Indian courts in cinema have been gravely grand, their wood polished, uniforms starched, and the judge’s voice always resonant. A few days ago I wandered into a sessions court and wondered if the court scenes, like the film songs, were filmed in another country. A decrepit stairway led to the courtroom I had an interest in. It was stained red by betel juice, with paint chipping off walls that themselves were crumbling. A constable descended, his fingers intertwined with those of a slight man beside him – whose countenance was miserable. ‘But there are no handcuffs,’ I corrected myself, ‘so they could be friends.’ A few steps behind them a bald, chunky Nigerian followed, holding hands with the constables bracketing him.
The corridor on the second floor was a collection of bored accused, listless constables and smug lawyers. It was strangely chilling to realise that the accused had faith in justice. In many cases, my prejudiced eye had convicted most of them already. There was another discovery, and this brought a rush of panic: the courts branched off the corridor just as classrooms did in school; the colours were familiar, the smells were of the same musky academia. And the manner – how everything came back so suddenly, so quickly without warning! – the manner in which the judge faced the rest resembled countless colourless lessons. The real terrors that school held returned then to affect me in adulthood, and they had grown in ten years to adult proportions.
A bald lawyer with wispy red hair in Court No 4* represented a man accused of possessing 160 kilograms** of hashish. The end of his flaccid nose sloped downwards past his upper lip when he smiled, especially when the sneer followed a question to a nervous anti-narcotics officer. One such instance, when he smiled at me, I looked evasively to his feet and saw, beyond them, a large rock. In a room of straight lines, it stood out as a physical anomaly. For an instant I could see nothing, no judge, no court, but only the rock in violent hands, brought down repeatedly for dramatic effect. A nearby constable confirmed that it was indeed used to take a life. And then I noticed the other articles of evidence lying below the desk near the witness stand.
Bundles of clothes were stacked against the walls – further evidence? – and the ground was dusty. Rusty green filing cabinets stood between doors, and the windows above were opaque now but, one sensed, transparent and less foreboding years ago, when this building was new. And now, though it was known as the ‘new building’, its age was lost in wrinkles.
The courtroom could have been the corridor; whoever wished to observe the proceedings could do so, and could leave when they wished to. If they chose to stay, this is what they would have seen: every question, every answer, was followed by a long pause as the judge dictated words to a stenographer troubled by his accent; the narcotics officer clenched the railing of the witness box when the lawyer questioned his version of events; the lawyer did not know his client’s name, once correcting himself, “Mr. Pringle…Mr.Pingley…whatever his name is.”; and around me the accused sat hand in hand with the police as they waited for their version of justice. Here I felt as helpless as I have ever felt, more than death visiting because death was over in an instant while the court decided the turn lives took, and the courtroom, I realized, was a place not where the sharp distinction between guilt and innocence was found but where the lines blurred.
As the argument continued, a figure sat by me and shuffled closer. “Are you a reporter?” he asked. I said yes, to which he smiled but said nothing, sensing I was preoccupied. It struck me that the people here were not picnickers, so I asked him what he was doing here.
“I am here for murder,” he said with a warm smile. The smile did not soothe the raised hair on my neck or the tightening stomach knot. He used his hands – his free hands – descriptively as he spoke of exactly what the case was about. “This man, this judge,“ he said, “is an idiot. Look at him. He’s joking with the lawyer while we’re waiting for him.” He swept his arm across the bench where there sat a Nigerian, two men in salwar-khameez, and a slight man surrounded by three constables. He repeated this loudly, attracting attention to us momentarily, and I asked him to softly explain why the judge was an idiot.
His reasons were grudging for repeated bail applications had been rejected, and this time was no different. After he made his plea, the judge dismissed him with a wave, and his reaction was surprising. The accused turned to me, grinned through a beard and winked before he was led away, as if he had expected an outcome no different. I understood, but it was an understanding of a different kind. Between the creaky cabinets and unused clothes and open evidence, there didn't seem much space for justice.
*In my interest, the court number's identity has been protected.
**Also, the amount in kilos has been changed, though the actual amount is larger.