There’s a word in Bengali, mejaj. It’s one of those words that’s annoyingly difficult to translate. In English, depending upon how it’s being used, it could mean ‘mood’ or ‘arrogance’ or a bunch of other things. The French word ‘fier’ is perhaps a little closer. Mejaj is a tangle of pride, temper, rebelliousness and shrewishness. While mejaj is good in small doses, it isn’t good for either men or women to have too much of it. Of course, it’s much worse to be a woman with mejaj. Men can still carry such traits. Women become daunting, which is why in films, the mejaji women are usually reduced to caricatures of characters. They’re military-general-like characters who bark orders, are usually lonely, constantly fuming and destined to be brought down a peg or two. Even when they manage to command some admiration, it’s mixed with a certain contempt or snark. Because having mejaj means you’re the shrew that must be tamed.
Someone recently described me as one with an immense amount of mejaj, or bhishon mejaj. They casually tossed it into conversation, as though it’s obvious, saying that if they were going to get into a fight, they’d make sure I was on their team. I was rather taken aback. Mejaj? Me? Really? Because as far as I can tell, I’m the last person you want in a fight. Unless it’s a contest of who can keep their mouths shut longest or (conversely) say the most inane thing, I can’t see myself winning.
Mejaj — minus the sneering curl — is the word for the lady cop who has of late been at the Turner Road-Linking Road signal in the morning. Cap, sunglasses, crisp khaki uniform and an awe-inspiring ability to yell at anyone even nudging the traffic rules, let alone breaking them. The first day, I noticed her because she started blasting an autorickshaw driver for having edged past the traffic signal before the light turned green. “Can’t you see? Are you blind or are you stupid? What the hell are you doing, moving, when it’s a red light? Useless!” It wasn’t a warning as much as an explosion. After about a minute, she tossed one last “Useless!” at the driver and then strode off in the opposite direction, to yell at someone else.
Now that was mejaj and it was beautiful to watch the expressions on the (male) drivers faces. My auto rickshaw driver whispered, “She’s crazy!” but carefully made sure he was in the right lane and behind the line. I grinned. The lady cop had moved on to someone else whom she didn’t just yell at, but she yanked their driving license out of their hand. The rider wasn’t wearing a helmet. “You think the roads are the place to be macho?” she asked him. “I’ll show you macho.” I’ve no idea what she showed him, but I’m pretty certain that at least for a couple of weeks, that man is going to wear his helmet. Especially if he’s crossing the Turner Road-Linking Road signal.
I, on the other hand, am the precise opposite of Ms. Lady Cop because my first instinct is not to charge, but to apologise. This is because I’m usually convinced that I’m in the wrong and while I’d love to call this the effect of patriarchy’s cruel brainwashing, the fact is this conviction comes from having been in the wrong more times than I’ve been in the right. See below for example.
Three policemen have been stationed near the office because there have been a few cases of chain snatching. The neighbourhood shopkeepers tell me that there is indeed less petty crime since the cops showed up, which is excellent news. Contrary to the horror stories you usually hear about the police, I’ve usually found the ones in Mumbai to be helpful rather than problematic and it sounded like the ones who had been posted near my office were the good guys.
So, the other day, I got out one afternoon to buy myself a cigarette. I lit it at the cornershop where I’d bought it and then started walking back. That was when one of the policemen approached me.
Police: Excuse me, ma’am, you’re not allowed to smoke.
Me: Excuse me?
Police: The cigarette. Please throw it.
Me: You’re saying I can’t smoke a cigarette on the streets.
Police: No ma’am. It’s not allowed.
Me: It’s against the law?
Police: Yes, it’s against the law. You can’t smoke on the street or on the pavement.
Me: So where can I smoke?
Police: In your office, maybe. Is this your first time in Mumbai?
Me: What? No. I live here.
Police: How long?
Me: Nine years.
Police: You’re from India?
Me: Of course I’m from India.
Police: Please throw the cigarette away. I don’t like it.
Me: So where do I throw this? [showing barely-smoked cigarette] I’m quite certain there are laws against littering.
Police: You can throw on the road. It’s ok.
[I tear off the burning bit of the cigarette and litter, keeping the unsmoked part of the cigarette in my hand.]
Police: Thank you. See, I don’t like women who smoke.
Police: All this women drinking and smoking, I don’t like.
Me: You don’t like women smoking?
Police: No, I don’t like.
Me: I love women who smoke and drink.
Police: But that is you. You cannot because it is the law. But also, I don’t like it so I requested you to not smoke. It’s not nice.
Me: That’s your opinion.
Police: No, it’s the law. You can’t smoke.
This entire conversation took place on the road, with me holding a torn cigarette in my hand and the cop and I wreathed in determinedly polite smiles as we talked. There was another policeman who I think told my policeman to let it go. But my dude was having none of it. It was entirely polite. Every word was absolutely courteous. It was also intensely adversarial.
He kept saying he doesn’t like women smoking and drinking. I kept replying that it was his opinion and mine was that I totally deserve a post-lunch cigarette. I’m not sure how exactly we ended it, but it involved a lot of smiling and me walking away. Because I was in the wrong. The law in Mumbai is actually against me. I remembered this late, while smiling and arguing with the cop. (Later checked with a colleague and she confirmed it: Two years ago, laws were passed banning smoking in public places. At the time, the police were quite thorough about stopping people — men and women — but most had lost interest in it a long time ago. “You’ve got yourself a protector,” my colleague said. “Yay.”)
Walking back to the office, I tried to figure out what the hell had happened. Had I just been harassed? Was that sexism or a needlessly dilligent policemen? Why on earth did he ask me if I was Indian? What difference would that make? Had no one else (read: a man) been smoking? I was in the wrong, but why had I been the one to be caught? He hadn’t left it at a warning. He’d made me do what he wanted, which was stop smoking. I’d let him make me drop my cigarette, just because he doesn’t like women who don’t smoke and drink. I didn’t even know his name.
I went back, past the policeman, back to the cornershop and bought myself another cigarette. I didn’t light it but I held it between my fingers. Then I walked back, determined to get a look at the name tag on his chest. When I passed him, I smiled at him. He also smiled at me, and gave a pointed look at the cigarette in my hand. I smiled wider and leaned towards his chest. “By the way, could I see your name tag?” I asked, suddenly very aware of how much bigger than me this man was. He had a uniform and muscles. I wondered if he was a Salman Khan fan. He leaned towards me to show me his name tag: Vilas Phagwade. He was still smiling, wide.
The other policeman muttered something to him just then. Vilas Phagwade asked me, “Can I ask something? Where do you work?”
“I don’t see how that’s any business of yours,” I replied, stretching my smile to its widest. He was about to say something else, but I thanked him and walked off.
What I probably should have done during those conversations is yelled like the lady cop (I’ve been waiting for years to call someone “useless”). Instead I smiled and smiled some more. I didn’t raise my voice. I did lose my cigarette. When asking Vilas Phagwade his name, I panicked at the idea that he might think I’m hitting on him. Finally, I walked back, that smile still plastered on my face, holding on to the memory of his name, the slight nervousness in his smile when he asked where I work, and the fragile satisfaction that I’d had the last word, not him. That, ladies and gentlemen, is not mejaj. That’s as tame as it gets.
But it was a few days after this incident that I was described as one with mejaj. I wish I had actually done something to earn that label. Except, of course, I haven’t. I’m as conforming-to-norm a human being as you can find. I am proof that you can smoke, drink and have a tattoo and yet be entirely conventional. When faced with a misogynist cop, all I can do at that moment is smile. A colleague had once told me, “It’s great how when you say it, the rudest things actually become polite and acceptable.” Ok then.
In other news, I wanted to punch the bejesus out of my uterus this month thanks to the world’s most painful set of cramps, which is why Sirius Black has taken a bit of a detour. She’ll be back on track tomorrow, when I put up the next part (hopefully).