“Justice” by Riaz Mulla (from Mumbai Noir)
by Riaz Mulla
Mahim Durgah, Mumbai, India (from Mumbai Noir)
“The court will now pronounce its verdict,” the judge remarked plainly, as if he was going to read out the evening news.
Asghar Khan stood up in the witness box with the anticipation of a man in that twilight zone of hope when the decision has been made but not yet announced.
“The defendant has been accused of planting a bomb in the crowded Zaveri Bazaar area which killed three people and injured many.”
Asghar Khan wondered whether it was necessary to revisit the circumstances; does a doctor open the incision to check if the surgery has healed?
“The court has been convinced that there was no motive behind this dastardly act but to kill innocent people and create terror.”
The night came alive for Asghar and even today it seemed as unreal as it had seven years ago. He had watched terrorized from his hideout on the terrace as the distant sounds grew louder and the street was suddenly filled with a multitude of swords, tridents, and flames. The group first torched his scooter and in the light of the fire he could see them—known faces made grotesque by the flames. He had bought the scooter secondhand for twelve thousand rupees, the first vehicle of his life. As the tires and seat went up in flames, the mob broke open the shutter of his small travel agency office, Haafiz Tours and Travels. An enterprising insurance agent had once told him to get everything insured; but how does one insure against the betrayal of friends? They unplugged the phone and flung it to the ground and started to ransack his cupboards, throwing everything they could lay their hands on into a huge pile in the middle—passports and airline tickets and application papers—and he realized they were not just going to burn his office but also the small business he had successfully managed to set up. None of his clients at his budding Haj and Umrah travel agency would be able to perform pilgrimage that year; some, like his parents, probably never.
“The court finds Asghar guilty of willful murder and damage to public property.”
The passports, due to their glazed cardboard, were the last to catch fire and burned the longest. That night he wasn’t worried about the scooter or his business; one doesn’t worry about the future when the present itself is under threat. He was worried for his life and Salma’s and their first child still in her womb. She had tried to scream when they poured kerosene on the scooter. She had saved passionately for it and like every woman she was not good at taking losses. He had clasped her mouth firmly and tiny droplets of blood appeared on his palms where she bit him. She had probably realized that the present is of little significance if there is no future to look forward to.
“The court understands that Asghar suffered losses to his business and property in the riots preceding this incident.”
How does one understand something one has never experienced? Even he had not understood when they first came asking for money to fight for the homeless Palestinians. After that night, when he had lost everything, they became his new friends, the only people to lend him money to buy food and treat his wife. He had asked for tickets to go back to his village in far away Uttar Pradesh, where his brothers set up grocery tents in open markets, moving to a different village each day—Dariyapur on Mondays and Thursdays, Rahimgunj on Tuesdays and Fridays, Bidwai on Wednesdays and Saturdays, and their own village on Sundays. He had tired of setting up and closing down a business each day in a new place and had come to Mumbai in search of stability. What he had never thought of was what happens when the thing that brought this stability is suddenly taken away. It was not as easy as setting up a new tent in a new village the next day and he felt a sudden longing to return to that varying yet familiar routine. His new friends, though, refused him that getaway; he had business to settle in the city before he could leave.
“But if every aggrieved person starts to take the law in his hands there would be anarchy. It is the duty of the state to provide justice.”
What did the state mean by justice? Having to prove that the property which was burned belonged to him when all the relevant papers were destroyed along with the property? This was necessary to prevent fraudsters from taking advantage of the state’s grant, the presiding officer had said, but Asghar couldn’t decide which was a greater denial of justice: the state being cheated by a few opportunists, or the rightful being denied what was due to them. He had refrained from following the path of retribution his new sympathizers were advocating. Though he had lost all means of livelihood, the future still bode a small ray of hope: his unborn child.
“The court would like to take a strong stance in this case so that this particular judgment acts as a deterrent to all such acts in the future.”
It was the birth of his son that marked the end of the future for Asghar. He was born blind and Asghar was convinced it was due to the trauma of that night. He would hold his baby, looking intently at that innocent face, knowing the child would never see him, never see anything. He decided to put a black ribbon on his own eyes for a day to feel what it meant for his son, but he couldn’t keep it on for more than an hour. Salma felt it would not be as bad for their son because he had never known what sight was, but Asghar couldn’t decide which was a greater loss: of having found something and lost it, or never knowing what one had lost. Six months later when their son began crawling, Asghar and Salma realized the enormity of raising a blind child. There was little Asghar could do for his son, and that helplessness was far greater than his helplessness that night when they had burned down his office. There was no morning here, no returning to normalcy. He was a fool to believe that it was all over. Sometimes when he watched his son he could see them standing outside his door laughing, mocking his naïveté.
Justice cannot be the sole purview of a few, his new friends had told him, and now he realized they were right. Who would give justice to his son? He would have to do it himself. He met them the next day and they told him the plan. All he had to do was park a scooter in the Zaveri Bazaar area during the busy morning hours. It was ironic, he felt, that a scooter was going to be the vehicle to get back at them.
“In order to provide justice to the innocent families who lost their beloved ones in this tragic incident, and to deter young people from taking the law in their hands, the court wishes to pronounce the strictest punishment in this case. Under section 302 of the Indian Penal Code, the court pronounces capital punishment for Asghar Khan; to be hanged until death.”
Everyone heard the rap as the judge slammed the hammer purposefully on the desk as if hitting in the last nail. For a moment everything was quiet and then the whole courtroom erupted in a frenzy of mobile clicking; there would soon be a new segment on Breaking News.
Asghar sat back in his chair in the witness box feeling like he was the only person in the room; the judge, having delivered the verdict, stood up and left, the lawyers gathered into a huddle amongst themselves, the press got busy with their cell phones, and the police escorts waited patiently for Asghar, respecting a man’s need to be with himself at such a time. It was as if he had already been hanged. He had feared this verdict and had hence forbidden Salma from coming to the courtroom today, but it still seemed unreal to hear it from the judge’s mouth. How had he ended up being sentenced to the gallows? He had always wanted to be a dutiful law-abiding citizen of the country. He now realized why they had first wanted him to wear a belt of grenades and blow himself up in the marketplace. It is so easy when everything finishes suddenly, when you are still subsumed with the euphoria of vengeance. What was painful were the endless days and nights in the prison awaiting the verdict, because it gave him time to reflect, time to judge right from wrong; and when left alone with enough time, it was impossible not to see what was right and realize that some wrongs can never be undone.
Justice Talukdar picked up his papers and hurried out of the courtroom; he felt it was important for a person in his position not to get emotionally involved with people he judged. As he got out of the building through a special exit, kept locked only for a day like this, he saw her sitting under a tree, crying violently, seemingly unaware of the son sitting beside her. She always wore the full naqaab in court, and this was the first time he saw her face. She was beautiful and much younger than he had imagined, and the tragedy and youth only highlighted her vulnerability, accentuating her beauty. He felt a strong desire to comfort her but checked himself, knowing that both of them would not know what to say to each other. He had for long nights agonized over the impact of his sentence; does one human have the right to send a fellow human to death? Does the fact that society and law granted him that right make it any different from murder where the person assumed that right for himself; was that in fact the only difference? How was tightening a noose around the neck and allowing a person to hang to death less violent than stabbing or shooting at close range? All the agony came flooding back, and he felt less sure than he had in the morning when he arrived at the court. The law had been laid down and his duty was only to ensure that justice was delivered impartially, once the crime had been proven without doubt. There was simply no element of doubt in this case, and it would have been a gross violation of law if he had not upheld the rightful judgment. What if the father, son, brother of every person who was killed in the blast were to grant themselves the right to park a scooter full of explosives in a public place?
His car stopped at a signal, and from the backseat he noticed a temple on the sidewalk. People stopped by, clanged the metal bell hanging on the entrance, and folded their hands in a brief prayer—a plea to be answered, a wish to be fulfilled. He had never believed in temples and prayers, only in his own sense of justice and fair play. There was a statue of Lord Krishna inside the temple with the flute on his lips; playful, serene, and extremely assured. On an impulse, Justice Talukdar folded his hands and bowed his head; less in a gesture of worship, more out of respect for someone who, even in the midst of a fierce battle, was so certain about what was right and what was wrong.
Salma cried violently at the unfairness of it all—how could one incident take away everything that was valuable to her.
She had not known Mumbai or Asghar until marriage; for a girl brought up in the sleepy hamlet of Gazipur in UP, men and Mumbai symbolized dominance and corruption. Yet, after her marriage, she was pleasantly surprised by the ease with which she was accepted, as if the city and Asghar had all along been waiting for her. Mumbai was like a playful elder sister, vibrant and all-encompassing, and Asghar was unlike the men in her village—he treated her with a respect and companionship that was almost like love. She felt she had known the man and his city all along and it was only natural that now she had come to stay with them.
Asghar had set up a small Haj and Umrah travel agency in the living room of their one-room house in the predominantly Muslim neighborhood of Mahim. Five times during the day the loudspeakers from the numerous mosques would blare the adhan, and the narrow streets would be filled with bearded, paan-chewing men answering the muezzin’s call to the faithful for prayers. On their way back, the men, most of whom ran small local businesses, would sit and chat with Asghar in his office, taking a pamphlet as they left. Asghar had no need to sell his religious tours; the muezzin and the preachers had already done that job for him.
As the businesses prospered and the preachers in the mosque became more effective, Asghar’s business started to pick up. With the savings from their first big season, Asghar bought a secondhand scooter. He had always wanted to purchase a motorcycle but Salma was adamant about the rugged, bulky two-wheeler—a motorcycle was after all not a family vehicle. Almost on cue she became pregnant with their first child, as if all along it had been waiting for its future carrier to be purchased.
The demolition of the Babri Masjid was the first sign that the game was beginning to change. The usually cacophonic streets suddenly fell silent as if in mourning, and the loud call of the muezzin sounded eerie in the deserted lanes. The few people who ventured out to the mosque would hurry back home and the talk, if any, was full of vengeance and bitterness. Salma sensed a certain anxiety, a foreboding mixture of fear and anger, and the news of communal riots in the neighboring town of Bhiwandi only added to the unease.
They were having dinner in their house one night when there was a frantic knocking and Salma knew instinctively that something was drastically wrong—as if all that unease and disquiet of the last few days had finally reached her doorstep and erupted into those loud, hysterical thuds.
“Run!” was the only word their neighbor uttered, and the sheer look of terror on his face was enough for Asghar to drop his meal unfinished and rush out of the house. Once outside they did not know where to go; the familiar streets wore a deserted, closed look, as if wanting to shut themselves from the gory spectacle that was about to be played.
They scrambled up to the terrace and from there Salma saw a face of the city she never knew existed. The night was lit by huge bonfires and the calm would suddenly be pierced by gunshots and shrieks that reverberated long after the victims had fallen silent.
And then the mob appeared at the corner of the street, the fire from their torches reflecting from their gleaming, naked swords, disguising their identities but vividly displaying the determination and glee in their eyes. They set about torching everything in sight as if it had all been kept there to be burned.
Like the earth, destined to its seasons, the city eventually came back to its busy, careless way of life, but Salma knew that it was only a façade, for she had seen the face behind it and it could not be forgotten. The vibrancy and the companionship had died that night. Asghar lived with her but she was no longer sure what he felt or thought. He nursed her dutifully during the pregnancy and when the child was born blind he did not let his distress affect her, but this new lack of sharing pained her more than all the other tragedies. And when the police came to pick him up for the explosion in the marketplace she was numb, not from shock but from the pain of knowing that she had lost him forever.
The verdict had only formalized this. She never doubted Asghar’s complicity in the crime or the validity of the judgment, but Asghar was not a criminal, not the heartless cold-blooded murderer the judge had made him sound. And she cried with the thought that the world and the aggrieved relatives of the victims of that blast would never know about it. It was a burden she and her son would have to carry to their graves.
The sheer unfairness of it all made her feel helpless. The verdict had delivered justice but it was in some way not fair to the three of them and to the ones affected by the blast. Because those present in the courtroom that day were not the ones who had perpetrated both the crimes; they were all in fact the victims.
Time, impartial and fair, is nature’s ultimate panacea, the relief for all pain. Yet, when the court announced the death penalty for the man who had been responsible for her husband’s death six years ago, Sneha felt the old pain suddenly surging back; the phone call from the police asking her to come to the hospital at once, the mangled body of her husband, the crowd at the funeral, and the sudden empty nights. It was as if after traveling a long distance to get away from something, she had realized that what she wanted to get away from was not in that place but inside her own self. And she cried with the realization that what she had lost would never be recovered by all the justice the world could deliver; that she was wrong to have thought that today with the verdict all her ghosts would be laid to rest.
But time, relentless and unstoppable, very soon regained the ground it had lost to that momentary burst of aggrieved melancholy. As she boarded the train Sneha was already thinking about her work at school and the things she needed to buy for the evening meal, and it was only a little later that she realized that the burkha-clad lady sitting opposite her in the compartment was Salma. All her loss and sense of defeat, at not having received justice despite the verdict, came rushing back and she felt a strong desire to strike back and gain some semblance of victory.
“I didn’t see you in the courtroom but I am sure you must have heard the verdict. He is going to die; to be hanged until death,” she tried to mimic the judge, and then the spite returned as she thought of Asghar. “He deserves to hang, bloody murderer.”
“Please don’t talk like that in front of his son,” Salma pleaded, totally unmindful of the sentence and Sneha’s spitefulness, as if they were natural. “He doesn’t know anything.”
Sneha persisted, not wanting to let go without extracting her revenge. “And how long will you keep him ignorant? His father’s photo is there on every TV channel and tomorrow it will be on the front page of every newspaper. Your son would have to be blind not to know about his father.”
“He is blind. He has never seen his father.”
A fast train whizzed past in the opposite direction on the adjacent track making a loud noise, and Sneha was happy for the distraction. With a single stroke of tragedy, nature had robbed her of her right to avenge.
“I am sorry,” she whispered, realizing the shallowness of her diatribe.
“Sorry for what?” Tears welled up in Salma’s already swollen eyes. “You have suffered earlier and now it is my turn. It is His way of delivering justice.”
Sneha wondered whether He delivered His justice in this manner; an eye for an eye, a death for a death, a widow for a widow; someone must have surely been blinded in the blast, she mused, looking at the child. The boy was staring blankly at her and she realized how in her bitterness she had failed to notice his condition, she who was a teacher at a school for the blind.
“Does he go to school?” she asked.
“School? Who would admit a blind child?”
“There are separate schools for the blind, even colleges. I teach at one.”
The future always rules the present and a faint hope lit up in Salma’s eyes.
“Will you teach him?” she asked, unmindful of her position, unmindful of the fact that the student’s father was the killer of the teacher’s husband.
Sneha needed no reiteration of the past. Their plight united them despite their religion, despite their peculiar positions, and their truce was unsaid and complete like it can only be between two women.
“I will get him admitted to my school. Come.”
The train was slowing down as it approached the station and Sneha and Salma stood up as if they had boarded with the sole purpose of getting the boy admitted to a school for the blind.
As the train stopped they alighted holding the blind child between them; two women left to live in a world where men delivered all the justice.
RIAZ MULLA was born in Mumbai in 1969. He is a trained electrical engineer, and has worked in the power and IT industries. He is currently in the education field, leading the Mumbai training division at Tech Mahindra, one of India’s leading IT firms. He is married with a son and a daughter. “Justice” is his first published fiction.
Posted: May 23, 2013
Featured: Music/Popular Culture/Art
- All the Power: Revolution Without Illusion
- The Jesus Lizard Book
- Bronx Biannual Issue No. 2: The Literary Journal of Urbane Urban Literature
- Go Fish
- Please Don’t Bomb the Suburbs
- Playing President: My Close Encounters with Nixon, Carter, Bush I, Reagan, and Clinton–and How They Did Not Prepare Me for George W. Bush
- Two Times Intro: On the Road with Patti Smith
- How the Left Lost Teen Spirit
- Spoke: Images and Stories from the 1980s Washington, DC Punk Scene
- Please Take Me Off the Guest List