Hearings like the one this morning tend to take me back to a phase in my childhood. When I was eight years old, I was forbidden from visiting the corner sweet shop alone. I had to be with an adult. This wasn’t because my parents thought I was too little to go on my own. And it wasn’t because the sweet shop vendor, Satyam ji, was a bad man. He was tall from where I stood – since his shop was at a slight elevation from the footpath – and I could hardly ever see his eyes behind the glare of his spectacles. He was fastidious – clean-shaven and eternally in a crisp white singlet. His brass weighing scale was always by his side, spotless and perfectly balanced when not in use. And his discipline reflected in his demeanour – unlike his products, he was not saccharine and joyful, but objective. Or at least, that’s what my father used to say. I was eight, and did not bother to understand what this meant. In any case, it was not because of him that I couldn’t visit the shop alone.
I couldn’t visit the shop alone because I had developed a reputation for stealing from it. It was a bit of a complicated situation, and one that afforded me much distress. You see, I would usually visit the sweet shop with my cousin Montu, who was three years my senior. My meagre allowance afforded me only one or two pieces of sweets every visit, but Montu would always come away with four or five. I presumed it was because he was older, and so he got more pocket money. As the smallest in the family, I had come to accept my fate as the person who was taken the least seriously. It was only a matter of time before I grew up and attained the same privileges as Montu, or the adults.
Eventually, Satyam ji started to remark to his customers that someone had been taking more sweets than they were paying for. He trusted his adult customers, so it had to be a child. Besides, only the smallest people could get away with these things, since they were so often out of the tall vendor’s direct line of sight. And so, every child who regularly visited the shop became a suspect in Satyam ji’s tiny drama. But I was hardly concerned. My record was clean. I saved my allowance every week and bought only as much as I could afford. I was not stealing.
Then, one afternoon as we waited outside the shop for Satyam ji to measure out our goodies, Montu climbed up and whispered something in his ear. Satyam ji solemnly raised his head until he was looking directly at me. Standing behind his slanting weighing scale, he held the stare for a few tense moments. His eyes were hidden by the glare on his spectacles, and so I didn’t know what he was feeling. But it couldn’t have been good, because he proceeded to bang our sweets onto the counter and demand the money with uncharacteristic aggression. When I asked Montu what he had said, he refused to tell me. I decided to focus on my sweets instead.
That night, my father was twenty minutes late coming home from work. Satyam ji had stopped him on his way and complained that I had been stealing from his shop. Now he glared down at me in disappointment. I, of course, was enraged, and screamed and shouted around the house that I was innocent. No one believed me. My father insisted that “Satyam ji wouldn’t blame you for no reason. He is an objective man”. Again, I had no idea what this meant. In fact, I didn’t know what was going on at all, but no one cared.
I was later informed that at Satyam ji’s behest I had not to visit the sweet shop unsupervised, “until you’ve learned some honesty”. I was filled with spite. “I hardly go alone anyway and I am honest!” I screamed. “Ask Montu, he always comes wit–.” Something clicked. “It was Montu! Montu whispered something in Satyam ji’s ear today, and suddenly he seemed very cross with me! He must have told him!”
My father confirmed this. “And he was right to tell on you, or else you might have gone on to cause a lot more trouble for us.” I insisted that Montu had lied, but no one believed me. He was older and supposedly more responsible, and I was not to pick a fight with him over this. He had done the right thing, and that must have been very hard for him. Later, as I tossed about in my bed, with the weight of the world’s injustices stuffed into my blanket, I wondered why any brother of mine would play such a cruel prank on me. Then, I had another epiphany. Maybe he was the one stealing the sweets! He always had more than I did, and likely needed to shift the blame before someone caught him!
I took the matter straight to Montu the next day. I told myself that if I confronted him bravely enough, he would understand and confess. I was telling the truth, and no one who tells the truth ever loses in the end. Yet, Montu had nothing to offer but feigned indignation. “I get more allowance than you, that’s why I can buy more sweets,” he said with his arms crossed. His mother later confirmed this. Of course, while Montu received a bigger allowance than I did, he rarely saved it all for visits to the sweet shop. And whatever he was left with after having splurged on cheap toys, bets, and other food from the market, was not enough for four or five sweets. But I would only realize this years later. For the time being, I was guilty, and that was that.
The allegation never truly left me. The news spread over the next few days, and I would often catch my neighbours joking about it, or my friends’ mothers putting themselves on high alert when I was around. I overheard my teachers talking about how even the seemingly innocent ones can cause a lot of trouble. My faith in truth and righteousness, constructed carefully by bedside retellings of fairy tales and old myths, was being challenged, and I was not ready. A revolting sense of shame started to take hold of me. It would only get worse when I tried to remind myself that I was not guilty. It was this shame that compelled me to hang my head every time I had to walk by the sweet shop. I could not stand to look at Satyam ji, his shining spectacles, or his tilted weighing scale. It was a dreadful time, and the only thing that carried me through it was the promise of age. I couldn’t wait to grow up and leave these complications behind.
Now, I have grown up; but not much else seems to have changed. This morning’s case was against a 75-year-old accused, under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, of inciting violence at a peaceful protest. Snippets from the case remain with me. The defence argued that her only crime was being present at a movement she was passionate about, one that stood for peace and justice: “She is innocent, Your Honour!”
The prosecution was not moved. “Your Honour, the accused’s actions may seem innocuous at first glance, but we must not be deceived. This is sedition, and it is all part of a larger conspiracy…” Then, of course, an elaborate conspiracy was outlined, implicating the accused in a variety of treacherous activities.
The defence was aggravated now. It is hard not to be – these things have a way of threatening one’s faith in truth. “There is no concrete evidence linking the accused to any conspiracy. The prosecution’s case is built entirely on hearsay. If anything larger is at play here, Your Honour, it is that the people in power know there is a lot wrong with the country’s current state, and they are incapable of facing these issues head-on. So they accuse the innocent as per their convenience, and shift the blame before someone can point any fingers at them!”
“And does the defence have the evidence to prove any of these claims?”
I see no need to go on, for it is a case we have become all too familiar with: guilt and innocence could not be more obviously spelled out, but the hearings and accusations continue, sucking the life out of the citizenry. And though I am yet to see how this case will end, a familiar childhood despondence is settling over me. “The accused wouldn’t be blamed for no reason, Your Honour,” the prosecution claimed at one point. I was reminded of the fact that the words of people who are more important often outweigh the truth. And after all, it is weight that tips the scales, and the scales that announce the verdict. So, right and wrong take the backseat to a heaviness contest – then how can one compete with the Montus of the world, who have mastered the skill of loading up on unearned desserts?
Until the verdict,
This is Solomon Naidu.
Reporting from Courtroom No. 5
Of The Bombay High Court.
This piece has been written by Farishta Anjirbag. She will be writing for the network for a brief period before moving onward and upward. We are proud to host her large ideas and clever writing.
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