Delhi is peppered with small parks — 18,000 of them, if The Hindu’s dubious figures are to be believed. Most of them are small community parks, where any open space is claimed by boys playing cricket and any secluded bench is occupied by young couples trying to escape Delhi’s incessantly prying eyes. But a few are big enough to appear as bright green splotches on the maps of Delhi that hang obligatorily in every expat’s living room. One of those is the Jahanpanah City Forest, adjacent to GK II.
In our time in Delhi, Jenny and I yearned for fresh air and open spaces. But despite the fact that Jahanpanah City Forest had both, we never returned to its 800 acres of scrub forest and meandering paths — not after the experience we had there on Jenny’s very first day in India, when I’d been in the country all of a week.
Only rookies like us would have entered the forest at all, seeing as it was a scorching August Saturday with the sun almost directly overhead, ensuring the trees alongside the path were unable to shade us. We each felt the sweat drip down our backs and refused to admit that this had been a mistake, that maybe we should have waited until the evening to go hike. It didn’t improve things that we had no water, and it further didn’t improve things when we got a little lost, and any hope for the improvement of things became a forgone impossibility when the policeman appeared on his motorcycle and began to blackmail us.
“Park closed! Park closed!” he repeated menacingly, miming to us that he didn’t speak English but somehow finding words to explain that we had to get on his bike so he could take in to pay a 30,000 rupee fine for being in the park during closing time. Or, you know, we could pay him 5,000 rupees right then and there.
Panicking and terrified (I read Shantaram; there’s no way I’m going to Indian jail!), I called my landlord and asked him to speak to the cop. After a discussion, the phone was returned and my landlord apologized on behalf of his country. “This man is only trying to extort a bribe. I suggest you give him nothing.”
As our understanding of the situation finally clarified, and we started shuffling our feet and edging away, the policeman’s demeanor changed. His glowering was replaced by pleading. “Gift for policeman!” he begged, blocking our way, his eyes tearing up.
I was unsure about the consequences of ignoring him. I worried that not bribing a policeman might be an arrestable offense. And I was totally ignorant of the going rate for a bribe. So I opened my wallet and tentatively handed him 400 rupees.
Suddenly his English seemed to get better. “Please, ma’am,” he asked Jenny as the money disappeared into his pocket. “I beg of you. Double that!” She shook her head warily.
And then his demeanor changed again. He grinned broadly, gave first Jenny and then I a tremendous handshake, and pointed us down the proper path to return to GK II. He watched us to make sure we took the correct fork in the road, and waved happily as we walked down the path towards home. I deeply regret not taking his picture; I’m sure he would have eagerly posed with us.