pardon me, but, your honor…

The view from the courts, Bangalore

I had to accompany a lady to the criminal courts recently. She is close to me, and is the wronged party in an incident that happened twenty years ago. A man forged her signature on a document and took a bank loan on its strength and didn't pay back his fraudulent debt. The bank approached her and it was quickly established that they had been duped and the culprit's guilt in the matter was recorded and the lady put the man out of her mind and went on with her life and work and, last month, an officer from the COD knocked on her door and asked her to present herself as a witness in the courts. She is a self-assured lady, but she was shaken a little at having to remember the events of so long ago. I thought I should go with her, though she was her usual confident self when the day arrived for her to appear in court.

The man who committed the crime was alone—tall guy, in white salwaar and a yellow kameez with gold-colored bead-buttons. And brushed-back fair hair. His eyes were placid, always looking ahead, not seeming to see anything. He walked about, scuffing the concrete floor, taking support from a wooden cane, clutching tight its curved handle. He could have been a retired professor, a former civil servant, or a businessman who has transferred his business to inheritors. He could've been any kind of successful man, such was his demeanor, such was his carriage, such were the lines on his clean fair face. He became aware of my watching him after a long while, and thereafter our eyes met and turned every few minutes.

His crime is petty by today's standards. The loan he had deceitfully taken, and defaulted upon, was some six lac rupees. He seemed to have settled the account in his mind long ago, and appeared to be at peace with the sum of his past deeds. My fears were for the lady. What mischief might the defendent's lawyer spring on her, so as to free his client? Indeed, his questions were as frightening as they sounded foolish: "Madam, you would have been signing so many papers daily. Might be you signed this one different?" He asked the question while knowing the court already had a forensic report confirming the forgery!

But the lawyer needed something, anything, to make himself worthwhile for his client. "Madam (maydum), did you sign to help my client, because you had taken pity on him?" But maydum hadn't seen the man until after his crime.

The courtroom was small. The hon'ble judge was a lady with a strict air on a girl's face. She sat on a dais, there was a second chair next to her for a clerk to type into a computer. After a time she asked about me. "He is not necessary," she announced, and I had to leave the room and stand outside and watch the man and my lady from outside, where I stood resting my back on the parapet. My lady had received the old files from the COD, which she leafed through rapidly, and by now the old man was seated right next to her, casting casual glances at the papers in the times the lady halted from leafing to read what she had found. The man had no paper in hand, his lawyer had merged with other people in the courtroom, and the public prosecutor, my lady's support, was flitting between adjacent courts, fulfilling parallel tasks.

It was a busy court. Even as our issue was in session, a posse came clanging into the corridor, two men in chains bound to four men in khakhi. The men were unchained and the cops dropped the metal in a heap right by me. One of the men, a lean swarthy chap with inquiring eyes and restless limbs, lounged next to me. "What is your case?" I asked him after a while. "Letter of credit," he said, taken aback at being asked, at being spoken to at all. And the manner of his answer signaled loud and clear that he wanted no more questions. Letter of credit? I was just as astonished, because the man didn't even appear literate.

My lady emerged triumphant after an hour, and told me I could leave if I wished, because she would have to wait a while to sign the proceedings. All had gone well. She was laughing about the defendent's lawyer. "He says he will note that I signed the papers to favor the man's brother!" That brother was a senior civil servant at the time of the crime.

Today, for no reason but that I must be in touch with her, my wife and I will have dinner with the old lady. I am thinking about the man who has walked free for twenty years after his crime and will probably go to jail now. It is clear where the wrong lay then, but I am not at all sure if that wrong is still wrong after all the time that has passed, and if that frail old man should really go to prison now.