Sep 22, 2023
Sep 22, 2023
Workshop # 17
“The court is adjourned.”
Judge Eric withdrew into his chamber, exhausted and confused. It had been a puzzling case, demanding all his acumen and compounded experience of the years spent in courtrooms. Incoherent thoughts fluttered at the speed of a humming bird’s wings, adding to his bafflement. He sat there for a long time, eyes shut, trying not to think at all for a while.
He reached home around 7 p.m. that evening.
“Raghuram, pour me a drink in my study. And bring me a sandwich. I will not have supper tonight.”
“Yes, sir. I’ll get it up soon.” He went up to the study. This was one room, with its dim lights and heavy tomes that Raghu liked the least in the house. The study table was well lit, but the dark corner with the rocking chair, the judge’s grandfather’s armchair and other odd pieces of furniture always appeared eerie to him. He brought out a glass and bottle of whiskey. The clink of ice cubes as he put them in the glass was sweet music to his ears. He poured out a generous peg into the tall glass, took a furtive gulp from the bottle before returning it to the cabinet, wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and then scrambled down to the kitchen to get a huge sandwich ready. He knew exactly what his employer liked. He himself loved these moods of the judge. It meant an early evening off. He could take his wife out for a movie perhaps.
When he walked back into the study, the judge was standing at the window with the glass in his hand. His dark form hunched as he rested his hands on the sill. Is the cobra still in that thick growth of bamboo trees, he wondered as he looked at the dark silhouette. He made a mental note to talk to Raghuram about it. Later. Unobtrusively Raghuram put the plate of sandwich and a bowl of ketchup on a side table, cleared his throat and waited for the judge to turn around. A jug of freshly filled water and another glass was customarily kept on the table.
“Ah, yes, Raghuram. You may go now. Lucky fellow, make the most of the time you have.”
“Thank you sir. Good night sir.” Raghuram scampered away before the judge could say another word.
Eric turned a fatigued gaze on the files and papers on his desk as he plonked himself frumpily in the plush chair. A slow, cool sip of the iced whiskey burned its way down his throat. He held the cool, beaded glass to his forehead. Setting it down beside the plate of sandwich, he shut his eyes awhile.
A rustle from the dark corner made him jump almost out of his skin! Could it be the cobra? He looked in that direction, then back at his glass which still held most of the drink, back again towards the rocking chair. Rubbing his eyes he looked once more at the glass of whiskey in disbelief! Was he going crazy, was he more tired than he believed or were his eyes spooking him out? How long had he been asleep?
“Raghuram, is that you?’’ he croaked as the chair rocked slowly, softly, with an apparition in it. He could hardly recognize his own voice and knew it was foolish to think his servant had crept in on him and would actually be in that chair! The hair on his hands stood up, his nape tingled and an involuntary shudder crawled up his spine.
He could hear Raghuram’s voice from some distant day saying, “Sir, that corner scares me. Every time I expect that chair to start rocking suddenly.” Then, he had laughed; now, those words appeared ominous.
His query was greeted by melodious, tinkling laughter. Eric almost fell out of his chair and the beads that glistened only on his glass till now began to trickle down his brows. His throat went dry. He sat transfixed, eyes riveted upon that barely visible specter.
“Don’t be scared. Come closer and have a look at me.”
The lilting, captivating voice charmed all fear out of the judge as curiosity overtook him. He went towards that corner. A slender hand pointed to the arm chair. He sat still wondering who this beguiling visitor was and how she had come into the room. That it was a woman had become evident from her laughter, voice and graceful arm. The light was too poor to allow him to see anything in detail but she exuded elegance.
As he tried to focus in the dark his eyes fell on the low antique table between his chair and the rocking chair. The ebon statue of the lady of Justice always had it place of pride on it. It was not there now but before he could register that fact, he heard the voice again, “I am here in the rocking chair. Don’t look there for me.”
Now Eric was sure he had gone stark mad. He pinched his arm, pulled on his ear and struck his cheek. He heard her tinkling laughter as she sensed his quandary, “I am really here. Don’t feel so foolish and dismayed. I get tired of being a mute, blind statue day in day out while atrocities are committed by people who take justice in their own hands. I am not a puppet. Today I saw how baffled you are with the case and thought we would have a little heart to heart talk.”
“Are you going to tell me what judgment I should mete out?” Eric got back his voice.
“That would hardly be fair now, would it? My blindness isn’t really physical. It signifies impartiality. You don’t need to be told that. I cannot fulfill your duties. You know the law of karma, I guess.” She stopped to catch her breath.
“No, I just want to talk about things in general.” A short pause.
“You may bring your whiskey here and drink as I talk.” The merriment in her tone was unmistakable.
Still dazed, Eric stayed rooted, afraid that the vision might disappear just as suddenly as it had appeared and he wouldn’t get to hear her out. She laughed again but when she spoke her voice dripped sorrow.
“There are times when I am appalled by what goes on in my name…the cruelty, the bizarre punishments, unnecessary taking of life, endlessly protracted cases, arbitrary judgments…the list is inexhaustible! Take the Khap panchayats. Or the innumerable cases of rape where the onus of proof lies with the victim. Shouldn’t it be the defendant’s call too, to prove himself not guilty?”
With a sigh she sank further into the rocking chair, her robe swishing with the movement. A clock struck the hour somewhere in the dead silence of the night. The only other occasional sound was of the bamboos creaking against one another. Eric wished she would go on. He was probably the only one in history to receive this unbelievable honour from such an out of the world visitor!
“The scams and crimes of the powerful and rich are outrageously swept out of my courts in a torrent of money. The effrontery of the masqueraders in the departments of law and justice is abominable. Bribes and threats decide such cases! How many worldwide can I cite? And the societies that believe in ‘an eye for an eye’”?
“It isn’t always an eye for an eye. More often it is ‘you instead of I”!
Her voice, an auditory mosaic of anger, bafflement, grief, mortification, torment, frayed at the edge of her sentence. Eric sensed her gulp the lump in her throat. The pause here hung long and heavy, the silence sinister. The judge wanted to offer some sympathy, some consolation, some hope. She sounded so frail and hurt and helpless!
“Come now, Lady. It isn’t as bleak as you believe. Internationally, there have been men of great integrity and courage who have upheld justice at risk, even cost to their lives. There have been landmark judgments too. Take the more recent case. The resolution of the Babri Masjid/Ram Temple one here in India itself. It has…”
“Are you really so naïve as to believe that the case has been resolved? Are any of the parties involved satisfied with the solution given? Okay, I must give them credit. Dissatisfied as they are they have accepted it peacefully and still trust the judiciary.”
Eric chose to stay quiet. Ashamed and guilty, he was ruminating upon her words and her deep pain. Belonging as he did to the fraternity of law and justice, he felt he was as much to blame as anyone else for the humility and disgrace this Lady had been subjected to over centuries. He remembered the not too old case of some Andhra Pradesh judges, who had been exposed cheating in the LLM exams, using textbooks, guides and notes like irresponsible young school boys. It was a disgraceful incident and a blow to the majesty of law, not to talk of the backlash on the Indian judiciary by way of loss of public trust.
Did she just dab her eyes? He wasn’t quite sure.
Unaware of the deluge in his mind, she conceded, “It’s true, there are many today too who fight honest battles in my name. I value them; but it is a hard struggle for most, which it shouldn’t be.”
Daintily she picked up the blindfold from her lap and began to tie it around her eyes.
Was she leaving already? Eric hated the thought. He wanted her to stay and talk more.
“You know Eric, it isn’t always the crime or the criminal that goes under the gavel each time a judge bangs it down with the words ‘The case is closed.’ So often it is my name and honor.” Her voice choked in the tears she was trying to hold back. She swallowed, stretched forward to pick up her scales and sword from the table.
“Don’t go yet, please. Please lady. Tell me what I can do. Don’t leave so abruptly.”
“It is not for me to tell you. You have integrity. Continue to be a good example. Shape more such people around you. In all walks of life.”
“Can’t you stay a little longer? Give me some proof to show to the world of this visit. Who will believe me?” he entreated.
“What can you prove to disbelieving, pompous minds? Don’t even speak about it. You will have to find your own way to get my message across. Don’t wonder why I chose you. Just accept it.”
The silence between them seemed interminable as Eric desperately wished she would not leave.
“Look out the window Eric, it is almost dawn. Now I must go. Who knows, I might surprise you again.”
Acrid disappointment etched his face. He leaned back in the armchair, eyes shut, trying to come to terms with the fading night’s awesome event and speculating how he would be able to fulfill the responsibility she had entrusted him with.
A loud knock on the door made him bolt up. Two flies buzzing over his untouched sandwich couldn’t decide who was more alarmed - the judge or Raghuram on startling him in the armchair, cheeks wet, eyes distraught.
“Sir, are you okay? Are you crying? You haven’t even touched your food and drink!”
“Oh, don’t worry, I am fine Raghuram. Go get my bath and clothes ready for the day.” The judge dismissed him as he turned away to look at the empty, now steady rocking chair.
Baffled, Raghuram struck at the flies with his bare hand, cleared the side table and shuffled off mumbling to himself.
Eric went through all his morning chores like a zombie. Before leaving for the court he returned to his study, hoping to find some sign of the night’s encounter. If for nothing else, than to prove to himself that he hadn’t been dreaming nor had lost his sanity.
He glanced optimistically at the statue, now ever more sacrosanct to him. Was that a fleeting, conspiratorial smile on her enigmatic face?
More by : Shernaz Wadia