Excerpt From Legal Confidential:

1. The Learning Years

I had two years of experience as a lawyer when I suddenly found myself handling a number of divorce cases. The story began when I represented Mrs. Hardeep Kaur against a charge of marital cruelty. She was 78, had a forbidding moustache and very bad knees. Her middle-aged daughter-in-law wrestled her into court every time the case came up for hearings. Clearly, the old girl had always been built for comfort, not speed, but her cantankerous 82 year old husband found no joy in her embrace. Despite his immaculately tied turban and his flowing white beard, he was something of a Dirty Harry on steroids, always looking to 'make his day' on some imaginary provocation. He out-yelled his lawyer at every hearing, generally about not very much at all. He picked on the opposing lawyer (which was me) and the judge too, leaving everyone holding their sides and falling about laughing.

Mrs. Hardeep Kaur's children didn't see the humour in it though. All of them - the old man, my client, the kids and the grandkids - lived in the same 500 square yard bungalow in Green Park. They ate out of a common kitchen. It was a happy joint family, but the old man wanted a divorce. That put the kids in the impossible position of defending their mother against their father. The grandkids - one of whom was my age - said that the old surd was seriously south of sanity. I was fascinated by the idea that the legal system had no institutional mechanism to stop geriatric loonies from suing for divorce long after their prostrates had given up the ghost. The whole system was designed to promote litigation. And litigation, once started, could go on forever. At that point of my life, I pretty much stopped reading fiction. With this stuff going on around me, who needed a made-up story?

Hardeep Kaur's case didn't progress very much of course. Neither judge nor defendant wanted it decided. In time, I realized that the old surd didn't want it ended either: he was in search of emotional catharsis, not resolution. I made some professional progress riding on the back of that case. A joke can be a great foundation for a career. As the years went by, I got more and more of the same. A lot of my clients were women. I particularly recall this woman whose husband was a DTC bus driver. He liked to gamble, and since he didn't win much, there was never enough money at home. She picked up some day-maid work to cover the bills - sweeping floors and washing utensils in the Karol Bagh area - but he didn't like her moving about. Their marriage went downhill and one day, he sued her for adultery. He claimed to have come home early and stumbled on her getting it on with the neighbour. There were no witnesses.

It was a bullshit story on the face of it, the kind of story a third rate lawyer would cook up and hope to brazen it out. Adultery is notoriously hard to prove in India, unless the woman gets pregnant and her husband is in another country the whole time: like the much loved Nepali cook with his pregnant wife at home! I was pretty cocky about the case. The problem with cocky is that you know you can win, so you start to get reckless. Inevitably, I royally screwed up the bus driver's cross examination. Let me explain. You can't get a divorce under Hindu law because your wife is naked and in bed with a guy watching Kaun Banega Karorepati. For adultery to be proved, you have to prove penile penetration. In my youthful exuberance, that is where I took the guy's cross examination.

"So when you pushed the door", I asked the guy, "wasn't it locked?" "Jhuggi doors don't have locks sahib", his eyes twinkled. No alarm bell went off in my na´ve head. "So, when you entered, what was your wife wearing?" "She was as naked as the skull of her bald lover sahib", he giggled. The judge cringed. He stopped the stenographer and commanded him to write: "They were in a compromising position". "So where were they at the time?" "Both were in bed sahib!" The judge was now red. He commanded the stenographer to write: "They were in a compromising position". "Who was lying on the left side of the bed?" "He was on top of her sahib!" the guy was laughing. The judge held his head in embarrassment. He commanded the stenographer to write "They were in a compromising position". I was too far gone to care. "What was he doing when you saw him?" "He had put it in and was taking her's sahib".

The judge couldn't believe this was happening to him. "Write, they were in a compromising position", he barked. Then he turned to me. "Vakil sahib, client bacha rahe ho ya maze le raheho?" (Are you protecting the client or entertaining yourself?). Here's the deal. If a man claims he stumbled onto his wife getting it on with someone, all you need do is go on and on cross examining him about the lack of witnesses. You can ask him how is it possible that when tiny mud huts stand shoulder to shoulder in a jhuggi colony full of unemployed adults and unsupervised kids;his wife found this beautiful patch of perfectly screwable solitude to commit adultery? You can ask him why you should possibly believe such a nakedly self-serving story. You can assail his character. You can suggest he is morally challenged who gambled away his family fortune and cannot be trusted. Heck, you can call him a lying bastard and a rake. What you cannot and should never do is help him flesh out and detail his story. You must never ask a question the answer to which you do not already know. You should most definitely never get caught up in your beautiful insightful understanding of the legal principle and let that dictate your cross examination. At the end of the day, what a judge thinks of a witness is all about human sensibility, not legal principle: it's to the man inside the judge to whom you must appeal. I had cocked it up big time.

It wasn't the end of the world: many lawyers lose nearly-won cases but this one remains by far the worst cross examination I have ever done. Mercifully, no harm was done. One year later, when the matter was finally argued before another judge, the whole testimony was nothing but a series of statements saying "They were in a compromising position" which meant nothing. I buried my blunder under the previous judge's embarrassment and saved the client from damnation. That's the thing about being a lawyer. Everyone gets paid to do a job right, but how many have so much fun doing it?