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Ordeal for Indian professor in US jail

August 19, 2009 03:22 IST

The detention of actor Shah Rukh Khan in the United States may have raised a storm in India, but the arrest of Ravi Shankar, associate professor of English and poet-in-residence at Central Connecticut State University, has received little or no coverage in Indian media.

Though it happened a month earlier in New York City, the arrest, detention and the actions of the court have raised many questions. Shankar is now consulting attorneys in the case for the legal steps.

The doctor tells the story in his own words.

The arrest of Harvard University Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. in Cambridge, Mass., fuelled a debate over the quicksand of race and law enforcement. To me, the racially fraught encounter of a professor with the police is all too familiar; it returns me with a shudder to the weekend of July 10, which I spent in a Manhattan jail.

My ordeal began with a party at a Chelsea gallery for the arts journal that I edit. Brilliant performances led to a boisterous dinner and then it was out to my car for the drive home to Connecticut with my wife and daughter. Turning onto Sixth Avenue from 34th Street, I found myself assailed by flashing red and blue. An amplified voice commanded me to pull over.

The officer approached, flashlight fixed in my face, and ordered me onto the sidewalk. "Is there a problem?" I asked. Three other cops surrounded me. I started to explain what I was doing in the city  -- a poet returning from a literary event.  The lead cop shouted, "Just do what I say!"

And so I obediently did the field-sobriety dance: touched nose with pinky and stood on one foot, tightrope-walked the crack in the sidewalk, blew into the Breathalyzer.

The officer conferred with his partners, then approached with a grin, hand extended as if to shake mine. "Good news," he said, "you passed the Breathalyzer." Then, with perfect comic timing: "The bad news is, there's a warrant out for your arrest." The extended hand reached for my wrist, twisting it behind my back.

Arrest? For what? The officers spun into motion. The backdoor of the police van slid open, a hand pushed my head down and shoved me in. The officer turned to his partner. "Always a good day when you can bag a sand nigger."

Streaks of streetlight receded into the distance through the slats of the police van's window, a rough jostle over potholes, my hands in the cuffs tightly immobilized behind me. At the 14th Precinct station my wallet was emptied, my shoelaces and belt taken and I was placed in a holding cell.

I hadn't been read my rights or granted a phone call. After an hour the officer returned -- but only to take me for a mug shot and digital fingerprinting. Eventually he showed me my arrest warrant. It was for a 5-foot-10, 140-pound white male. I happen to be a 6-foot-2, 200-pound, Indian man. I pointed out the discrepancy. "Tell it to the judge," he said.

There was also an unpaid speeding ticket, four years old, from Westchester County. They weren't going to hold me for that, were they? Apparently they were. Cuffed, chain-gang fashion, to a line of other prisoners, I was marched past the front desk, where officers serenaded us with a sarcastic chorus of "Here Comes the Bride." We were driven to Central Booking, photographed and searched once more — spread-eagled against the wall — and divided up into three large cells.

My cellmates in 1A included a Polish bartender with a pierced chin, accused of an assault he didn't remember committing, a street peddler from Senegal and a rowdy Dominican who laughed uproariously at his story of being busted for cooking meth. Time passed fitfully. Occasionally someone spoke to me.

"Yo, India," an athletic Puerto Rican man with a blackened tooth nodded, "What you in here for?" When I told him, he laughed. I had gotten caught in a city sweep, he said. "It's like a competition. First precinct to one hundred collars wins." It didn't matter who or why.

I dozed off again. Morning came. Fifty guys were already upstairs, waiting to be arraigned. Our group might be called after lunch.

Lines of Samuel Beckett floated to me in shards: We wait. We are bored. In an instant all will vanish and we'll be alone once more, in the midst of nothingness.

As the day trickled by, rage gave way to resignation, then despondency. Late in the afternoon, the first three people from our cell were called. Every two hours, an officer summoned another batch. Then, it was 10 p.m., court closed. Three of us remained.

"Sorry boys," the officer called out. "Better luck tomorrow.

"On Sunday morning, my name was called and I was allowed to contact my family and speak to a public defender.

More than 30 hours had passed since my arrest. After a certain point, waiting becomes a form of brutality, a gratuitous torment. I was exhausted. My body ached, and I could smell myself, a bitter odor seeping from under my collar.

At noon, I was called to the judge. She stared down at me as the public defender reviewed my charge, noting that the warrant was for a 5-foot-10 white male.

"Yes," she said, "he's clearly not white. Dismiss that." She then did a double take on my file. "Why does this man have a public defender?"

"Well," said my lawyer, "in the process of expediency ..."

She interrupted. "He can come back and talk to me when he has an attorney."

The gavel dropped, the bailiff barked and I retreated in a daze. Arrested on Friday, I'd been just another "sand nigger," an easy catch in the night's sport. Arraigned on Sunday, I was now a professor, presumably wealthy enough to hire a lawyer. The irony was just one in a long weekend of indignities. The old speeding ticket would have to be answered. But that was for another day. Right now, all I wanted was out.

The article was earlier published in Cool Justice and Hartford Courant.