirty looks at her, but Aakriti didn’t care. There were no rules in the Hunger Games, no respect and no compassion. There were only winners and losers. And today, Aakriti was a winner.
All the running had made Aakriti thirsty. She took out a bottle of water from her bag. The woman in the yellow-gold sun-suit (who was still staring at Aakriti) pulled her son closer when Aakriti opened the bottle. The woman’s eyes flickered to a sign just above Aakriti’s head: DO NOT EAT OR DRINK IN THE METRO, it screamed in red. Aakriti rolled her eyes. Right, people weren’t supposed to eat or drink in the metro, just like they weren’t supposed to pee in public. She gulped down one delicious sip of water.
Suddenly, the train screeched to a stop. The standing population of the train stumbled. Aakriti looked around, alarmed. Sometimes the metro stopped in the middle of an underground passage and idled for a few minutes, but it always slowed to a halt. Today, however, the train had jerked to a stop.
A middle-aged policeman with a paunch elbowed his way into the compartment. He had a walkie-talkie in his hand. He squeezed his way through the sea of people to stand in front of Aakriti. His badge said ‘Jaggu Singh’.
He asked Aakriti, ‘Madam, did you drink water?’
The woman in the sun-suit jumped in, ‘Haan, haan. I saw her drink the water myself.’ She had pushed herself out of the crowd to see what was going on. Her hand had disappeared into the mass of people, hopefully still holding onto the child.
Jaggu Singh stared at Aakriti, who was feeling very uncomfortable; the entire compartment was looking at her, waiting for her answer.
‘Yes. Is that a problem?’
Jaggu Singh spoke in code to his walkie-talkie, and static gibberish came back. He put the walkie-talkie in its holder and took handcuffs out of his pocket.
‘Please put your hands forward. You are under arrest.’
‘What? Why?’ Aakriti asked, surprised, to say the least.
‘Madam, you were drinking water in the train. You know the law.’
‘Is this a joke?’
‘She thinks this is a joke,’ interjected the woman in the sun-suit. ‘She breaks the law and thinks it is a joke! I don’t think she is in her senses. Must be on something.’
‘I am not on anything. Why are you arresting me?’
‘Madam, you broke the law.’
The train, meanwhile, began to back into the station. Rajiv Chowk was packed with people. They looked agitated to see a too-full train come back. She saw a man almost scream with frustration. People had been forced to clear off from one section of the platform, where uniformed police officers stood waiting.
Aakriti raised an eyebrow at Jaggu Singh.
‘Madam, we don’t want to use any force-shorce. Come with us without any tamasha, and we will think about being easier on you.’
The doors opened on the left, and three policemen came into the compartment. One of them snatched the bottle from Aakriti, spilling water onto the passenger sitting next to her. Another policeman pulled her to her feet and handcuffed her. She was led out of the overstuffed compartment onto an overcrowded platform. Half the people gaped at Aakriti as she was led away by the police, while the other half tried to stuff itself into the too-full train with some vehemence.
• • •
The public (which mostly consisted of bored housewives, college kids, and older folk who didn’t have anything better to do) was out to enjoy the Thursday evening. They watched with considerable amusement as the five policemen, who had formed a circle around Aakriti, led her to the police station. Aakriti could see only snatches of her surroundings through the gaps in the circle. She saw a boy gaping at her posse, his hand frozen in front of his face, ice-cream dripping down the cone.
Aakriti wanted ice-cream, too.
The hawkers, who had started to bundle up their wares when they saw the police, stared at Aakriti. A dog trotted beside her little group for a while before turning away. They walked for fifteen minutes before they reached the station, to find a crowd of reporters jostling outside. Aakriti was wondering who they were waiting for, when a mike was thrust into her face.
‘Aakriti. Aakriti. Why did you drink water on the metro? Is this your way of denouncing the government? Are you planning a dharna? Will you be running for—’
‘Kya aap apni ghinauni harkat se sharminda hain? Yaa aap apne actions par garv karti hain? Aap kis political party ka hissa hain?’
Aakriti could see a reporter standing some way off, speaking to her invisible audience: ‘Aakriti Tandon has just been escorted to the Connaught Place Police Station by a retinue of police officers. In light of the announcement made by the government yesterday, her actions can be construed as a terrorist attack. Stay tuned to find out—’
‘Terrorist?! Did you just say terrorist? Where did you even get this idea from? Have you ever thought about hiring fact checkers?’
For a moment, all the reporters turned to stare at Aakriti, and then turned back to their cameras.
‘Aakriti Tandon, a public nuisance, claims that she has no connections to terrorists. But is she mentally deranged? This is your correspondent, Devika—’
‘There are new reports which suggest that Aakriti Tandon has a drinking problem. She is—’
Aakriti felt like hurling stones at the reporters, but the circle of police officers pushed her into the station, leaving the press loons outside. She was locked in a tiny cell that smelled like urine and mildew. She collapsed on the lumpy mattress in her cell, very confused about what was happening. Was the world going mad, or was she?
After an hour, Jaggu Singh escorted her to what she assumed was the interrogation room. It was a windowless room with a table in the middle and a lamp hanging over it. A woman in her mid-twenties was sitting on the table, tapping away on her phone. She wore combat boots, ripped jeans, and a Foo Fighters t-shirt with holes in it. Her dark hair was streaked grey, and she had a piercing through her lower lip. The woman hopped off the table and shook Aakriti’s hand.
‘Hi! I am Radhika Kapoor, your lawyer. Inspector Jaggu, I need to talk to my client, alone, before you interrogate her.’
Jaggu Singh grunted and left. Aakriti stared at her lawyer. Radhika looked like a punk rock princess from Mars.
‘Aakriti Tandon,’ Radhika began as soon as Jaggu Singh left. ‘I can’t believe I am actually meeting you! I begged your parents to let me be your lawyer because I wanted to see it happen.’
Radhika continued, ‘Now, you just have to sign the confession, and we’ll be done.’
‘You want me to sign the confession?’
‘Yeah. That’s the point, right?’
Aakriti stared at her ‘lawyer’. Her parents must have had some reason to hire Radhika. While Aakriti had no idea what that reason was, she decided to trust it. Radhika called Jaggu Singh back in. He made Aakriti move to the chair on the other side of the table (because the chair she was sitting on was more comfortable) and began the interrogation.
‘Aakriti Tandon, did you or did you not drink water in the metro?’
‘So, you admit your guilt.’
‘Will you sign a confession?’
Jaggu Singh produced the confession. It was a legal document which said that Aakriti had, in fact, consumed water on the metro. Radhika applauded when Aakriti signed it. Aakriti sighed for what felt like the millionth time that day.
‘So, Inspector Jaggu, do I have to pay a fine or—’
Jaggu Singh laughed.
'Your court hearing is in a few hours, madam. Ask the judge this question.’
Jaggu Singh left with the confession clutched close to his heart, leaving Aakriti very confused.
‘I am so proud of you, Aakriti, for doing this. It takes a lot of courage. I couldn’t have done it, but I am so happy that you did.’
‘What are you talking about?’
‘Well, you did just sign a document that could get you thirty years. You don’t have to be so modest about it.”
Aakriti froze. Her brain stopped thinking. It started screaming.
‘Yes. It’s a very long time. I haven’t even been alive for that long. I—’
‘I don’t want to be in prison for thirty years.’
Radhika’s face, which had been alight with the glow of revolution, fell.
‘“Why”? Did you just ask me “why”? Because I have so much to do. I am twenty-four! I don’t want to spend half my life in prison!’
‘Of course, you don’t. Silly me,’ Radhika said, after a lengthy pause. ‘You want to keep mobilising people. I get it. On the outside, you can give speeches, do rallies.’
Radhika leaned forward and took Aakriti’s hand into her own. ‘You want to change the world, and I will help you. We just need to get your sentence suspended. The hearing is at twelve tonight; that’s plenty of time.’
Radhika ran out, leaving Aakriti alone in the interrogation room. The light bulb started flickering. She was definitely going to prison.
• • •
After Radhika went away, Jaggu Singh deposited Aakriti back in her cell. The constable, who happened to be a nice woman, gave her chai, a Parle-G biscuit, and a newspaper. The newspaper made things a lot clearer. The night before, the government had released a list of activities that the public was banned from doing, effective immediately. The list included things like drinking water in public, wiping your nose in front of other people, playing Pokémon Go on Thursdays, taking selfies without filters, wearing a particular shade of pink, eating tacos, and running after seven in the evening. There was a general uproar against them, but it looked like Aakriti was the first person to publicly flout the restrictions. Now, she was going to be thrown in prison because she did not read the newspaper every day.
It was all very stupid.
Aakriti’s trial would happen at midnight in the Supreme Court because her case required urgent action. Inspector Jaggu Singh and four other police officers escorted her to court in a Gypsy. They would have arranged for one of the armoured jeeps, but they hadn’t had the time.
A huge crowd, divided into two factions, waited outside the Supreme Court. One faction had boards with her beaming face crossed out in red. The anti-Aakritis, as they liked to call themselves, chanted slogans against her. They called her an anti-national-terrorist-whore. The other faction, the pro-Aakritis, openly drank water, and wore a particularly neon shade of pink. When she came out from the Gypsy, the people clad in pink cheered for her, while the anti-Aakritis (who were wearing all black) chanted their slogans with even more fervour. Aakriti stared at the two groups. She felt like she should wave at them, maybe blow out a few kisses. But the police formed a circle around her and led her up the steps.
The courtroom was packed with people. Reporters were crowded at the back. Her parents were sitting right at the front with her brother, mama, mami, nana, nani, and almost the entire neighbourhood. As she passed them to sit with her lawyer, her mother whispered that she would be there for Aakriti, no matter what. Her father actually had tears of pride in his eyes.
Radhika was sitting at the table on the right, wearing her court uniform. She waved when she saw Aakriti.
‘Aakriti, you and I are going to change the world today.’
Aakriti highly doubted that. She took a notepad that was lying on the table and started dividing all her clothes amongst her friends. They would appreciate it.
A bleary-eyed judge entered the courtroom and everybody stood up. The prosecutor went first. He was a tall, thin man. When he spoke, he lay stress on every word as if his life depended on it.
‘Aakriti Tandon is a blight on the face of humanity. She is absolutely horrendous, a menace to society. In fact—’
‘Mr Manmeet,’ the judge interjected in a tired voice, ‘it is midnight. On most days I find your theatricality amusing. Today, I would prefer it if you could hurry this along.’
Mr Manmeet cleared his throat. ‘As I was saying, Aakriti Tandon has done despicable things. The defendant has signed a confession stating that she drank water on the metro, which is a federal offence under Section 9211.’
Applause broke out in the court. The judge banged his gavel. ‘Order in the court!’
Mr Manmeet resumed. ‘The punishment for drinking water in public is thirty years. But I don’t think that is enough. I say we should imprison Aakriti Tandon for life. I will call Srimati Sushmita Sharma to the witness box, to attest to the fact that Aakriti Tandon should be removed from the public sphere permanently.’
Sushmita Sharma turned out to be the woman in the sun-suit. Aakriti was positive that the judge blinked and looked away when he saw Srimati Sushmita Sharma. Sushmita Sharma swore on the Gita that she would say the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.
‘Srimati Ji, describe to us what you saw in the metro today.’
‘Ji, Sir Ji. I was just travelling in the metro with my young child. He is only one, and I was carrying him in my arms—’
Aakriti sighed. All this for a seat.
‘—then when she sat down after pushing me from the seat, she took out a bottle from her bag. She laughed, bilkul chudail ki tarah. Aur phir bas, she drank. I was almost sure it must be vodka or something. Girls like her are always drinking daru vagera, even in public. When the police came, she even threw the drink into somebody else’s face.’
‘Thank you, Srimati Sharma. The defendant was drinking alcohol, your honour! A passenger who was sitting next to her, who wishes to remain anonymous because he is terrified for his life, has actually signed an affidavit stating that she threw alcohol on his face. This woman’s character—’
Aakriti glared at the prosecutor. He had to make her out to be a drunkard. The newspapers would talk for days about how a woman with loose morals terrorised the entire nation. Her friends would stop talking to her, which wouldn’t be a problem because she was going to be in jail anyway. Her parents would be ostracised, and their pensions would be stopped. They would have to live on streets and beg for money—all because she stole a seat on the metro. There are no rules in the Hunger Games.
Suddenly, Radhika sprang out of her seat and banged her fist on the table.
‘I object, your honour,’ Radhika said, cutting off the prosecutor. ‘My client was not consuming alcohol. She was making a statement by drinking water. Drinking alcohol in public is not even punishable under Section 9211. Why would she drink that?’
Radhika sat down after saying her bit, looking quite happy with herself. Aakriti glared at Radhika. She thought about stabbing her with a pencil. If she was going to jail, she might as well go for an actual crime.
The judge was silent for a minute. ‘I will ignore, for now, the fact that Miss Kapoor has no idea how objections work. Mr Manmeet, you have proved that Miss Tandon was consuming alcohol, and Miss Kapoor, you insist that your client was drinking water. Are the two of you sure about which side you are representing?’ He shook his head as Manmeet began to say something. ‘Not tonight, Mr Manmeet. Miss Tandon, you will need to clear this up. What did you drink in the metro? Alcohol or water?’
Aakriti thought about it for a minute. She could say water. Her parents would be proud, Radhika would be ecstatic, the nation would acquire a new hero who stood up to tyranny, and she would end up in jail for thirty years. She could say alcohol. She would be deemed immoral; her parents would stop talking to her. Radhika might end up killing her. She would definitely be fired from her job, and she would never, ever get good rishtas.
‘Alcohol. It was alcohol. I was drinking vodka in the metro.’
The court was quiet for almost thirty seconds before it erupted into chaos. Radhika looked like Julius Caesar—after Brutus had stabbed him. The judge had to bang his gavel five times before the people settled down.
‘This is outrageous! Did the police conduct a thorough inquiry before filing this case under 9211?’ He looked pointedly at Jaggu Singh. ‘This is sheer incompetence. I hereby pronounce the defendant “not guilty” for drinking water in a public space.’
The opposition lawyer was thunderstruck. Srimati Sushmita Singh looked as if she had just dropped her baby into the ocean.
Aakriti felt relieved.
‘However, the defendant still needs to be punished. Drinking alcohol in the metro is a punishable offence under the Delhi Metro Railways Operation and Maintenance Act. I could pass this case to the municipal courts, but I don’t see the need to waste their time. The defendant will pay a fine of five hundred rupees. In addition to that, she will do six months of court mandated social service for wasting police resources, and the court’s time. Court adjourned.’
• • •
Aakriti had woken up the next morning feeling like a sack of rotten potatoes. Her parents had refused to let her into the house; she had slept in the garage.
The newspapers were filled with reports of clashes between the anti-Aakritis and pink-power (they had stopped calling themselves ‘pro-Aakritis’). Radhika had written a heart-breaking open letter about how Aakriti, her former hero, had dashed the nation’s hope. The article made it to the front page of most national dailies.
Aakriti, however, did not get a chance to read the article. She had spent the morning being fired, and the rest of the day doing court mandated social service—making sure that public washrooms all over the city were clean.