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Kroswami writes on a legend in the Bar. Kroswami, after five glorious years in Calcutta, chose to litigate in Delhi. Two years later, Kroswami decided to leave Delhi and shift to Bombay where he continues to meet people dressed in white shirts and black pants.
Like any other profession, litigation too has its heroes and villains. The heroes are the lawyers with razor sharp minds, always ready with a quick reply, persuasive yet humble. These are people who have fought intellectual wars and emerged victorious. And like all heroes, stories about these lawyers often attain mythical proportions. These stories are traded and exchanged, often in a set of hushed whispers while sharing lunch in the canteen or in hurried sentences while waiting for a matter to come up.
One of my more favourite stories relates to an extremely distinguished jurist who had left practice several years before I joined the bar. This man, whom I shall refer to as Mr. Seth, had been one of the youngest designated seniors of his time and the High Court was full of stories about his eccentricities. There were some who said that he still used a two rupee pen that he had when he first joined the profession, that he could recite complete paragraphs of ancient judgments and that he could persuade even the most reluctant of judges to see his side of the argument.
This particular story relates back to the time when he had yet to become the legend that he eventually became. He had been established as a young lawyer of immense potential and, even at that point of time, he had become a favourite of quite a few judges.
A new Chief Justice had recently been appointed and the Chief had quickly built a reputation as someone with an extremely caustic tongue; a judge who would bear no nonsense of any kind. The Chief had a short temper and very often, junior lawyers would tremble when they found out that they had to appear before the Chief especially when they were sent to ask for an adjournment.
For some reason or the other, Mr. Seth had not yet had the chance to appear before the Chief. Inevitably, the time came for Mr. Seth to enter Court No.1 and the battle lines could not have been drawn more clearly. On one side was Mr. Seth with a weak case and on the other, a judge who had built a reputation as one with a sharp mind and a sharper tongue.
Mr. Seth had been arguing for around ten minutes, the longest anyone had ever argued before the Chief till that point of time. It was a veritable battle of words. Mr. Seth would begin one line of thinking and the Chief would immediately cut him down. Then Mr. Seth would, somehow, manage another line of argument. This too would be struck down. Yet Mr. Seth would keep on prodding and working, linking one thought to another, one argument with another. It was beginning to look like the Chief was losing his patience; the lines on his forehead were beginning to get thicker.
The words were thrown about, to and fro and just when it looked like Mr. Seth had gotten his way, the Chief softly said, “Mr. Counsel, please stop for a minute.”He may have said it softly but there was no mistaking the tone of the sentence. It was the tone of someone confirming a death sentence.
The Chief took a sip of water while Mr. Seth stood there, his face impassive and his back ram-rod straight.
Silence. You could have heard a page turn in that silence. The air was still, as if the air itself was holding its’ breath.
“Counsel….” the judge began, “do you think we are fools?”
Everyone was looking at Mr. Seth now, their breath momentarily paused.
Mr. Seth looked at the papers before him and then took off his glasses (this would later become his signature move, emulated by younger lawyers for generations). Holding his glasses in one hand, he looked straight at the judge and said:
“Your lordship has placed me in an extremely uncomfortable position…..If I answer yes, I will be guilty of contempt and if I answer no, I will be guilty of perjury.”
And the Chief broke into a smile which grew into a heaving laughter. The entire room erupted into laughter. In a split second, the taut atmosphere had relaxed. There is an almost congenial air in the room, as congenial as it can possibly get in a Court.
Taking another sip of water, this time with a smile on his face, the Chief told Mr. Seth “Very well Counsel, proceed.”
I don’t know what the outcome of the case was, who won and who lost. That seems immaterial. And that is the way it is with heroes and their legends.
Why did the judge take so long to write the judgment awarding a punishment of life imprisonment?
Because it was the longest sentence possible!
Kroswami, after five glorious years in Calcutta, was a litigating lawyer in Delhi. Two years later, Kroswami decided to leave Delhi and shift to Bombay where he continues to meet people dressed in white shirts and black pants.