High Court, Low Volume

What it’s like to be a layman inside Madras High Court

The Madras High Court. Source: Wikimedia

The Sesquicentenary Gate of Madras High Court towered over me. I admired it for a second before entering; with a camera slung around my neck and sunglasses perched on my nose, I didn’t look anything like the typical court-goer.

“Hey!” I looked down to see a woman constable stationed just inside the gate glowering at me. She pulled me aside. “What do you think you’re doing?”

I thought I was going inside to take some pictures, since I’d always wanted to see the High Court, but something told me this wasn’t the time to be Harischandra. “I’m meeting a friend,” I said, then cringed; yes, a regular haunt of the youth, the Madras High Court.

“Are you a journalist?” She was staring at the camera.

“No.”

“Gate 5.”

“What?”

“Go to Gate 5. And don’t let them see your camera, put it in a pocket.”

I turned away, grateful the police had just told me a way of circumventing one of their own rules, about as Indian a thing as could have happened.

I arrived at Gate 5, my back pocket barely containing my over-sized camera, and was handed a form to fill out. It demanded almost everything I knew about myself, but that was the easy part; the section that had me scratching my head asked for the contact details of the lawyer I planned to meet inside. I stepped away and called my grandfather.

“What’s the name of that acquaintance who’s a lawyer?”

“Lakshmi Narayanan.”

“Do you know his phone number?”

“No.”

“OK. I’m going to fill out your phone number on the Court’s entrance pass. In case they call you, could you tell them you’re Lakshmi Narayanan?”

My grandfather didn’t like this idea one bit, and a more serious analysis of his phonebook revealed the real Lakshmi Narayanan’s number. I handed in my form and waited nervously for the man behind the counter to make the next move. He stared at my scribbles, frowned, and reached for his cell phone. My stomach churned; I knew of Lakshmi Narayanan, but he didn’t know me. Then, with a sudden jerk of his head, the man picked up a stamp and affixed a seal on my form. I had my entry pass. 10 steps later, I was in.

The complex looked familiar, even though I’d never been within before: buildings gleamed in red, their Indo-Saracenic features immortalised by countless news photographs. I walked past an ancient advocates-only mess, where groups of lawyers stood around in black gowns with white bands tied around their necks, drinking chai and being raucous and rowdy; the effect was odd, like when you see a group of Indian kids in the US attired in Bharatanatyam costume suddenly break out into their American accents.

A statue of Manu Needhi Chozhan inside the court complex. Source: The Madras High Court

But I was there to see a trial. I wanted to watch lawyers making their arguments, goons sweating under vigorous cross-examination, and judges cutting everyone off with the type of acerbic wit that would make it to the next day’s edition of The Hindu.

I walked into one of the buildings in search of a courtroom. The corridors were dark, with heavy wooden doors spaced about ten feet apart. I tried a few doors, but they didn’t yield easily, and I didn’t want to push harder, afraid I’d barge into the middle of a serious trial. Past a common area where a group of lawyers was chatting in raised tones, one of the wooden doors opened and a man stepped out. I slipped in before the door closed.

The hall inside was large and white. It was split down the middle: on my left, everyday folks sat on long benches; on my right, lawyers sat around a large U-shaped desk just like in the movies but messier — it was covered with files and papers in disarray. Some lawyers thumbed through these, seemingly hunting for the one document that could save their case. Others sat sloped in their chairs, their glazed eyes akin to those of college students at a lecture delivered by Powerpoint. Only one lawyer stood, and his gaze was pointed straight ahead, at the man in control.

The Judge sat on an elevated desk at the centre of the room, frowning at said lawyer. This authority of justice was a small man with a pencil moustache; his gown was a tad oversized, and hung loosely around his shoulders. Casting directors would never have given him the part he played in real life.

The lawyer was saying something, but I couldn’t hear him. The Judge cut him off, possibly with wit and élan, but it escaped me — while his seat was raised, his voice wasn’t. Their exchange continued for several minutes, and then the lawyer sat down. A clerk leapt forward and replaced the files in front of the Judge, and another lawyer rose.

I edged forward, determined to catch some of the discussion this time. The new lawyer was a large man with a deep voice that carried, but what he had in pitch he didn’t have in diction, and I could only make out the occasional “my lord,” that punctuated his statements. The Judge completely ignored him, flipping through the files on his desk, looking at his watch, and whispering occasional comments to his clerk. Then, just as the lawyer was beginning to falter, the Judge signalled to him to approach the Bench. A few whispers later, the files were closed and the lawyer was back in his seat, grinning.

So this is how the Court worked. I could deal with the lack of a witness box, the lack of a framed picture of Gandhi, the lack of a blindfolded Lady Justice — things Indian cinema had told me were mainstays of any Indian courtroom — but the lack of a microphone was too much to bear. I looked around at the people around me, staring impassively at the proceedings as if at a TV on mute. I wondered if the journalists among them just read the court transcripts for their news reports.

As the Judge started to ignore the next anonymous lawyer in the room, I decided I was done and bolted.

Back outside, I was tempted to take a picture. Perhaps a quick selfie would do no harm? I started pulling out the camera in my back pocket when an ominous policeman rounded a corner and brushed past me. I thought of the lawyers I’d just seen, and the Judge on his throne. If I were breaking any rules, the long arm of the law wouldn’t have to reach very far to haul me away.

I patted the camera in my back pocket and walked out.