Book Extract: Of 'court' jesters & an elusive justice

'A satirical look into how Indian courts function, with all their eccentricities and the power games that are played,' wrote satirist Akash Banerjee of the book

Book Extract: Of 'court' jesters & an elusive justice

Sanjay Ghose

His grandfather claimed that Mughal blood ran through the family’s veins. Ali, as a little child, every evening snuggled in the lap of his grandfather, had been more eager to hear about the latest exploits of his favourite djinn at Feroz Shah Kotla than to actually care about this Mughal blood. Ali’s whole day was spent waiting for those moments after dinner and before ammi’s rude calls could bring him back from his dream world and usher him to sleep. Ali knew that Dadajaan was a lawyer. What did lawyers do? They fought with other lawyers in a place called court.

“Ali, do you want to be a lawyer when you grow up?”

His answer was always the same, “No, I want to be a professional djinn catcher.”

Kings, queens, battles, palace intrigues, nothing lifted little Ali’s spirits as much as the world of spirits. Whenever Dadajaan would try to recreate the tale of a scared old monarch trapped in an ancient fort, prisoner of his title, forced by his people to take up battle against a mighty foreign power only to face defeat and death of his beloved children, Ali would yawn and say, “Dadajaan, not this one. Djinns.”

Grandfather Khan had just sold off his share in the family haveli in Chandni Chowk and shifted south. Topping the proceeds with his savings from his decent practice, he had purchased a house in the upcoming tony Nizamuddin West. The shift from the narrow lanes of Old Delhi, drenched in history, to the expanse of South Delhi was more than just a change in geography. None felt it more than Khan Sahib. He had been born in those lanes. He had grown up with the sights, the sounds, and smells of Delhi 6, as Chandni Chowk was known by its postal code.

However, after his wife, Nagma’s death, he took the call to move. He was practicing from Patiala House which was at the heart of the Capital, one of the prime princely properties taken over by the State and converted into criminal courts. The royal ballroom, the banquet room, and even the swimming pool had been converted into court halls or into Chambers for Judges. Outside the beautiful building, ugly tin structures housing Chambers for lawyers had cropped up.

Khan Sahib had procured one such Chamber. He and Nagma had only one child. Ali’s father. Sadly, he was lost to poetry. He took Ghalib a little too seriously and actually believed that he had to reach the legendary poet’s level of intoxication to achieve his level of creativity. Khan Sahib knew that his goodfor-naught son could not be depended on for much. He was grateful that at least he had done his bit to continue the family line. So, the entire burden of the family was on Ali’s shoulders. Khan Sahib could not afford to go easy on him. He always held Nagma responsible for how things had come to pass. Always defending her son, perpetually finding some excuse, some justification. This had angered Khan Sahib to no end. Now that Nagma was gone, all that he was left with was regret.

Keshto was a veteran in service cases. On a good day, and especially if it was a Friday evening, he would let his hair down and give gyaan to his juniors who were a captive audience. “Junior” incidentally is a word now frowned upon in legal circles, much like spinster, actress, disabled and the like. The juniors may not have been successful in fighting the measly stipends they were paid by senior lawyers under the guise of following an ancient colonial tradition called devilling, they have managed to pariah the term “junior” for the politically kosher “associate” or “colleague”. I am guessing “comrade” would have a Soviet feel to it and hence is avoidable. Keshto would regale his juniors with stories.

One such story was about the fabled Chittaranjan Das. Once he had fallen asleep during arguments and when it was his turn to make submissions, his junior pulled on his robes to awaken him. Waking up with a start, he fired away argument after argument. After some time, his junior’s nudging really started to irritate him.

At one point, he barked back, “What the hell is it? Why are you disturbing me?”

“Sir, we are appearing for the defendant and you are making out the plaintiff’s case!”

Brushing him off and pretending he did not have this “side bar”, the great lawyer resumed his address to the Judge.

“Milord, I have summed up what the other side would have argued. Now let me demolish these point by point…”

Roopa Bose was one of her kind. One among several talented siblings, Roopa was always fearless and doggedly principled. She was her father’s darling. At least she thought so. When Roopa insisted that she be allowed to go to Cambridge University to study law, her father ignored the raised eyebrows of his senior, widowed sister and the matriarch of the house, Pishimoni. They were a zamindari in decline but Bose babu was hardly feudal. Money was not his weakness. Rabindra Sangeet—Tagore’s songs—were, and Roopa, with her beautiful voice, knew how to exploit this to the hilt. For instance, for the Cambridge nod she had reserved her father’s favourite—“Dariye Acho Tumi Amar Gaaner Opare!” (“You wait for me on the other side of this song!”)

Roopa’s favourite elder brother was quite a few years her senior and was an aspiring civil servant. In fact, she would help him prepare for the entrance tests, in exchange for her favourite snack, fuchkas, (dry semolina and flour shells with potato stuffing dunked in tamarind water and consumed by shoving the whole damn thing into the mouth) served on Calcutta streets, usually by Bihari vendors. She had to ask him the marked questions and check the answers, which were mastered by rote learning. Roopa had a phenomenal memory, she never understood the need for rote learning.

Like Annapurna, Roopa must have certainly been aware of how difficult it was in those early years for women to even dare to stand shoulder to shoulder with male lawyers in court. When she finally returned home from the British Isles, shattering Pishimoni’s prediction to her brother, “Your daughter will find a gora, an Englishman, and never return,” the family got busy trying to “permanently settle” Roopa.

You know what it is a euphemism for.

Roopa would have none of it. Why had she bothered to go so far away and acquire a degree? She had even become a barrister, perhaps one of the first of her gender in the court where she was hell bent on practicing! One Tagore song, this time another favourite, “Chirosokha” and Bose babu got busy trying to use his social connections to place his favourite in the care of a reputed yet dependable senior lawyer. The term, again like all things legal, which came from England to describe this, is “devilling”. This strange word, has for centuries, described an exploitative arrangement where, under the pretext of imparting legal skills, a raw, rookie lawyer would be bonded to work for free for a senior at the Bar. Well almost free. There was always that monthly fifty rupee coffee allowance. In those days, the task of finding a right Chamber for your young daughter to work in was a task, no less daunting than finding a matrimonial match.

Bose babu, after looking far and wide, narrowed in on three choices. One was Manu Roy, and the other two did not matter, as ultimately Roopa settled into Manu da’s Chamber. What Bose babu had not bargained for was that the tradition of Chamber romances was to be the most lasting of legal traditions. Cupid struck our Roopa and soon she was entangled with the highly intelligent and hardworking Kanu Ghose. Yes Kanu was the daak naam. In the years to come he would be known in the court by that name and also, not that he would mind, as Roopa’s husband.

(The extracts are reproduced with permission from Eastern Book Company. For ordering the book follow the links EBC Webstore: & Amazon:

(This was first published in National Herald on Sunday)

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