Short Stories

“Evidence” by Tarquin Hall – first published in BRUNCH

ILLUSTRATIONS RAHUL KRISHNAN

tmp9EB7-2Justice is blind. In India, it can also be stretched without limit. But could it possibly have a heart? Tarquin Hall asks the question in his very first short story, written exclusively for BQ

THE HANDWRITING WAS BARELY LEGIBLE, THE WORK of a harried, inattentive court clerk. And there were four punctures in the middle of the page – wounds left by staples driven through the lip of the envelope in which the summons had been delivered.

Opening the envelope without causing further damage to the pierced sheet of paper inside and deciphering its contents required specialised skills. Not his own: with every passing day the world was becoming more of a blur to L K Rahman, the cataracts gradually clouding his eyes like morning fog smudging out the sun. He turned instead to his wife for help. And she, having spent her working life as a secretary in a government ministry where surgical staple removal and the interpretation of inscrutable bureaucratic scrawl had been essential expertise, set about extracting the contents with the ingenuity of a crime laboratory technician.

Gradually, letters formed into words, words into sentences. And as the content of the summons became clear, it stirred fear in the heart of the old man. After four years, time enough to trust that the case had been forgotten, swept under the bench so to speak, the judge had summoned him. There was to be another hearing.

‘You are directed hereby to depose as a witness and ordered hereby also to produce the evidence kept in your care in the matter of case No. 1404379/GFH-3. Failure to appear with the aforementioned evidence will be regarded as a contempt of court, at which time a warrant will be issued for your arrest.’ The old man, not wanting to worry his wife, nor bear her chiding, made light of the missive. “Yes, yes not to worry, I’ve kept it quite safe.” He even managed a smile, adding: “It’s in the studio under lock and key.”

But nothing could have been further from the truth. He’d had no choice but to return ‘the evidence’ to London after his glasses had finally become redundant, after he’d been forced to retire. It must be scrap by now, an unwanted relic of the Analogue Age. Or perhaps gathering dust in some equipment storeroom. Either way, the thing was irretrievable.

L K Rahman sat with the summons lying crumpled on the dining table before him, his morning cup of chai untouched (a thick skin the colour of mud had formed on the surface), while his wife busied herself in the kitchen. Staring down at his wizened, arthritic hands, he admonished himself for having put himself and his family in such a predicament. His lamentation was not without a certain amount of self-pity. Had Allah not punished him enough? Had he not repented, asked for forgiveness?

He should have known that the accused could stall the case for only so long and prepared for this day. The system might be corrupt, utterly incompetent, but India had no statute of limitations. The prosecution service would never drop a case, not while it could still – technically – be tried. The file, long buried, had found its way to the top of the stack and now the court must be seen to be going through the motions.

L K Rahman likened the case to a djinn that had attached itself to him. But a djinn could be exorcised with comparative ease: all one required was the help of a capable hakim. Shaking off the court system was a different matter entirely. Even his death would not see an end to the matter. His wife and children would be hounded, ordered to produce the evidence. And when they failed to do so, they too, would be penalised. A case might well be brought against them – for theft.

He could think of only one antidote to this family curse: the death of the accused. But, alas, Pradeep Gupta was still young and healthy – a model of society it seemed, having assumed the running of his father’s business. He often appeared in the ‘city section’, the one with all the photographs of Page Three types at various functions – grinning, glasses in hand, glamorous wives on arms. Gupta must be in his forties by now. It had been, what, twenty years?

L K Rahman had been in his forties himself and doing well, a senior cameraman with a British broadcaster. The work was mostly easy: press conferences, pieces to camera, and the odd feature story on Bombay rat catchers. India was relatively quiet in those days. On Republic Day, the best the country could attract as a visiting head of state was the President of the Maldives.

It left him with plenty of time to help manage his elderly father’s studio in Connaught Place as well. And the business was prospering. More and more people were buying cameras (mostly smuggled in from Singapore) and the new automatic Kodak machine churned out beautiful, glossy prints at a rate of twenty per minute.

In those days, Delhi, too, felt a more sober place better suited to L K Rahman’s quiet temperament. It was still small, safe, parochial – like a village, went the old cliche. Certainly the last thing you expected when you stopped on Janpath to buy yourself a cigarette was for some buffoon to snatch your $50,000 professional video camera off the back seat of your car.

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But that is exactly what happened. At 8.35 on the evening of September 12,1991 to be exact. The paan-cigarette vendor witnessed the act – pointed and cried out: “Arrey!” L K Rahman turned and stared, not quite able to believe his eyes. He let out an almost hesitant, “Hey!” as the young man carried off his Betamax, and then, “Stop! Come back!” But the thief ignored him and climbed into a waiting car. There was someone else behind the wheel. The two of them could be heard laughing as they made their getaway.

L K Rahman didn’t bother giving chase; his old Premier Padmini wasn’t up to it. And he didn’t bother with the cops, either. They’d have shrugged, demanded a bribe to get up off their chairs. Instead, he drove straight to the house of his childhood friend, Billy, by then a senior columnist and associate editor on The Express. Billy picked up the phone and called his batchmate, the Commissioner of Police, at his residence and explained the situation. The Commissioner of Police in turn ordered the license plate to be traced and the thief to be apprehended “without delay.”

Two hours later, L K Rahman, now in the company of one Inspector Badhwar and a posse of disinterested jawans, found himself standing outside a posh address in Maharani Bagh belonging (according to the polished brass plaques on the gateposts) to ‘Guptas’. Beyond the gates stood a mansion; the getaway car was parked in the driveway next to a wide lawn.

One of the servants must have taken the vehicle, Inspector Badhwar concluded with confidence as he rang the bell. He’d arrest him and retrieve the stolen property. The Commissioner would be pleased.

The servant boy, however, was innocent and L K Rahman identified the thief from the framed photographs on the sideboard in the hallway: the family’s nineteen-year-old son, Pradeep. He was soon discovered in his bedroom, along with his accomplice. The two of them had been drinking desi sharaab and were barely able to stand, let alone articulate their own names (‘inebriated’ was the word the inspector would later use in his report). A cache of stolen property, all of it acquired during a citywide looting spree, was scattered across the floor, the Betamax video camera having been dumped in a corner. Pradeep grinned when he told everyone to keep their shirts on. It had all been a harmless dare, he insisted. No damage had been done. And, no, Pa and Ma were not around. They were in Rome. “What’s your problem anyway?”

Given the Guptas’ wealth (and therefore power), most officers on the force would have felt inclined to bring the matter to a swift and easy conclusion by simply returning the video camera to its rightful owner and issuing the boys a mild rebuke. But Badhwar was as conscientious as he was honest. Sir himself had assigned him to deal with the matter (that is before retiring for the night and making clear that he was not to be disturbed) and so Pradeep and his friend ended up cooling their heels overnight in the holding cell of the Maharani Bagh thana.

At nine o’clock the next morning, they were brought before the judge. The charges against the accomplice were dropped for lack of evidence, but Pradeep was charged and released on bail. And by then, Inspector Badhwar felt the full force of Sir’s wrath. The Chief Minister himself had called him from his residence. There had obviously been a mistake, he’d insisted: the two boys were from good families and could not possibly be involved in such activity. The charges were to be dropped immediately.

But it was too late. Not least for L K Rahman. By now, the Betamax had been tagged as evidence and placed in the police store. It was only a question of time before his boss, the British correspondent, would discover that the camera was missing and start asking awkward questions: like why had it been taken from the bureau on a Sunday when there’d been no news to cover?

Desperate, L K Rahman called another childhood friend, a lawyer, who petitioned the court to release the evidence. His Honour was sympathetic and agreed to do so on the understanding that it be produced once the case went to trial.

L K Rahman signed on the dotted line and wasted no time in returning the camera to the bureau before it was missed. He also removed the tape inside – the one he’d shot at his cousin Salim’s wedding – and vowed never to do any moonlighting again.

A week later, he received his first summons.

THE SCENE IN FRONT OF THE COURTHOUSE WAS depressingly familiar, even to L K Rahman’s failing eyes. The cramped, rickety desks where lawyers conducted their nefarious business still occupied the approach to the front entrance. Rupee-a-word typists sat hunched over archaic machines hammering away like pianists performing the Flight of the Bumblebee. Glasses stained with chai dregs clinked inside metal holders carried by tea boys. Everywhere, clerks, plaintiffs and yet more lawyers carried piles of bulging files back and forth. The reek of dust, of stagnation, hung in the air.

Even without the guiding elbow of his wife, the old man could have found his way to the courtroom. He knew them all. 17A was up a flight of stairs on the first floor, about half way down on the right past the stinking men’s WC. They found Amit waiting for them in the corridor. The son of L K Rahman’s lawyer friend, the one who’d sprang the camera from the police store all those years ago, he’d taken over his late father’s practise. He was bright and ambitious with a head for the system. On this occasion, however, he was unable to offer succour. His appeal for a stay on health grounds had been denied. His attempt to ‘lobby’ the clerk to revise the court diary had failed, also. The hearing was to go ahead. According to the schedule pasted on the wall to the right of the courtroom door, it was slotted for 10.40, ten minutes from now. In practice, that could mean hours.

“The camera’s inside, is it, Uncle-ji?” Amit asked L K Rahman.

The old man was carrying a sports bag, the one he’d bought yesterday afternoon in Lajpat Nagar market. It was about the size of a professional video camera. He nodded.

“Let me help you, Uncle-ji. Must be heavy.”

The young man reached down for the handle, but L K Rahman took a step backwards. “No, no beta, not to worry, I can manage.”

“Really, Uncle-ji. There’s no need.”

The old man clutched the bag to his breast like the last lifejacket on a sinking ship. “Think I’m so frail!” he snapped. “I’ve been carrying a camera since I was sixteen!”

The lawyer emitted a skittish chuckle. “Sorry Uncle, no harm intended,” he said, making light of it. But the old man’s wife could see his feelings were hurt. She placed a hand on Amit’s forearm. “Don’t take it personally, beta,” she said in a quiet voice as her husband went and occupied a vacant wooden bench opposite the courtroom door. “Some tension is there.” She joined her husband, leaving Amit standing on the other side of the corridor, busying himself with his client’s file. A few people assembled in the space between them – the cast of the next case due to be heard. L K Rahman, squinting through the thick lenses of his glasses, thought he recognised one of them: a stocky middle-aged man, hands fidgeting in pockets, ear bent towards the susurration coming from his lawyer’s lips. Wasn’t he the one caught up in a property dispute with his younger brother, he wondered? They’d sat and chatted on this very bench some five or six years ago. Yes, there was the younger brother now, standing over there by the bucket of fire sand that served as an ash-tray-cum-spittoon, keeping his distance. How grey he’d turned.

tmp9EB7-4Suddenly the courtroom door slammed open, releasing a flash flood of barristers, witnesses, court reporters and a young

man with bruises on his face. He wore handcuffs.

A jawan led him by the arm.

“Court calls Sharma and Sharma!” cried a clerk with a clipboard. The warring brothers’ two camps (their numbers had swollen in the past few minutes with wives and relatives) filed in like nervous children being summoned to a headmaster’s study.

The door closed behind them. The corridor seemed suddenly quiet, the flush of a toilet audible from inside the men’s WC. And then came the sound of heels clipping rhythmically on the stone floor and Pradeep Gupta, the accused, strode confidently into view. His lawyer was a step behind.

The two checked the court schedule on the wall, surveyed L K Rahman and his bag, and consulted like lovers on a surreptitious affair.

Their affections, however, proved to be greater for their Blackberries. Both men appeared to be inseparable from them, serenading the devices as they wandered up and down the corridor, their trails as random as those of fruit flies.

IF ONLY THEIR LIVES WERE AS SHORT, L K RAHMAN reflected. And then another, familiar figure began to take shape from the blurred periphery of his vision. The old man stared, anxious to know if this was indeed Inspector Badhwar and to see how well the past four years had treated him. He was in his late sixties by now. Had he retained his faculties? Was his eyesight as sharp as it had once been? Upon the answers to these questions hung everything.

The sight of a cane and an unmistakable stoop raised L K Rahman’s hopes. The clunky plastic device lodged in his right ear spoke, also, of promise. But no sooner had he greeted Rahman, asking after his son by name and greeting Amit as well, than he sat down on the bench and began to read the newspaper without the aid of glasses.

L K Rahman felt all hope slip away. He would be spending the night in Tihar jail while Pradeep Gupta slept comfortably in fresh sheets.

Another twenty minutes passed before the courtroom door slammed open once again, disgorging the Sharma brothers and company. The clerk then called the names of all those who had been summoned for case No. 1404379/GFH-3.

L K Rahman’s heart was pounding as he made his way slowly, his wife by his side, inside the court. It was one of the smaller ones, not much bigger than a large living room, with the bench along the far end, a couple of desks arranged in front, and five or six rows of chairs positioned behind them. The old man sat right at the back, keeping his head down and praying that the judge wouldn’t notice him or the bag he carried.

He was, of course, a new judge, and the sixth or seventh to preside over the case The youngest of the lot, he seemed extremely impatient.

“Approach!”

Pradeep Gupta took his place in the dock (a small pen with a wooden gate) while his lawyer argued for a dismissal on the grounds that the prosecutor was no longer in possession of the arrest report, termites having found their way into the archive and eaten their fill. The prosecutor, however, urged the judge to dismiss the motion on the grounds that the arresting officer was present. Although now retired, Inspector Badhwar had served as an

officer of distinction, having held the post of Deputy Commissioner of Police prior to his retirement (the faux pas over Pradeep Gupta’s arrest having not done his career long term damage).

“It is your testimony that you discovered the accused in possession of the said stolen property?” his Honour asked the former police-wallah with a civility that, until then, none in the court would have guessed he possessed.

“It is.”

“And you would recognise the evidence in question?”

“I would.”

The judge ordered the evidence to be produced. The court clerk in turn called for L K Rahman to approach the bench with the video camera.

Amit, his young lawyer, helped him to his feet, making no effort this time to assist him with the bag, and they covered the short distance to the front of the court.

“State your name for the record.”

The old man’s voice quivered as he did so. Amit had to repeat it for him.

“You’ve the evidence with you?” asked the judge, peering over the top of his glasses.

By way of an answer, L K Rahman held up the bag. “Well, take it out!” bawled the judge, his impatience offering no concession to the witness’s age.

The old man was trembling now. He barely found the strength to lift the bag up onto the prosecutor’s desk. As he fumbled with the zipper, the judge let out a loud tut, gesturing for the clerk to intercede. But before the minion could do so, the old man managed to get the bag open. A lens poked out from between the flaps. “See it’s inside,” murmured L K Rahman, hoping that would be enough. But it was not.

“Clerk, remove the evidence at once!” bellowed the judge.

L K Rahman had to stand aside as the minion reached into the bag. He pulled out the object inside and placed it on the prosecutor’s desk. It was a bizarre looking thing, a jugaad video camera cobbled together from various bits of old broken equipment he’d found lying around the studio. The 210 mm Nikon lens had belonged to a stills camera, yet was now affixed with electrical tape to a broken Super VHS body. A Sony battery designed for a hand-held camcorder was fixed to the back, while the microphone had been cannibalised from an old Kodak Super 8.

Pradeep Gupta immediately recognised the Frankenstein creation for what it was. With mocking triumph, he blurted out, “Your Honour, that’s clearly but a gesture from his lawyer stopped him short. One more word and he would have sunk himself. “Sorry, my mistake, Your Honour,” he added quickly.

All eyes then turned on Inspector Badhwar who in turn was staring at the video camera, forehead corrugated.

“Is this the stolen property you retrieved from the address of the accused on the night of September 13,1991?” came the judge’s voice. Badhwar stepped forward to take a closer look. He leant on his cane as he inspected the creation. Then he looked up at L K Rahman, questioning with his gaze. The old man pleaded with his eyes.

“Yes, this is the video camera, Your Honour,” Badhwar stated, still looking at Rahman.

“Let the record show that the arresting officer has identified the evidence,” said the judge.

L K Rahman was dismissed. He made his way back to his seat, stopping only briefly to lay a hand on the Inspector’s right shoulder.

The rest of the proceedings lasted less than five minutes. The defence successfully exploited the absence of a key witness, the cigarette stand wallah who’d seen Pradeep Gupta take the Betamax from the car. He’d failed to respond to today’s summons. The judge announced that under the circumstances, he had no choice but to grant an adjournment. He called upon the clerk to find a date for the next hearing. The court’s diary was trawled and a vacant slot found seven months hence. “The case will be re-convened at that time,” pronounced the judge. The defendant was excused and the evidence was placed back in the bag and returned to its owner. But not before L K Rahman was reminded that he would be required to produce it again at the next hearing.