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 seventy-eight, 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 eighty-two-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 grandchildren—one of whom was my age—said that the old sardarji 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 prostates 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 a 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 jobs as a housemaid to cover the bills—sweeping floors and washing dishes in the Karol Bagh area—but he didn’t like her going out to work. 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 messed up the bus driver’s cross-examination. Let me explain. You can’t get a divorce under Hindu law only because your wife is found naked in bed with a guy watching Kaun Banega Crorepati. 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 naive 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 rahe ho?’ (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 scrumptiously screw-worthy 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 a morally challenged loser 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 definitely never explore your profound insights into legal principles 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 principles: it’s to the man inside the judge to whom you must appeal. I had messed 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 conducted. 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?

          Occasionally I got to represent a male client in an adultery case. Once a shopkeeper from Chandni Chowk—portly, swarthy but rather lacking in self-confidence—wanted a divorce because his wife was carrying on with his unmarried younger brother. They lived in one happy joint family somewhere in Dariba Kalan. The moment he walked out the door for work, she scampered across to the teenager’s room and they locked themselves in for hours. He had known about the affair for a long time: he came to see me because he could find no way to end it. ‘Doesn’t your family know?’ I asked. Of course they do, he told me. So what do they say? He was crestfallen. They say that if you can’t satisfy your wife, you cannot complain if your brother does. What does your wife say? She says I visit your brother because he makes me happy but I am your wife and it’s your duty to ‘maintain’ me. Doesn’t she recognize that it is wrong for her to sleep with your brother? No, she says all this goes on in other families all the time so what is the problem? Have you told your family that you want a divorce? Yes and they do not approve. What do they say? They say that marriage is a janam janam ka bandhan(a bond that spans lifetimes) which small things should not be able to change. It was culturally insightful stuff, and better than reality TV: better even than pornography!

          It didn’t end well though. I filed the case and we had a couple of hearings. The wife showed up with half of my client’s family supporting her. They didn’t say anything: just stood behind her and glared at my client through the hearing. As far as they were concerned, what went on between husband, wife and brother-in-law was private, whereas washing dirty linen in public humiliated the whole family. They were quite ready to produce six witnesses to say that the wife never visited the guy when the husband was at work. Six months later, he stopped coming. Eventually somebody told the court he had committed suicide.

*  *  *  *  *

         The divorce practice monkey circus had to end sometime. For me, Sharmila was the last one. I guess either the disgust or the self-loathing finally got to me. Sharmila was one of those irresistible self-possessed girls the hotel industry loves to employ. She was beautiful in a characteristically Bong way. She had the curves to launch a thousand Khajuraho temples and her light chocolate skin was clear and smooth as soft clay. She didn’t mince words either. Her husband was a nice guy, no question, but he was a crashing bore. She had been married seven years and she knew exactly what her life would add up to if she didn’t get out right now. Her parents couldn’t comprehend her problem. Her mother-in-law hung on to her skirt and begged her not to do this. Sharmila characterized herself as a very good daughter-in-law, a reasonably exciting wife and an absolute bitch in bed.

         ‘I want to experience life completely, Ranjeev’, she told me candidly. ‘I sleep with who I like, when I like, where I like. And I want this life without strings or guilt.’ In time, she asked about my fees, adding that the hotel industry doesn’t pay well but she liked me, etc. I got her the divorce.

         Talking of divorce cases, here’s one I couldn’t do because the lady in question wouldn’t let me. I knew Sandy Dutta socially. He was one of those charismatically impish young men with mischief in his eyes, piercings in his earlobes and a big, banging chopper bike in the driveway. His charm was irresistible. I thought his wife Ruma was a complete woman. She was a competent interior designer, a talented landscape photographer, an avid trekker and a nurturing soccer mom. She radiated great inner beauty. We intermittently heard of trouble in their paradise. He drank too much and he was rumoured to be abusive. They fell out eventually and filed fourteen cases against each other. He accused her of infidelity, which no one seemed to believe. The guy he accused wasn’t just a close friend: he was a thorough gentleman trying to help her. Other people who tried to help her also had to bite a legal bullet: Ruma’s brother-in-law got arrested for stealing Sandy’s jeep, even though Sandy had lent it to him. When it came to anger management, Sandy was a full contact litigation client!

         Ruma consulted me once but settled for a woman lawyer to represent her. The case dragged on for a decade and then, when enough legal fees had been paid, they settled it out of court. That happens often enough. This ancient land with its 5000-year-old living culture regularly calls for blood: when enough has been spilt, the parties reach a compromise, or one of them dies.

         I heard Sandy’s side of the story a decade later when he came by to see me about something else. He said he hadn’t been angry about being cuckolded by his best friend. He was angry because he had been manipulated into a vasectomy before he was cuckolded! He blamed his father-in-law. ‘I admired the Colonel, yaar.’ he thumped the table. ‘We had two kids and the bastard said why are you assaulting my daughter’s hormones with these birth control pills?’ So off I went to Dehra Doon and twenty-four hours later, I was dry as a funeral drum. All I got to show was Rs 500 and a 2-kg tin ofshuddh desi ghee while my buddy got to hump my fertile wife.’

         By this time, he had remarried several times. His current wife was a lot younger, and the daughter of a powerful politician. She didn’t think her parents would ever say yes to this much married rake so she ran off to Delhi with him. The girl’s father reported a kidnapping, and an arrest warrant turned up at his door. In turn, he stalled the warrant with a well-aimed bribe and produced his new bride in a local court to prove she had accompanied him willingly. You could say the girl’s parents were pissed off. They bided their time. A year later, they found out he was attending a wedding in their town. This time, his estranged mother-in-law filed a complaint stating that he had molested her! The warrant of arrest landed up at the mandap of the wedding. Fortunately, Sandy’s host could retaliate with some heavy pull so Sandy could slip away. By the time the same warrants reached Delhi, he had his anticipatory bail in hand.

         Sandy is what every lawyer will call a dream client. Successful law practice is always about getting yourself a bunch of Sandies! They can be individuals, they can be companies, but for one reason or another, they always need lawyers. Many top-gun lawyers have made their careers riding on the back of just one client. The best character profile of a client is the guy who likes to live on the edge of legality and financial solvency. You get them aplenty. It’s not that they can’t make a profit doing things legally, working the percentages. They just have to run close to the edge. They over-leverage their business till it totters in bad times. They illegally shore up the stock prices of their publicly listed company. They trade in their own company’s shares on the side. They creatively interpret regulations and run a dodgy business model with a respectable external face. When the crap hits the fan—and it always does—they run to the lawyer. Never say no to clients who can’t say no to some crappy get-rich-quick scheme they know will blow up in their faces.

*  *  *  *  *

         When I look back at my career and recall all the crazy characters I have represented, I ask myself if this is why I became a lawyer. For sure I didn’t become a lawyer just because I thought it was good fun. Not that I mind that it turned out that way. What’s there not to love about having fun being a lawyer? Unfortunately, a lot of it was also not fun; it was incredibly hard work with not enough sleep and no money at all. Of course, most people didn’t have money at the time so who cared? It was a great time to be young, not least because of the tectonic cultural shifts going on. Asha Bhonsle and Robert Plant delivered screaming solos from the same radio station. Dope and dupattas were purchased from the same pavement in Chandni Chowk. Jamawars and jeans were worn together in winter. Meanwhile, urbanization and mass migration were shattering the old joint family social structure. Everyone, even my dad, wore a bell-bottom safari suit. The soft-focus Punjabi wannabe Bong superstar hero—and I mean Rajesh Khanna—was done and dusted: reduced to special appearances and a procession of remakes of Tamil hits. The Angry Young Man was well established, to a point where he was making movies about his own real-life marital infidelities! The politics was deafening, and exciting. Indira Gandhi had kicked India’s tryst with destiny squarely in the belly with the Emergency. After her ouster in 1977 (the year I joined the LLB programme at Delhi University), a Jurassic idealist (Morarji Desai) ran the country assisted by a motley crew of ideological oddballs, caste jugglers and court jesters. That didn’t last either. The country went to the polls in January 1980 and the old girl was back. That is when cynicism became the new normal in Indian politics. This is the year I became a lawyer.

         I don’t recall puffing out my chest because I had completed my law degree. Everyone remembered that India had recently been screwed over by lawyers. That gallery of eminence included Bengal’s Chief Minister Siddhartha Shankar Ray who advised Indira Gandhi to declare the Emergency, President Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed who signed the order, ‘kitchen cabinet henchman’ D.P. Dhar who ran a parallel government during the Emergency, newly promoted Chief Justice A.N. Ray who leap-frogged over three of his seniors so that he could write odes to Mrs Gandhi in his judgments, and indeed much of the Supreme Court of India with the notable exception of Justice H.R. Khanna.

         Law at the time was a family profession of fathers, children, and cousins, all with uncles who were judges. You always needed a godfather to go to. If you didn’t have a godfather, your faith in the Godfather (who art in heaven) greatly exceeded your common sense. I had a potential godfather, even if it was a long shot. A distant aunt had married Uncle Syal who struggled for thirty years to run an inherited business in terminal decline. When it finally went belly up, he joined the maverick law firm of Duli Chand Singhania.

         Uncle Syal was amused that I wanted to be a lawyer. He didn’t think a pretty kid from a snooty school in Rajasthan would survive a brutal contact sport like law practice in India. I wasn’t going to be daunted. He had no job for me but he had good advice. ‘You are not a lawyer till you have learnt to survive in the Tees Hazari courts,’ he told me. ‘This is the only place for you to test your mettle as a man, and as a lawyer. Besides,’ he added for good measure, ‘unless you want to depend on your father for a very long time, this is the only place a young lawyer can make a small living.’

         He was right, of course. Throwing me into the deep end was one way of testing my survival spirit. If I didn’t make the cut, I could always tuck my tail in and go home to Dad’s business. As a career launch, it was a huge improvement over becoming a basta vakil(a bag-carrier), carrying files for a hotshot Supreme Court senior for the rest of my life, standing behind him cheering and applauding his brilliant arguments just to get at the sorry crumbs he would throw me when the mood took him. I needed to find someone to work for.

         This was a tough one. Every successful trial-court lawyer those days had dozens of juniors. Like the largest and most dominant carnivorous dinosaur with its long powerful tail, the worth of a lawyer was measured mainly in terms of the number of juniors who followed him from court to court. What chance had I to learn anything when so many attention-seeking juniors played groupie with the hotshots? When so many love you, is it the same? What about the competent but less successful lawyers? They had a certain amount of work, it’s true, and besides, youngsters could interact with this class of senior: perhaps learn something. I joined one for a bit—without pay I’ll have you know—and found this wasn’t true. The client hired them because of the personalized service they provided. Their juniors never had the chance to represent the client in court. All the juniors ever did was run ahead of the senior as he went from court to court to tell the judge that the big boss was arriving, or was on his legs in another court, or had a runny tummy and wasn’t going to show. It was a dog-shit job for dummies: like playing a plastic trumpet for a fake Mughal emperor in a budget Bollywood costume drama of the 1940s. In six months, I was ready to slash my wrists.

         It was about this time that I noticed that over on the other side of Tees Hazari’s Central Hall, there sat a beatific old man who always had this Buddha smile. On a particularly bad day, I stepped up to him and asked him what he thought of the profession. He was encouraging. ‘It’s the profession of kings, my son,’ he declared. ‘To be a lawyer is to be a master of your destiny. You need not bow to any man. If you don’t like a client, there is always another. If a judge doesn’t like you, there is always an appeal to be filed. No one can say anything to you.’ I must have looked encouraged because he continued, ‘Remember also that lawyers command a lot of respect’. ‘Respect?’ I countered, waving my arms at the riff-raff in the Central Hall. ‘Make no mistake, my boy,’ he warned me, ‘in society, it is fear that begets respect. Everyone fears a lawyer.’ He paused reflectively. ‘There is one problem though,’ he shrugged. ‘When you have teeth, you have no chickpeas to eat. By the time you get your hands on the chickpeas, you have no teeth left to eat them with!’

         Thirty years later, I recall his prophetic words and chuckle. I didn’t know it then, but my luck was about to change very quickly.