In 2008, while I was in London, my mother was living alone in Pondicherry. One night while she was walking home alone two men came from behind on a motorcycle and the one who was sitting behind snatched my mother’s gold necklace. They speeded away and disappeared in the traffic of the main boulevard. My mother, in a shock, knelt down and tried to see if she could at least find the pendant which might have fallen down on the road. Just then two very kind men from the Ashram came along and helped her to her feet and took her home. They also helped her to file an FIR at the police station stating that her gold chain had been snatched by two thieves. My mother, at that time, thought that it was not worth the trouble. But the two men convinced her that it was her duty to complain, that crimes which go unreported go unnoticed.
In the weeks that followed there were some more cases of gold chain snatching in and around that same area in Pondicherry. The thief, confident about his success, then went a bit too far and snatched a very heavy gold necklace from a woman who turned out to be a minister’s wife. He used the same modus operandi. He waited outside the Ganesh Temple one Friday when hundreds of people come for the special puja, then went on his motorcycle with his accomplice and snatched this lady’s thali, which was probably half a kilo of gold. The minister immediately got the whole Police force to start a combing operation and the thief was caught. When the police searched his house they found several gold necklaces which he had cut up into small pieces. He was going to sell each piece in a different town of Tamil Nadu. Actually, he had already sold several necklaces in this way, cut up into little pieces, in Chennai.
A few months later my mother received an intimation from the police saying that the gold that had been found in the thief’s house would be melted and made into little ingots and each of the victims who had filed a complained would be given a piece. We could not believe that this was actually happening. Surprisingly, the police had decided to give each victim the same amount of gold that had been stolen. My mother at first very naively believed someone who told her that some necklaces had been found in the thief’s house and each victim would be asked to go and identify her own necklace and take it.
I too very naively believed that my mother would have to just walk into the police station and walk out with the ingot. When I went to the office of the Senior Superintendent of Police I was told that I would have to engage a lawyer and file a petition asking the court to restore the gold to my mother. The long chase began. I had to go more than once to the police station to find out the right man who I had been asked to contact. The inspector who was supposed to help me gave me the address of a lawyer to whom he explained the situation. Finding the lawyer was one long adventure as his office was in a dusty nameless lane. Several months later I was told that the case had come up before the judge but at that time my mother was not in town so it had been dismissed. When I tried to start the whole process again the inspector through whom I had contacted the lawyer had been transferred. When I phoned the lawyer he said that in any case the gold ingot would be given to my mother when the thief was convicted. He thought that it would happen in a year’s time. I was convinced the case would drag for ten years. I went back to the police station several times, then to the court several times. This time I was told that the judge had been transferred and that the new judge had not yet been appointed. When the new judge came to the post it was time for the summer holidays of the court. I waited for an entire year before again going back to the court via the police station. This time miraculously there was a constable who understood what I was saying. He immediately called a lawyer who was somewhere in the vicinity. He looked like the typical lawyer. I mean, if I had been making a movie where I needed a lawyer I would have cast him as one. He had that glint in his eyes and the usual smooth talk.
Within minutes the forms that had to be filled up materialized before me. “I’ll have them typed,” said the lawyer and disappeared in a rush, his black gown billowing behind him. He was back within half an hour and just as he was about to get my mother’s signature, he mentioned very casually that he was going to charge an amount which was about three times the amount that he should have asked. When I looked at him in amazement he said, “I would have charged you more but the constable asked me to take something less because you are two helpless ladies.” When he turned his back the constable told me that he had never said anything of the sort. Obviously, the lawyer had wanted to squeeze something out of us because indeed we were “two helpless ladies”.
I bargained with him and got him to come down to two-thirds of the amount. He insisted that he was asking so much more because he would get everything done within three working days. “And you have to only come back once more to the court,” he added. Then he collected 50% of his fees. The next day the constable phoned saying that I had to get a couple of documents as proof of identity of my mother and come to the court so that a date could be given for the hearing. I ran with the copies of those documents to the court after which I was asked to contact the court clerk. When I located the court clerk he just looked here and there and in general behaved as if he was physically in pain or that he couldn’t speak. I just could not extract an answer from him. The lawyer saw me from far and came running. He wanted the remaining part of the payment. I couldn’t understand how he thought I was going to hand him all the money when he had not even got a date for the hearing. Did I look that dumb?
The next day I was told that the date had been fixed for the next day. My mother and I presented ourselves at noon but had to sit there for more than an hour before being asked to come back the next day. We went, with two cushions and a water bottle, knowing that we would have to sit on hard wooden benches for hours. An hour later we were asked to come back the next day. When the lawyer saw our look of disappointment he said, “You should not complain. After all, you are getting something back by God’s grace. Have you ever heard of the police returning stolen gold?” We realized that what he was saying was absolutely true so we went home. Most of the time the lawyer behaved as if we didn’t deserve any respect. He didn’t hesitate to come running and asking me to keep quiet because I was asking how long we had to wait.
We had to come back to the court several times again, once because the clerk had decided to take the day off and we could not get our hearing scheduled, and wait for long hours before finally we were told to come to the magistrate’s chamber. We waited again for half an hour then the lawyer said, “Take your shoes off before entering the magistrate’s chamber. It’s disrespectful to stand before so high an authority with your shoes on.” Were we in the times of the British Raj or what? When I turned around I saw that neither the lawyer nor the constable had taken their shoes off.
Finally, the magistrate handed us the little ingot. “There is a certificate which guarantees that this is 12 grams,” he said. I asked him if there was a guarantee about the purity of the gold. “How many carats is that?” I asked. The magistrate laughed and said that the paper said nothing about that. I took the ingot out and it looked like pure copper to me. I held it against my mother’s gold bracelets and it looked too red to be gold.
As we stepped out of the court room, the lawyer came near me and said “You know, the clerk wants to be paid something.”
“I am not going to give him a rupee!” I said strongly because I hadn’t forgotten how we had to go back one day because he was absent.
“You must be from France,” said the lawyer, “that’s why you don’t know that it’s normal practice to pay the clerk some bakshish.”
“I am not from France. Why don’t you give him something from the money you have earned?” I told him.
“These are honest people!” he said, as if to say “These are aliens from another planet.”
That is when I understood that inexplicable look in the clerk’s eyes some days earlier. I hadn’t got it then!
By this time we were heading for the lift and the lawyer was running after us for the remaining part of the payment. After paying him I understood that he had been asking me to pay so much more because he thought I was a French national.
I was right. It was too good to be true. The court was not giving back to my mother what had been stolen. It was, in fact, trying to get her to come so that some other thieves – the wily lawyer and the clerk – could steal something more.