“Ridiculous! Couldn’t you find a better case? Why? Is all well with this place? What’s wrong with her? Why did you put her in the dock?”
“It’s a suicide case, Sir. Last Sunday…on the beach rocks…when she attempted to end her life…damn her…. She took breath out of our lives, Sir, …She drove us to our wits’ end.”
“She? Attempted suicide? What?”
A crow-nest weighed down by the countless crimes hatched over there…a fertile womb of sins…a house inhabited by spirits, a place that smacks of hooch and reverberates with the awkward sneers of street lumpens… a lake where ashramite cranes cant… a box where lies come to fruition…and a second gallows for the innocent and hapless… that’s what a court is!
Society will always be on its guard, and doubly so, when it comes tête-à-tête with wild and untamed shrews. It put up bars around and incarcerates. But what stood behind the railings of the dock of the right Hon’ble ’s court was an eerie, shadow-like accused that was hardly visible.
She was not an un-tamable shrew, an impish M.P. or a Sophia Loren. Neither was she a society lady nor a lady student. She was just an old woman -- just ’a’ woman --- a nameless nonentity, glamourless, forsaken and uncared for.
She was not a resident of a rosy, mosaic bungalow abetting the sea sands nor her abode was a sea-blue villa. It could just be a sty on the verge of any city drain or a hut amidst a ‘smuggling square’ abounding in adultery and deceit.
Her hair never had the touch of any shampoo, cream or pomade. It was totally dried up and matted.
Her skin never basked in bathing salts or washing lotions. It resembled the scum on the surface of boiling cane-juice. She donned no derelon sari or decoron blouse. In fact she had no blouse on, exposing her sagging breasts dried-up to the bones of hunger. What she had on was not a rich diaphanous cloth, but a coarse forty-count rag of a cloth standing like a shame on her honour and barely able to conceal it.
She had no beetles flapping their wings on her eyes, nor were her eyes goldfish. They evoked or invoked no other passions but pain and insult. They were worn out globules… worthless stones…mere glass beads.
Life was shuttling in and out of her body with every breath. But it seemed clinging on to her eyelids somehow. Beaten to pulp by life, bearing the brunt of old age and hardly able to stand on her legs, she had a cadaverous look. And when she spoke, it was as if the rattling of a skeleton was heard than her speaking.
Hers was not an isolated or a singular case. In this land of ‘jamboo’, the Indian sub-continent, and particularly India, it is a common spectacle (spectre) wherever you go. She was an emaciated, helpless, destitute old woman struggling desperately to wriggle out of that dock when the society scorned at her in anger.
“This Oldie? It is surprising to hear she attempted to end her life,” he remarked loudly, what he thought within himself, caressing his shining balding head in disbelief. He was not young but the shades of youth were rather lazily receding from his face. One could easily guess looking at him that baldness had set in rather prematurely. He resembled a smooth, round, and plumpy toy gobbling up coins. Hiding his face in his palms, he lost himself in thoughts briefly. He appeared a very passionate familial man seasoned by the ebbs and tides of life.
“What is it? This old woman and your complaint against her? It is all silly nonsense. I’ll dismiss this case.’ He roared at the police in anger.
The Head Constable froze in fear. Drawing his right foot across to the left, stamping it on the floor with a thud, and saluting with his shivering right hand, he said, “What is it that we can reply if you say so, Sir? But, god damn her, don’t count on how she looks like Sir, my god, you don’t believe it, she danced like an Arab horse on three legs on the seashore. We had to sweat out to take hold of her.”
“Is it? I never heard of any old horses dancing on their legs. Rascals!” he blew hot on the police and turning towards the old woman, asked gently, ‘look at me oldie, the police allege that you attempted a suicide. Is it true?’
“I am not able to understand what you ask me about, Sir. I am an old hag,” she replied.
‘What I mean is that on last Sunday… at the beach rocks…they say you tried to end your life by falling into the sea. What do you say?’
“What the Head has said is true, your grace! I tried it on my own. Nobody forced me.”
‘Then you admit that the allegation is true?’
“Yes, my child.”
‘What made you to take this extreme step, oldie? Don’t you know it is a crime to try to end one’s life?’
“Crime? What crime? Strange, indeed! What did I attempt to do? Any theft? Adultery? Harming anybody in any way? When living had become such a burden, I just wanted to put an end to it. And you call it a crime? Tell me, Sir, what’s wrong with me?”
‘Oldie! It is a crime to try to end one’s life and you committed that serious offence.’
“What else is left for me? That was the only option I had,” she said, with a heavy sigh.
“The man who took my hand was in his grave long ago. And as for the son if you ask, his wife drugged him and eloped with a worthless fellow. Can you call her a daughter-in-law? Devil take her! She is a slut. A bitch. I am outliving, like a raven, all my near and dear seeing them all die before my very eyes. Enough! I can’t drag this life any longer, Sir. And what should I live for? And what do I have to live on? My vision has already failed me. Age has hunched my back. Of late I have developed some serious problem in my abdomen and the pain is so excruciating and unbearable. It is sapping all my energy left. Tell me, my child, how long can the neighbors help me? And in this great city, what door is open to me for shelter? Why should I live, after all? Already half-dead with starvation, seized by disease, becoming a burden to one and all and forsaken by god, what does my life worth? What do you expect me, my child, other than ending it? Instead of dying of hunger every second, I thought I should better be relieved of all my suffering, once for all, by plunging into the sea. But you say it is a crime. Why? Are the poor forbidden from ending their lives? Is there any loss to this world if I die? On the contrary, it will be ridden of some of its burden. When I was desperate to live, they starved me and when I decided to end it, they dragged me here calling it a crime. Strange are the ways of these people. What did I do to deserve this harassment? Under the circumstances what do you want me to do? Die? Or, not to die?” Shaking with emotion and wailing heart-rendingly, she looked up to the Magistrate folding her arms above her head in prayer. She narrated her suffering with grief, pain, anger, and envy and breathing heavily of exhaustion, she sunk over the railing of the dock.
Like the Christ nailed on to the cross, the Magistrate leaned back into his chair. Her story lay heavily on his shoulders like a cross. For a while he lost himself in thought. When he opened his eyes he saw the Public Prosecutor passing by. He shot a sally at him, rather suddenly, asking “for truth, what was her crime?”
The Public Prosecutor answered matter-of-factly, “attempting suicide.”
‘Silly,” said the Magistrate.
“Inhuman. Barbarous,’ added an old vakil going through his brief and awaiting his turn.
“Why so?” Public Prosecutor expressed his surprise, turning back and standing near the horseshoe bar.
“Don’t be so surprised? Law can’t lay hands on people who succeed in committed suicide. Which means suicide is not a crime. Only attempting it is. When the attempt was successful you can do nothing. IPC is silent about it. But, if for any reason the attempt failed midway through, and the subject survived, you damn him alleging he committed a serious offence. Doesn’t it look silly to punish one’s failing? Isn’t it funny that man’s failure is victory to jurisprudence?” The Magistrate bursted with a boisterous guffaw.
“I beg your pardon, Your Honor,” the old vakil stood up hesitantly, adjusting his Zari headgear and sagging old gown, looking up to the chair for permission.
“Please proceed. It will be interesting to hear the interpretation of law from a senior vakil like you,” the Magistrate said nodding his head in assent.
“Did the oldie really commit a crime?” He initiated the debate.
“What’s it called otherwise? Isn’t it a crime to try to take away one’s life?” retorted the Public Prosecutor.
“If somebody wants to end his life, after all it is his will. So long as it does not take away someone else’s life, why should you bother about it? Why should the govt. bother about it?”
“Why not? In the beginning this crime has religious overtones. God has created man using all his skill and commended him to live. It is a crime upon Him to disobey throwing his edict to winds. Society can never put up with such sacrilege and hence, cognized it as a punishable offence. And the government installed by such society, by corollary, started punishing people for doing such an offence.”
“There you are! You say ours is a secular state and in a social set up where the very mention of His name rings alarm bells, don’t you think it is funny to punish people alleging they committed a sacrilege? Doesn’t the social institution we live in stand in stark contrast to the type of constitution we have adopted?” taking a dig at the Public Prosecutor, the old vakil feigned a mischievous cough.
The Public Prosecutor, who never expected that the argument would take such a turn, was taken aback, but soon recovered to answer, “Well, what I mentioned was how the crime was being perceived initially. With the decline of the hold or sway of the religious heads over their followers, society started treating it as a social crime. Society needs every individual. And so long as life lingers on, one should serve to better the society he lives in. The perception of the society is that human life is valuable. It cannot tolerate any attempt on it from any quarter. That is why society treated it a cognizable offence” diverting the tone and tenor of the arguments.
“Say so, Mr. Public Prosecutor! Life is charming even to a tiny little creature like a sparrow. So long as it can muster few grains for food, it longs to fly under the shade of this azure sky, in the serene ambient verdure world for long. Tell me, who wouldn’t love to live if one could? Did you imagine why the same world, which looked so lovely, a veritable heaven, a Brindavan, or a Nandan Van to the sparrow, seemed quite a hell to the oldie? You can’t, perhaps, argue that she attempted to end her life knowing that ‘this world is a myth and family life is a gutter. It is sooner the better to get out of this bodily entanglement’. For, she is neither a philosopher nor a theosopher. She is after all a destitute, desperate to survive. Hunger, thirst, disease, hardships, pleasures, compassion, jealousy and hatred must have besieged her just as they did you and me. But never did we entertain the idea of committing suicide where as she did. Why? Did you spare a little thought as to why? “To have a companion is a blessing in adversity,” is what Cervantes said. For a person lost in the bouts of grief, a word of sympathy is Manna. When empathy, a helping hand, is not to be seen around, life becomes an unbearable encumbrance. And that’s exactly what she was deprived of. An urge to live is biological. It is connate with life itself. The desire to end life shoots up sometime later. You say the life of this old woman is invaluable to the society and issue a dictate that she should not end her life. Good. But when society cannot help support her life, what right has it got to forbid her from getting relieved of her burden? When she was reeling under stomachache, did the society douse her pain with an ounce of medicine? When she was starving of hunger, did any govt. help her with a glug of gruel? With nothing to feed on, to take shelter under, and no word of sympathy coming forth from any quarter, and instead, being looked down upon in this world, how could she live? And what for? Why at all? Do you have insurances, Sir, for the disabled in your society? Homes, Sir, for the poor? Pensions, Sir, for the aged and destitute? On what ground can the society call her attempt an offence, Sir? Why, has the society had all rights but no duties? Creating such a horrible environment around, isn’t it inhuman to commend her not to die? Isn’t it monstrous?” argued the old vakil most animatedly.
Unable to stand the heat of arguments and the counter arguments, the old woman fell unconscious in the dock.
“My learned friend has dwelt extensively upon ethics. But, for sure, he knows it himself that according to law it’s an offence to attempt suicide. He is only trying to highlight the lacuna in the Law,” said the Public Prosecutor nonchalantly.
“God and righteousness have lost their color and sound in the language these days. Whatsoever be the science, or justice, it should never stand in the way of humaneness. It should never reduce to inhumanity. The British who authored our Penal Code have long stopped treating suicide an offence and dropped it from their list of offences. I can’t suppose that the honorable Public Prosecutor is unaware of this,” smiled the old vakil brushing his bushy moustache.
‘I see. How can it be a crime in India when it is not so in Britain? Are people different? Their thoughts different? Can justice be different to different people and different nationalities? That is why somebody called law an ass,’ commented the Magistrate with an air of sarcasm.
“True. True. If the people who govern it are a little bit wiser, they can ward off the kicks of its hind legs,’ repartee’d the Public Prosecutor.
“Don’t worry. All of us try to govern it, for that matter. Forget about it for the present, but say why it hasn’t been abolished in our country as yet?” solicited the Magistrate, with the feeling of hurt palpable at the repartee.
“Because, there is value for human life in this country, still,” replied the Public Prosecutor.
“Oh! Oh! What a value! What a value to human life! If some one were to die of starvation, ‘die if you should. But die a natural death. Die a prolonged death but never try to end it prematurely,’ is what your government says to him. Isn’t it? There is a great merit in this argument,’ the Magistrate hurled another sally derisively.
“Since Your Honor raised an issue of Jurisprudence, I ventured to present my opinion. I am not presenting the case on behalf of the government. I only tried to put forth the basic tenets of Jurisprudence before you, Sir. I have nothing to do with this case.” The Public Prosecutor left the scene.
‘But, I have,’ asserted the Magistrate turning suddenly serious.
‘On what count can I punish this old woman? If I sentence her, this seventy plus oldie will suffer hell in jail. She loses all her freedom of movement. She will have to lead the life of a corpse amidst jail walls. She will have to attend to all menial chores in the homes of jail officials. She has to toil hard. Freedom is man’s only boon. She will be deprived of even that. Won’t it be inhuman on my part to sentence and put her in jail? Society holds no sympathy for her, or the governments. But then, if I acquit her, who will take care of her? Who will feed her? Call her to a shade? Which hut will provide her shelter? Who will attend on her when she wriggles with pain? The only medicine available for the poor in this country is the holy waters of the river Ganges; and the only doctor is God! Should I throw this old destitute, staring at her grave, back into the same pitiless society? Into the world that spurns her? Leave her to the care of elements? And what if she makes another bid, unable to put up with her life? Then the same cycle of police, courts, jail! My goodness! It is inhuman to set her free in such a society. God! What a dilemma I am beset with! Damn it! What did I say? God? Who is this God? In a secular state, He is a fish out of water. A criminal abandoned by society. And a criminal commends no respect in any court of law. Should I, then, send her to jail? Or, set her free? My God! That is the question. Oh! There He is again. Like a pricking conscience, He surfaces again and again. Hasn’t all this trouble arisen because of Him? With umpteen blemishes and incongruencies, why should He create this world at all? Why should He confer life and put us to every conceivable hardship? There is a serious flaw in the scheme of His creation. Somebody said that God is a great poet and His creation, a work of art. It’s nonsense. His poetry boomeranged and alienated people away from him. In my opinion, creation, God, justice, righteousness etc., etc., is all rubbish. Let us forget about our opinions for the present and dispose off this case. According to law, the old woman did commit an offence and she admitted that on her own. So the issue should be settled as per the provisions of law. OK. That can be done in no time. Let us pronounce her guilty but acquit her,’ the Magistrate, riven by the dilemma, went into a long soliloquy before pronouncing, at last,
‘You oldie! I am convinced that you are guilty of the alleged offence. But taking cognizance of your being a woman, and a very old woman at that, and your past record, I acquit you. Here I give a letter to the Destitute Home with instructions to admit you there. You can go, oldie, I acquit you. You are free to go.’
There was no response from the old woman holding the bars of the dock.
‘Oldie, you can go. I set you free,’ he repeated.
The court peon walked up to her and callously tried to lift her up, saying contemptuously, 'get up! Get up! Seated cozily in the dock,’ and tried to drag her out. Leaving the hold of her bars, she collapsed to the floor.
The Head Constable who was standing near by rushed up to her.
“Damn it! Sir, she kicked the bucket!” he declared.
“Ah!” it was Magistrate’s turn to get surprised.
‘Oh! We tried her on the charge of attempting suicide? We killed her. What do you call it? A murder or a suicide? My God! My God! I am a criminal. A murderer. A murderer,’ he ran, deranged and bitten by conscience, into his chambers wailing, laughing, drying his eyes and muffling up his face with the loosely hanging gown.
The body of the old woman was lying in state in the court’s premises under the shade of a tree. She no longer felt the Sun or shade. There’s neither honor nor dishonor. There were no pangs of hunger or thirst anymore. Society is no longer interested in her. Justice, righteousness, crime, punishment, courts, societies, and governments can no longer exercise their power over her. She had passed their realm.
So long as she was alive, she was a problem to the society.
And after her death, she is a nightmare!
Telugu Original: Sri M. Rama Koti published in Andhra Prabha weekly (17-7-1968). Translated by: NS Murty & RS Krishna Moorthy (late)
Twenty years after the publication of this story by Sri Rama Koti, a renowned lawyer at Visakhapatnam, the prime issue raised and discussed by him in this story, whether the right to life is of the citizen or of the state, has come up for hearing in legal terms, first in the Bombay High Court in the famous SRIPATI DUBAL Vs State of Maharashtra (1987 Criminal Law Journal page 743) which upheld that the right to life conferred by Article 21 of the constitution includes the right to end it (the same as the one held by the author); and later in the Andhra Pradesh High Court in the famous CHENNA JAGADEESH Vs State of Andhra Pradesh (1988 Criminal Law Journal page 549) which held that the individual has no right to end his life. And finally, in the famous GIAN KAUR Vs State of Punjab, The Supreme Court upheld the view of the AP High Court declaring that the right to life under Article 21 does not include the right to extinguish it.