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Judge Sa’b

Nine years ago, after thirteen years of living in the Rohini neighbourhood of north Delhi, I moved, and came here, to Judge Colony in Vaishali, just outside the capital. Vaishali is considered a ‘posh’ neighbourhood, where the provincial government of Uttar Pradesh had set aside plots of land here reserved for judicial magistrates. And it’s in one of the houses built on one of those plots where I now live.

 

The street where my apartment was built is called ‘Justice Way’, though potholes are everywhere and every few feet the road is torn up and littered with pits. Builders have strewn piles of bricks, construction sand, asphalt, rebar, and PVC pipes all over the road, and it’s one-way for several stretches. Accidents happen daily because of its having become a one-way street. The street’s never fixed because the builders and contractors have plenty of cash, and connections that go all the way to the top.

 

The grandson of a retired magistrate, living right here in Judge Colony, was hit by a dump truck and spent three months in the hospital before he died.

 

But the buildings are still going up, and the dump trucks and lorries still come and go. ‘Justice Way’ in Vaishali is still full of potholes, rife with accidents, and still one-way.

 

Development in this Judge Colony for VIPs is happening incredibly fast. When I first moved here nine years ago, there were only two shopping malls within a two-kilometre radius. Now there are twenty-one gigantic, multi-storey shopping malls, two five-star international hotels, car showrooms, shiny and grand, selling every car from Chevrolet to Hyundai to Suzuki, a Haldiram sweet shop, McDonalds, Domino’s Pizza, KFC, Bikanerwala, and hundreds of other fast food and snack joints. There’s a restaurant or bar every two feet.

 

In my sixty years, I’ve never seen so many who are more well-drunk than well-fed.

 

There was only forest and farmland when I moved here nine years ago: mustard fields, fields of wheat, and basmati rice paddies. Sometimes the whole area would be filled with the fragrance of yellow mustard blossoms or the scent of basmati. Around the neighbourhood you’d see cotton combers hand-scutching cotton wool, women making cow-dung cakes, hammersmiths forging karhai pots and pans and tongs and sickles, the morning gang of pig hunters, and slum women everywhere answering the call of nature right out in the open. I wasn’t quick to go out on my balcony in the morning since the empty lot across the street was where man and woman, alongside swine, performed their daily excretions in full view of anyone looking. And just beyond is the scrubland along the bank of the canal that had become ‘encounter grounds’ where ‘criminals’ were taken under the cover of night and shot dead by police. Newspapers the next morning ran stories of the police’s lively and heroic encounter with terrorists or dacoits.

 

But as nine years has passed, everything’s changed. As if while watching a very long film, a completely different, startling shot suddenly leaps on screen.

 

There are a great many magistrates living in this colony. Some are retired, others still cashing a paycheck for meting out justice in their various respective courts.

 

There’s a park right next door to me, and a lovely one at that. Whenever I’m out on a morning walk in the park, I inevitably run into several judges. Some are already quite old and aren’t able to walk very far or very fast, or they shuffle along with a cane. A few have a caregiver alongside to make sure they don’t fall, or to take them straightaway to the hospital in case of heart attack or shortness of breath. These judges live alone in their quarters. Some with their wives, and others completely alone. Their kids are all grown up and have moved away to other cities in India, or somewhere abroad, and maybe come to visit India once every year or two for a handful of vacation days of sightseeing in Agra, Shimla, Nainital, Darjeeling or the like. One judge living all alone told me he can’t wrap his head around why his son and his American daughter-in-law are so crazy for Indian birds, so much so that during their biennial visit, after staying with him for a couple of days, they rush off to Bharatpur or other bird sanctuaries in Rajasthan.

 

‘I can’t figure out how it is that those two never tire of birds when I am fed up to here with my life, work, the law, and courts,’ he said, scratching his head with a sigh. ‘Believe me, I’m no fool, I know my son and his family come to India to see birds and monuments, not to spend time with me.’

 

Watching the gait of these old judges it seemed as if their whole bodies bore the load of the countless memories of the past. It wasn’t old age, but the burden of memories they couldn’t bear – but had to shoulder nonetheless. I noticed that they’d quickly tire and sit on one of the park benches where there, too, their heads bowed downward under the strain.

 

It must be an unfathomably heavy burden carried behind their ancient brows, rutted with deep lines and wrinkles. Their internal ‘hard drives’ must be filled to the max.

 

Might they now be thinking again about decisions they’d handed down in bygone days, possibly with pangs of regret?

 

A few teardrops ran down their faces from old, tired, blinking eyes, irrigating wrinkles and wetting their cheeks. And when it happened, they found a soiled old handkerchief from inside their pockets, using it to wipe a rutted face and slowly clean dirty eyeglasses.

 

But the magistrates who weren’t yet so old and infirm donned their jogging suits and sporty trainers and walked at a brisk pace in the park. They were in some kind of hurry, possibly about to hand down their decisions. Some case or another was still underway and they were trying to sort out the boondoggle with their anxious gait.

 

Each and every one of these judges had a great many stories to tell – hundreds, thousands, an unending reserve. Cases where truth and falsehood were so knottily entangled that even today they’re unsure about the decisions they handed down. If I were to start telling you each of these various stories it’d soon become an epic tale that would quickly eviscerate your notions of truth and falsehood, justice and injustice.

 

My own faith is long gone – that’s why I spend more and more time in temples and dargahs, with trees and children. A magistrate strikes me as friendless, all alone in the world, and a court of law like a shopping mall or tourist monument: a place that exists to give them a wage.

 

Oh! But I was going to tell you the tale of Judge Sa’b, whose apartment isn’t even in our Judge Colony, but in another place, another sector. Still, when I came here nine years ago I used to see him all the time. Whatever his official, real name might have been, everyone called him ‘Judge Sahib’ – shortened in our slangy way to ‘Judge Sa’b’.

 

I always met him at Sunil Yadav’s paan stall. Paan and chewing tobacco: the bad habits that bound the two of us together.

 

There was one more addiction or habit that he had. (I’ll reveal it at the very end of the story. And, I think it’s important to give a ‘disclaimer’ right here and now that this story has no connection with persons, living or dead, and is purely a fictitious work based on imaginary characters and places. If it looks like it does, it’s no more than sheer happenstance, and if someone decides to file a lawsuit, it will be heard in the court where Judge Sa’b presides.)

 

So please come and listen to the real story. It’s not long at all, and has a whiff of the sensational about it.

 

Every morning right at 9 a.m., I met Judge Sa’b at Sunil’s paan stall. He was always smiling and sprightly. He had surely crossed into his fifties, but still didn’t wear glasses.

 

He always opened with the very same sentence. ‘Namaskar, sir ji! And how are you today?’ And my answer was invariably, ‘I am just fine, Judge Sa’b, and you?’ His response, unfailingly, was, ‘My dear writer, I am the same as I was the day before.’

 

‘And that’s the same with all of us, same as we were the day before!’ Judge Sa’b and everyone else standing around Sunil’s smiled at this. My answer and the group’s mirthy reaction were both always the same.

 

It’s the truth. No matter that everything all around was changing so quickly, each one of us – whether yesterday, or the day before, or the days before that – was exactly the same. Same as we ever were, more or less.

 

Another reason all of us collected ourselves and stood around Sunil the paan-man’s paan stall was that Sunil himself every day was exactly the same as he had been the days before. His wife had chronic asthma, and she was taking every cure from allopathy to Ayurveda to spells and magic to herbs and balms and spices. He had five kids – two girls and three boys – with three in school. Every day, Sunil had choice words for the school that was forever demanding textbooks and notebooks and shoes and socks and uniforms that had to be a special kind and particular brand and up to a certain standard of quality and if he couldn’t come up with the goods by a fixed date then his kids wouldn’t be able to go to school – a real fear, since the schoolmarm would chase them right out of class. And he had choicer words for the school bus that took his children to school and jacked up the fees every couple of months. He swore at the government and at the oil companies who were responsible for the rise of petrol prices every month and cost him more and more to run his motorbike. He cursed his wife and kids who were responsible for the fact that he had to work like a dog and couldn’t afford to buy decent clothes for himself, or treat himself to an occasional shot of the good stuff. He cursed the police and the municipality for evicting him and his kiosk every so often, even though every week he paid them off, and then he’d have to go to court and pay a fine.

 

He spent seventy thousand on treatment for his father’s illness, then sat at his father’s bedside at his beck and call day and night until his spinal-cord problems were at long last cured and he once again began to get around on his own. But now he hurls the same mother/sisterf***er invective at his father since he didn’t receive one red rupee from the sale of the family land in the village, since the father signed over the entire estate to his listless hashhead brother, a duplicitous act, cunning and sly.

 

Sunil Yadav’s exceedingly bountiful swearing and cursing left me in a state of awe and wonder. But the shame is that language like this can’t be used to write literature in this national language that people call ‘Hindi’. The words of paanwala Sunil Yadav exist in no dictionary or lexicon of this language known as ‘Hindi’.

 

We all delighted in listening to his bad words because all of us, with too-practised skill, hid our own profanities behind our laughter.

 

Judge Sa’b laughed the loudest, from the innermost gut of his belly, and it wasn’t uncommon for his mouth to be full of paan: Sunil began swearing up a blue streak, everyone loved it, Judge Sa’b couldn’t control himself, and dribbled red paan juice onto his clothing, cursing like hell and asking Sunil for a dab of slaked lime chuna to rub on the stains so they wouldn’t set.

 

It was a day just like this as he dabbed chuna over the red paan stains on his white shirt when it suddenly occurred to me that every morning for the past ten months he’d come to Sunil’s wearing the very same outfit. Maybe he didn’t have any other coat or jacket or pants? He dressed himself in the morning before leaving for Sunil’s as if he was setting off for court and in no time at all the charter bus was going to pull up, he’d hop on, and be on his way.

 

But Judge Sa’b always went home on foot. Sunil informed us that he was still waiting; that his final appointment as judge had been his last; that he has not received an extension. The minister who’d appointed him and made him a judge in the first place had been caught in a rape scandal and was now in jail, and Judge Sa’b still hadn’t been able to find a new connection who could appoint him as a judge once again.

 

From that day on, I began to feel affinity and pity for him and on more than one occasion spotted him a cup of chai at the nearby Pandijji Dhaba.

 

One day I saw him at Sunil’s stall not in the morning but at three in the afternoon, and in a terrible state. He said his son Parthiv had run away from home and he couldn’t find him anywhere and he’d been looking for him for two full days. He’d filed a missing persons report at the police station, but had the feeling that instead of searching for his 7-year-old boy, they were simply waiting for a body to turn up. That’s how it goes. Missing children are rarely found again, unless it’s their corpses.

 

Luckily, car engines were by then being fitted with compressed natural gas canisters. Mine now ran on this CNG, allowing for driving a longer range. I was also worried, and so I set off with Judge Sa’b to look for his son in every neighbourhood and locale of Vaishali, the streets we knew and the ones we didn’t, the bylanes, the outskirts, everywhere we could think of.

 

Judge Sa’b was grateful, and his eyes again and again welled up with tears. When he needed to, he took my hand, or leaned on my shoulder. He told me that he’d scolded Parthiv for watching the Twenty20 cricket match instead of doing his schoolwork when he had an exam the next morning. He turned off the TV just as the Rajasthan Royals had to make thirty-five runs in the last four overs for the win against the Delhi Daredevils and Suresh Raina was scoring sixes and fours.

 

Parthiv left for school the next morning and never came home. And it turns out from the school that he never took the exam.

 

So where did he go?

 

We looked everywhere for three hours straight, in each and every last corner of Vaishali. It was past five o’clock and we were worried that nightfall would mean one more day wasted. The other problem was that his wife had gone to her family home in Jhansi and Judge Sa’b was living alone with his son at the moment. They were stuck in Delhi for two reasons. One was Parthiv’s studies and exams, and the other was the hope he held steadily each day for the past ten months that somehow he’d be made a judge once again – even a lowly appointment in a labour court would do. Every day he read his horoscope before going out. He repeated mantras. He made offerings of oil and coins at the mandir of Shanidev. But every day was just like every other.

 

By then we had well covered all the places we were able to think of, in car and by foot. Everywhere turned up nothing. Four empty, weary, vanquished eyes at the hands of the labyrinth of Vaishali, frustrated by the answers of countless people given details about Parthiv’s physical description and age.

 

When it seemed that the sun was about to set and darkness fill the sky, I had a thought: let’s look in the scrubland along the bank of the canal. Even if he’s not alive, there’d still be a body after life had departed.

 

But the question was, how could I suggest such a thing to Judge Sa’b? So what I did was simply to drive toward the canal without saying anything. It was our last try for the day.

 

So that’s where we went, where countless mandirs to each and every god and goddess imaginable have been built without any permit on government land that was designated as Vaishali’s ‘green belt’, now transformed to ‘mandir boulevard’, and where the police ‘encounter ground’ had once been, and where we found a group of kids playing cricket on a tiny patch of vacant next to the canal.

 

Judge Sa’b screamed, ‘Writerji, it’s Parthiv!’

 

I hit the brakes and pulled over and ran fast alongside him.

 

He stood before his 7-year-old son, reached out to embrace him, tears flowing from his eyes, while Parthiv was writhing to escape his grip.

 

Nervous, his playmates silently watched the struggle between Judge Sa’b and Parthiv unfold. I stood a few steps back. Suddenly, all his playmates began to scream.

 

They were scared because they thought Parthiv was being kidnapped. As they screamed and yelled, a few of them threw mud at Judge Sa’b. One kid who looked about 9 came running and hit him with a cricket bat. He’d aimed for the base of the head to maximise brain impact, but at the last second Judge Sa’b had ducked by chance and the bat landed on his back.

 

Hearing the commotion, a crowd of people gathered. A few worshippers and sadhus and beggars emerged from the temples.

 

Parthiv screamed, ‘Help me! Get me away from this man! Please! Help!’

 

Someone must have made a phone call. The police have a bad rap and always arrive on the scene too late, but that day the wailing siren of a PCR van signalled its arrival just in time.

 

Parthiv insisted and insisted, ‘I don’t know who this man is!’ and Judge Sa’b, in tears, pulled him toward him and explained to the crowd and the police, ‘This is my son, Parthiv!’

 

Judge Sa’b and I went along with the police to the station, and from there Parthiv was taken home.

 

I was shaken to the core.

 

After that, the next morning Judge Sa’b didn’t turn up at paanwala Sunil’s stall. And he hasn’t turned up since.

 

I think it’s a shame that this couldn’t be the end of the story. We arrive here without resolution, and the story ends.

 

But that’s not how it went. The story of Judge Sa’b is still to be told, about which I’ve given the disclaimer that the story has no connection with persons, living or dead, and is purely a fictitious work based on imaginary characters and places. And reading it will not cause cancer.

 

By chance, three days later, I had to leave for a trip abroad, for three long months. And when I came back, Sunil’s wasn’t there anymore. The municipal authorities had evicted him and his kiosk. Earth had been excavated to lay LPG pipes where his stall had stood, and was surrounded by barbed wire. On the other side of the street, which had been a huge vacant lot and had served as the trash heap of the colony and place where the homeless gathered along with stray dogs, pigs, and crows, now had a banner hanging in front that proclaimed ‘Most Holy Welcome Banquet Hall.’

 

My memory of Judge Sa’b had begun to fade a bit, what with travelling from city to city, country to country, living a totally different way of life. Then also, by chance, I had to go back to my village in less than a week after I’d returned.

 

I returned three months later and one week after that again thought of paanwala Sunil. There were two reasons for thinking of him: the first was curiosity about how his wife was faring and how his kids’ studies were coming along. The second was more important and more decisive, and was this: I couldn’t find paan that tasted the same or as good as paan made by any paanwala other than Sunil.

 

Before he handed over the paan to eat, Sunil used to reach for a water bottle kept underneath his kiosk. ‘Clean out that mouth, take a nip of the water of brotherhood, and then have yer paan!’ Then again came the endless streak of cursing and swearing.

 

This kind of language enchants me. I’m always thinking, how can I include and incorporate this kind of foul language in the literature and dictionaries of ‘Hindi’ – this National/Indian/Neo-Sanskritised tongue? The question’s knotty and it vexes me and I’ve been scratching my head over it for the past thirty years. And whenever I’ve made some attempt in my stories or poems and have used some colourful invective, either fully above board in the words themselves, or in hidden meaning below the surface – the attacks begin. Freelance work is snatched away. The rumours spread and I have to wait once again for the right time.

 

Wait for the right time and the opportunity when I can openly use colourful, dirty, enchanting language in my work at will, and from top to bottom.

 

So that’s why I set out to find Sunil’s new setup, and find him I did. He was now in Sector 13 – having greased the palms of the police and the municipality, he’d thrown together a new place on the sidewalk.

 

He was very happy to see me after so long. I rinsed my mouth and then drank from his water bottle of brotherhood. I ate paan crafted by his hands. The gang was back together; everything is as it was; nothing had changed. Sunil’s wife still had asthma. He was trying everything from allopathy to Ayurveda to spells and magic to herbs and balms and spices to help her recover. His kids were still going to school. And he still let loose foul word after foul word when it came to school, bussing, petrol companies, government, the police – no one escaped. In the meantime, there had been some election where he’d voted for a candidate from his own caste, but now Sunil cursed him, too, since when he went to apply for his sidewalk vendors license the pol’s assistant squeezed him for twenty thousand. And as he cursed him, he vowed never to vote for a caste-brother again, since the bastards turn into fuckers after they’re sworn in.

 

We laughed at his cursing, hiding our own profanities behind laughter with too-practised skill.

 

And then one morning, everyone in stitches, Judge Sa’b suddenly came to mind: when he laughed uncontrollably with a mouthful of paan he’d dribble on his shirt and rubbed chuna on the red spot.

 

I thought of that day searching for his missing boy, Parthiv, and asked Sunil about Judge Sa’b.

 

What Sunil told me is the final part of this story.

 

After I’d gone abroad – in other words, about a week after Parthiv was found safe – Judge Sa’b went to Sunil’s one morning wearing the same old outfit and informed him that his judgeship was very close to being restored, but he needed to go to Jhansi to organise some money. He was walking on air and said that within a couple of weeks he’d come back from Jhansi with the cash he needed.

 

He asked paanwala Sunil for a loan of six thousand rupees.

 

Sunil didn’t have it so he somehow got the six thousand from some lenders and took a loan with a month’s interest and gave it all to the judge.

 

Forget about two weeks – Judge Sa’b wasn’t back even after two-and-a-half months. The lenders piled on interest every day and by then Sunil was piling on invective aimed toward Judge Sa’b. He’d given Sunil his mobile number and address in Jhansi, but every time he dialed the number he heard the ‘this mobile has been switched off’ message.

 

Judge Sa’b was an asshole, a bastard, and now the paanwala too had been nearly rubbed out like a stain with chuna. Sunil spoke, everyone laughed like before, hiding their own oaths inside their own artifice.

 

After interest compounded onto interest and it grew to be too much, the lenders filed a complaint with the police; the police came, they hauled away his kiosk to the station, and then Sunil went to Jhansi to look for the Judge.

 

Once in Jhansi, Sunil spent eight hours searching for Judge Sa’b’s house. As he wandered, he was told by various people on more than one occasion that the address might be phony; hearing this, Sunil, who had only been once or twice to unfamiliar cities like Jhansi where he was now for the first time, began to cry. Even there, all alone, and through his tears, he let fly the full complement of curses and oaths and bile.

 

But there wasn’t the same Vaishali gang in Jhansi to laugh along with him.

 

Finally, seven kilometres outside of town, he came to the neighbourhood and the house whose number Judge Sa’b had written down on his old letterhead, the old letterhead from when he’d once been a judge, with the government emblem of the three-headed lion on top.

 

But a padlock was hanging on the door of the house. A sealed, government lock.

 

The blood drained from Sunil’s face.

 

A neighbour, in no more than a few, quite ordinary sentences, recounted what had happened, his face as expressionless as a piece of wood, as if he had the face of a marionette.

 

‘The person living here committed suicide along with his family. Two months ago. The police have sealed the house. No family member has come here yet.’

 

Sunil was first in shock, and then he wept, and then came choice oaths that tickled the marionette-faced man’s funny bone, a laughter that was not hidden behind any artifice.

 

Sunil left for his home village, and his father – for whom he’d spent seventy thousand rupees on his back treatment and on whom he waited hand and foot for eight months – made him sign an affidavit on paper with the rotary seal in order to borrow ten thousand with an interest rate of 50 per cent. From that loan Sunil used seven thousand five hundred for the lenders and two thousand for the police and municipality so that he could retrieve his kiosk and resume his sidewalk business.

 

Telling this story, Sunil again spewed invective: I laughed, and everyone in our gang did, too, except this time I was the one dribbling red paan juice onto my shirt and I was the one asking for the chuna to rub on the spot so the stain wouldn’t set.

 

And then I realised that the shirt that I was wearing and wore all the time was almost thirty years old.

 

You probably remember that I told you about Judge Sa’b’s two addictions or vices that were the reason we two had come together. One was paan, the other chewing tobacco. And then I said that he had a third vice that I’d tell you at the very end of the story.

 

His third vice or addiction was life.

 

The vice of coming through alive no matter what.

 

Sunil, the others gathered there, and everyone in that little group suffered from the same addiction, but none were afflicted with cancer because of it. It’s not like smoking or chewing tobacco or gutka that can take your life.

 

 

*

 

This piece was selected for inclusion in the January 2015 Translation Issue by Daniel Medin, a contributing editor of The White Review. He helps direct the Center for Writers and Translators at the American University of Paris, and is an editor of The Cahiers Series and Music & Literature.



ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR


is one of contemporary Hindi’s most exciting and celebrated voices. In 2010 he won the Sahitya Akademi Award from India’s National Academy of Letters to writers and their works for their outstanding contributions to Indian literature. His work has been translated into ten languages. Also a filmmaker and playwright, Prakash divides his time between New Delhi and Sitapur in Madhya Pradesh.

Jason Grunebaum is a fiction writer and translator. His books include The Girl with the Golden Parasol (Yale University Press) and The Walls of Delhi (Seven Stories Press), both translated from the Hindi of Uday Prakash, and Manzoor Ahtesham's The Tale of the Missing Man. His work has been shortlisted for the DSC Prize in South Asian Literature and longlisted for the National Translation Award. He is senior lecturer in Hindi at the University of Chicago and a member of the Committee on Creative Writing.