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'Main bhagwan ki kasam sach kahoonga'
November 30, 2005
In 2000, this small tragedy. Wet night, man unconscious on the highway, scary drive to the hospital, people tell me I wasted my time, he dies without regaining consciousness, a young brother who breaks down, more people tell me I wasted my time.
I'm depressed for days.
Five years later, a phone call brings back those rough memories. My wasted time, in particular. The teenaged brother whose knees I saw buckling that night is a faint voice in my ear. He introduces himself, inexplicably, with: "I'm calling from Marol Pipeline."
There's an insurance case involving his brother, he says, and the judge has asked for me, as the only eyewitness to have made a statement, to appear in court. Will I come?
Five years, I think, and they're still fighting over the insurance? Then again, why am I surprised? "Of course I'll be there," I say.
The night before I am to appear, the phone rings again. "I'm calling from Marol Pipeline," he says. His lawyer has asked to see me at his office at nine the next morning, before going to the court. The lawyer, the brother explains, wants to "coach" me in what I should say. As we arrange a spot to meet, a small alarm buzzes in my mind. "Coach"?
I'm there at nine, and I find that he's not so slim and certainly not a teenager any more. But the lawyer does not arrive till 10:20, and even then we have to wait as he wafts agarbatti before various idols in his office.
Then he fires the questions at me.
"You're the witness?"
"What day did this happen?"
I think it was the fifth of...
"Thinking is not good enough! Why don't you remember?"
It has been five years, you know.
(Consulting his papers, among which is my statement from that night) "Yes, it was the fifth. What was the number of the taxi?"
I have no idea.
"What? You don't know the number?"
Look sir, it has been five years!
Finding the number in my statement) "Here. You had better learn it, because the judge will ask you. OK, what happened that night?"
From my rickshaw, I saw a man lying on the highway ...
"Didn't you see the accident?"
No, I did not. I arrived less than a minute later, but I did not see it happen.
"Then you won't be much help to this man. Look, can't you just say you saw it happening? That's all we need!"
No, I can't say that because I didn't see it.
(Long pause, he stares at me) "OK, we'll have to see what happens. I don't think you will be of any help. See you in the court."
The court is half an hour away, and our case is supposed to come up at 11. Walk to the station, line up for a ticket, take the train, walk some more -- I can hardly believe it, but we are actually there in time. The lawyer's assistant also briefs me, tests my knowledge of the taxi number, asks me again why I can't simply say I saw the accident happening.
Simple. I did not see it.
"OK," says the woman, looking dejected. "Be ready, because our case is going to come up right now."
I'm ready. But we sit for the next three hours. Just sit. The lawyer has another case in another courtroom, and we have to wait for him to finish his arguments there. I don't understand why, but this seems to mean a complete halt in our courtroom's proceedings. The judge reads something silently, a witness in another case leans her head against her daughter's and both are asleep, a few lawyers chat in desultory whispers, the fans try to stir up an end to the ennui. And I eventually pull out a book and read.
Within minutes, the woman-about-court -- a stocky middle-aged woman who has been ferrying case papers in great bunches from shelf to shelf around the room, with no apparent order to these moves -- this woman brushes angrily past me. "You can't read here!" she hisses from behind another bunch of papers.
Considering the judge himself is reading, this strikes me as unfair. But I close my book and resume waiting.
An hour later, fighting sleep and a rising irritation, and with absolutely nothing going on in the court, I pull out my book again. Within minutes again, I feel a tap on my shoulder. Someone points to the stocky woman, across the room, who mouths angry words at me. Oh yes, I'm not supposed to read.
The court breaks for lunch; still no sign of our lawyer, nor of our case that was to "come up right now." "It's always like this," the brother says. "We come, we spend the whole day, we don't know what's happening, and the judge announces another day."
I feel for him. With his older brother gone, he is now the only earning member in a household where there's his wife, their son, his widowed sister-in-law and her son (just a year old when her husband died that night), and most recently his younger brother, teenager come from their village in UP.
He earns at a job in a paint factory in the distant suburbs. He has to take leave each time there's a hearing in the case. He has had three different opportunities at a far more lucrative job abroad. Each time, he has had to turn it down because of appearances in this case. Naturally, he wants to see it through.
But for now, we have to break for lunch.
When I return after a quick bite from a nearby vada-pav stall, there's a good half-hour before the court resumes proceedings. For the third time, but now certain it must be OK because we are in the lunch recess, I pull out my book. The stocky woman is immediately at my side. "I've told you twice not to read," she says. "You're not allowed to read in court."
I see the futility in fighting this battle. Remembering the mother-daughter pair who have snored the morning away, I ask the woman: "So would it be OK if I slept?"
"That's fine," she says. Sleep, yes. Read, no.
She wanders off behind me to collect more files, and switches to Marathi to mutter to a colleague: "I told him nicely twice and he feels bad." I switch to Marathi too: "I didn't feel bad at all."
But things move much faster post-lunch. Our lawyer shows up, full of apologies. "I'm sorry you have to waste your time," is the first thing he says. Like in that hospital on that rainy night, I'm the only one who gets told this. Middle-class me. Nobody is sorry for the brother because his time is being wasted.
Soon after, the judge walks in. In minutes, I'm in the witness box. An attendant approaches and asks me to state my name and address, which I do. Then he says, in suddenly soft Hindi: "Main bhagwan ki kasam sach kahoonga." ("By God, I'll tell the truth").
And I thought it was me who had to swear that.
Our lawyer leads me through my account of what happened. He makes sure to ask me to rattle off the number of the taxi that he urged me to memorise; I am surprised that I can. In ten minutes, he's done. The opposing lawyer rises for the "cross", and I steel myself. After all, our lawyer has warned me several times that she will insist I'm lying, that I'm a fake witness, that I've been paid to turn up here. "Don't get angry," he said. "It's her job. Just stick to your story."
So I steel myself. The lady flips through her papers for a few seconds, the sleepy mother-daughter pair sit up in expectation, the dead man's brother signals quietly to me to stay calm, the lawyer watches his counterpart closely.
Then: "Did you see the accident happen?"
"No," I say.
"No more questions," she tells the judge.
I'm done. Another fifteen minutes for the two lawyers and the judge to decide between them that the next hearing will be in three weeks, and I'm free to go. I have no idea why it's going to be another three weeks, nor what will transpire then, but I'm free to go.
Beside me as we walk out, the brother says again: "It's always like this."
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