CASING THE SCENE AT THE BOMBAY HIGH COURT
The Bombay High Court is the highest court in the state, hearing criminal and civil appeals as well as civil cases in original jurisdiction. Courtrooms are open to the public; photography and audio recording are prohibited on the premises.
Bombay High Court, Fort, Mumbai 400 032
When a cop arrests your movement outside the Bombay High Court, you immediately fear that all those years of underage drinking have finally caught up with you. But – libertas! – he isn’t hauling me in to trial, he’s simply detaining me from obstructing the Justices, who zoom in through the Judges’ Entrance in sedan after white sedan. Another cop prowls the lawns behind the railings with a revolver, daring someone to do something stupid. Under the portico, white-liveried, red-turbaned bearers wait as their Lordships emerge from their carriages, hand over their briefcases and proceed to their chambers before court.
I expected a silent temple of justice; I found a buzzing airport. Electronic screens display the names of judges, the courtroom over which they will preside, and the number of the case they are currently hearing. As I wait for the elevator, a jocular senior lawyer chitchats with a former client and loudly mentions the name of a junior who just ‘happens’ to be standing in front of him. The embarrassed junior whirls around and greets him, which he acknowledges with a chuckle, then tells me a story:
“Many years ago, I was running late for my case on the third floor. Only one elevator was working, so I took the stairs. Now, you can see that my weight makes it difficult; I got to the first floor and paused for breath, got to the second floor and was panting. By the time I got to the third floor, all the damn lifts had started working!”
And just like that, I am at ease.
Before I know it, the courtroom is full, and there are people standing and blocking my view of the judge’s clerk listening to last-minute pleas, shaking his head, and rifling through his papers with the smug air of one indispensable to both judge and advocates. Lawyers swathed in black robes and white collars discuss everything but their cases; when a small white cat crawls in, they argue about how to evict the unauthorised feline personnel.
I expected a silent temple of justice; I found a buzzing airport.
On the dot at 11 o’clock, the Judge ascends to his seat from a private entrance. Everyone shoots to their feet, then whispers break out again. The Judge takes no note of this, but never have I seen a man more in control of an entire room.
I will spare you the details of each case, but suffice it to say that the Judge is as compassionate as he is severe, as witty as he is stern. Rarely does he allow anyone to complete an overlong sentence; staring over his glasses, he interrupts by asking an incisive question that cuts to the heart of the matter and terminates a well-rehearsed monologue. When a whiny lawyer pleads with him to accept her petition by repeating ad nauseum that she “went all the way to Nashik to get my client’s signature, My Lord,” he shoots back: “I don’t care if you went to Timbuktu, madam! For the 20th time, no.” When a defendant’s lawyer stares persistently at the Judge while making numerous requests to the plaintiff’s counsel, the Judge interjects: “Don’t look at me, look at him when you appeal to him!”
“I would, Your Honour,” comes the reply, “but I am too frightened of my colleague’s appearance!” Titters everywhere.
A case about an illegally occupied flat is heavily peppered with an acronym I assume is the name of a corporation; 20 minutes pass before I realise “HUF” stands for Hindu Undivided Family. I cannot resist smiling every time the Judge mentions a punctuation mark while dictating a judgement: “The arbitrator was comma to my very great dismay comma an advocate of this court comma against whom…”
Lawyers swathed in black robes and white collars discuss everything but their cases
Victorious lawyers leave the courtroom with barely suppressed grins. The one sitting beside me plays Minesweeper on his phone. Two Marathi-speaking women ask each other, “What the hell is going on?” A bored, somnolent intern sitting with his back to the judge’s dais blears at me with hungover eyes. I’m pleased to observe that the lawyers are uniformly courteous to all the non-lawyers in the room, often giving up their seats to senior citizens.
When the judge channels Hamlet by declaring that, “there is something rotten in the state of our commercial litigation”, I want to break into applause. When he discovers that the opposing parties are actually a father-in-law and son-in-law trying to defraud the court, he asks the latter’s lawyer if his client is present. When the lawyer expresses doubt, the Judge says he’s certain the man is the corridor outside. And he is. I am in awe.
Attending court is not unlike attending a performance of devised theatre. The set is spectacular, the protagonist and antagonist have places on either side of the stage, the storyline is unpredictable, and the dialogue is crisp, overlapping, but clearly enunciated.
But all eyes are on the director, who is sitting at centre-stage. Even the actors don’t how the story will end; only he does. Bound by a canon more hallowed than stagecraft, he masterfully guides each performance to its culmination. And after the last words are uttered, we realise that for some of the audience, the director’s directions are binding on the story of their lives.