The phone rings one Thursday morning. It's a cop. Just when I've figured out that much, and before I can wonder why a cop's calling me, he says: "Come to the Andheri court tomorrow." That's pretty much his introduction.

Now this is about a criminal case against the taxi-driver whom I mentioned in my last column here. Again, because of the statement I made on that night over five years ago, I'm supposed to be available at the trial, to be examined and cross-examined. But why do they call me less than 24 hours in advance? A little wary by now of the prospect of many hours wasted, I ask hesitantly: "Any idea how long this will take?"

The cop merely repeats, "Come to the court tomorrow, ask for Pinto-saheb", and hangs up. Is that a peremptory note in his voice? Or am I imagining things?

The next morning, I'm resigned instead of wary. I trek out to Andheri quite prepared to spend the whole day in court. That the entire building is suffused with the aroma of urine is not exactly a pleasant welcome, but it will have to do. Not for the first time, I wonder why our public buildings must necessarily be disfigured by paan stains or urine smells or both.

Anyway, I find "Pinto-saheb", a gruff man in a spotless white shirt who speaks to me in an endearing mix of Bambaiya Hindi and Marathi. He's a bailiff of sorts in the court, and he tells me all I have to do is wait for my case to come up. By way of reading material, he hands me my statement from that night. "Can you read Marathi?" he asks in Marathi. I nod. I don't read it well, but in this case of course I know it's my statement and will be easier to understand than a random Marathi document. "Read it over," says Pinto-saheb, and that's definitely a peremptory tone in his voice.

In the hours I spend there, there are at least two dozen such cases called and given some apparently random date in the future for the next hearing. What is the meaning of this?


 •  Your hands, so warm

And as I start, I hear a mild commotion at the entrance and then a loud hissing sound. It's the judge, making his entrance. Leading him in is a constable who hisses as he strides along. Hissing people out of the way of the judge, who heads for a small platform at the front of the room, on which there's a table piled high with dusty documents.

The day's proceedings begin. Case after case, this is how it goes. Pinto-saheb and another man, positioned on either side of a desk just below the judge, call out a case number. The lawyer concerned rises. From among the crowds in the room, two or three people emerge and walk to the front. By the time they reach, the judge and a man sitting beside him are in a whispered consultation, sometimes looking at a calendar as they do. Within seconds, they come to an agreement, then announce it. "March 1!", they pronounce. Or "January 15!" Or "February 23!" Dates more or less at random, except that they are all within the three months that stretch in front of us.

Though I don't know if that three month period is chance or inscrutable design.

Hearing the date, the people who have walked to the front bow their heads respectfully, their lawyer whispers to them, and they all walk out. 15-30 seconds each, just to be told to come back in several weeks.

The next number is called.

Case after case, like this. I mean, in the hours I spend there, there are at least two dozen such cases called and given some apparently random date in the future for the next hearing. What is the meaning of this?

But yes, not all the cases for the day get this treatment. I count a total of four which don't.

One is a theft case, and today is when the defendant's lawyer gets to cross-examine the constable who caught the defendant, who stands to one side, quietly. The cross is a series of questions in Marathi much like this: "I put it to you that you did not find the stolen goods in this plastic bag. Is this true?"; and "I put it to you that since there is no bill, you have no way of knowing whether these are not stolen goods or not. Is this true?"

To each question, the constable answers in Marathi, consistent to a fault: "No, it is not true." Upon which, the judge -- sometimes without waiting for the constable to finish -- turns to his steno and dictates in English: "It is not true that I did not find the stolen goods in this plastic bag"; and "It is not true that I have no way of knowing whether these are not stolen goods or not."

Yes, the string of "nots" often produces a mightily convoluted sentence, but the judge handles it with practised aplomb. And when the cross is complete, the constable bows to the judge and walks off. The judge is already in consultation with his staffer, and he looks up and announces "February 15!"

Another case that's heard concerns an an assault. A woman is in the box, and she is questioned about the two rough-looking men who stand silently behind her. With the questions, a story unfolds that must be difficult for her to recall, much less relate. In short: her husband borrowed money from these two, they came to ask for it back, barged into her home, shoved her and her husband about, beat them up.

The judge listens to it all, dictates it all. The men? Silent throughout. At the end, the judge confers with his Man Friday, announces a future date as usual, and then -- just as the woman is stepping off the stand and the men are turning to leave -- he says one word: "Wait!" He has their attention again. He directs the men to pay the woman and her husband Rs 100 each for their transport today. They go out, get some legalese typed on two green sheets of paper, hand them to Pinto-saheb and then reach into their wallets for two Rs 100 notes. Still silent.

Finally it's our case that's called. Only, the taxi-driver tells me, and then the judge, that his lawyer has not showed up. Or has refused to show up, he's not sure. So the court decides on a date for our case too. A month away. But before we go, Pinto-saheb asks the driver to go out, get some legalese typed on a sheet of green paper, and hand it to him. And when the driver comes back, this is what his sheet of green paper says, and I swear this is verbatim:

Application for adjournment may it please your Honour.

That today my Advocate Shri Sanjay Tiwari is absent because he is going to out of station hence unable to attend your worship today.

It is therefore prayed that matter may be adjourned.

AND FOR THIS ACT OF KINDNESS I SHALL EVER PRAY.

It's nearly four in the afternoon. It's been a long day, and while I'm not tired, I'm dispirited by the futility I feel I've been part of. As I walk out, the aroma of urine hits me like a particularly smelly express train.