I suppose it was the tone of voice that brought back memories from 30 years ago or perhaps the look of surprise on his face when I thanked him. Either way, it was a lesson I should not have forgotten.
Recently as I passed through the security check at the Delhi airport I noticed that the demeanour of the police on duty has changed. Not only are they more presentable, they’re also more courteous. I was asked to open my hand luggage, a black suit crammed full of clothes. Not welcoming the thought, I pushed the case towards the CISF officer. My aim was to let him do it himself.
To my amazement, he did so with meticulous care; comprehensively, but considerately, with an obvious effort not to ruffle the clothes inside. When he finished, he neatly put things back, zipped carefully and, with a smile, returned the case. A valet at a five star hotel could not have done better.
“Thank you” I said, my voice clearly revealing my surprise. “You did that with incredible care.”
“Why shouldn’t I, Sir?” the officer replied. This time he sounded astounded. “I take care of my own clothes. Why shouldn’t I take care of yours?”
It was a simple, straightforward answer but I was dumbfounded. It was the last thing I expected to hear. One doesn’t think of policemen as people like oneself. But they are. That’s the point the CISF officer had gently underlined.
As I walked away I recalled a similar incident in London in 1985. Nisha and I had just bought our new home and were inordinately proud of it. We’d stretched ourselves to acquire it and decorated it with great care. So you can imagine my horror when one evening, long after dark, I noticed a wet patch on the carpet outside the upstairs bathroom. Opening the bathroom door I discovered part of the ceiling had caved in and a small torrent of water was pouring down.
Nisha suggested calling the fire brigade. It took them a minute to turn up. It took me 10 more to explain. But once I did, the firemen sprang to action. They soon realised the leak was from an upper floor bathroom. Since the occupant was out and his front door locked, one of them clambered up from our kitchen balcony. I had never seen anyone climb water pipes before and in the dark it was both impressive and frightening to watch.
Once the tap upstairs, which had been carelessly left running, was shut, the leak stopped. But the bathroom still looked a mess. The collapsed ceiling was all over the floor, the walls splattered with dust and the carpet drenched. To my amazement, the firemen now turned to this. With sure, practised movements, they cleared the mess, mopped the floor, dried the walls and stacked the collected rubbish into large black bags which they carried out with them.
“How can we thank you?” Nisha gushed.
“You don’t need to” the head fireman replied, smiling with obvious satisfaction. “Remember, we live in homes too and my wife would hate to see her bathroom leaking.”
This was the first time I realised firemen are human beings. One tends to think of them in a cold, detached, dehumanised way. Now I’ve discovered that’s also true of policemen. In fact, we’re probably similarly blinkered in hundreds of other cases. Only when intimacy has been established does understanding follow. In its absence, caricature or prejudice dominate.