The District Judge is the Defendant!
When I was the Ernakulam District Judge, there was an incident and I had to climb the witness box and suffer a sentence. Except for the few months when my son stayed with me, I was a resident of the Ernakulam YWCA hostel. The YWCA president was the Chief Justice K T Koshy’s wife. That was the time when subscriptions were being raised to build a new wing of the YWCA hostel. It was decided that a performance should be organized to raise money for the new building. I suggested that women in the legal field should stage a court room scene. And so a play was written. The matron of the YWCA (chedathy) was the real inspiration behind it. She knew a handful of English words, just a fistful, like enough mustard to temper. She would use them correctly or otherwise whenever she could, without much grasp of their meaning.
Chedathy’s cruel manner of distorting English words mercilessly and torturing the English language formed the basis of the case that was to be enacted. A charge sheet that catalogued all the words that contributed to the severe torture of the English language was drawn up in it. We decided to enact this play for the YWCA’s fund-raising work.
The plaintiff was to be a white woman who represented the English language, and the defendant, an old Nambutiri man who knew no English at all. The charge was that the latter tried to murder the former. The plaintiff was Miss Sara Pothen, and the defendant, myself. Mrs Annamma Alexander, who was a lawyer at the High Court, played the Judge. The plaintiff’s lawyer, the defendant’s lawyer, several witnesses who were victims of the defendant’s violence, the Bench clerk, the policeman on duty at the court – these were the characters in the play.
The costumes and make-up were all perfect. The defendant, the Nambutiri, got ready, clad in a shirt and mundu, with a top-knot, and looked like a perfect old geezer.
The plaintiff – the white woman – made her statement in English. The witnesses spoke in Malayalam, except for the English words that were the bases of the case.
The defendant argued that he had no intention at all to kill the plaintiff, and on the contrary, he felt a deep love, and in the effort to display that love, he ended up committing the violence because of his ignorance. He pleaded that his good intentions must be taken into account, and that he must be acquitted. He expressed all this in Malayalam. The audience clapped and laughed from the start to end of the court-scene.
After the examination and the arguments, the Judge passed the verdict. The audience waited with bated breath. The Judge declared: “Though the defendant’s attempt to murder the plaintiff is well-proved from the evidence of the witnesses, but considering the circumstances and the innocent intention maybe they should get married …”
Before the verdict was fully stated, the old man bowed to the court and proceeded to embrace the plaintiff lovingly and the curtain fell when she ran away screaming “ayyo”.
A large audience that included the Judges of the High Court, Magistrates, Munsifs, lawyers, leading officials, had bought tickets and occupied the front rows. Among the many performances that were presented that day, everyone agreed that ours was the best. And so the YWCA was able to collect a large sum from the efforts of women in the field of the law. But for some time after, the plaintiff (Miss Sara Pothen) and her constant companion [myself], the defendant, found it hard to be out walking. We had to face the meaningful looks and giggles of the lawyers and clients and the hanger-ons in the District Court.
Let me also mention here the impressions that I, a Travancorean, had as the Ernakulam District Judge, of the people of Kochi and their culture. From my experience as a lawyer and official life in Travancore, the broadmindedness and respect for women that the people of Kochi show are so adorable that Travancore ought to be saluting it. I have often thought that if I had started practicing as a lawyer and assuming a post in Kochi, my life would have been so much more peaceful and full of friendship. I am not making a sweeping condemnation of everyone here. Excellent people are to be found everywhere. But we have to interact for the most not just with them, for sure. Saying this, I remember what the lawyers at Kochi said when I was transferred as the District Judge of Ernakulam – what they told me later. Among the leading lawyers of Kochi, Sri Mannathazathu Appukkutta Menon and Sri Komattil Achyutha Menon had a conversation. The scene was the Bar Association room of the District Court. “Bhagavaane, in this old age, one has now to go in front of women and address them as ‘Your Honour’! My fate may be to go through this misfortune,” said Sri Appukkutta Menon to his friend. “Don’t be so despondent and pass such a quick judgment,” Sri Komattil replied, trying to pacify him.
Anyway, even before three months had passed after I took charge as District Judge, Sri Appukkutta Menon’s prejudice and misunderstanding had evaporated. He declared in the Bar Association itself, “Hey! Wasn’t all the fear misplaced? If all woman Judges are like this, then maybe it will be better to remove all the male judges and replace them with women…”
It was Sri Komattil Achyutha Menon who told me about this incident when I was transferred out of Ernakulam. Needless to say, I felt very contented with this certificate.
After serving as Judge in Travancore and Kochi, I also worked in Malabar for two years. I was transferred to Kozhikode from Kochi. I am happy to say that my experience in Malabar was as good as or even better than my experience in Kochi. When Malabar was part of the Madras Presidency, it was mostly white men who worked as Judges there. The practices and manners in court and the behavior of lawyers there – all of this was attuned to their ways. All witness statements made in Malayalam had to be translated into English before they were recorded for the sake of the British judges who did not know the language of Malabar. Though a translator was specially appointed for this purpose, thinking of the difficulties that may arise even if minor mistakes were made in translation – especially for criminal cases – I recorded statements with utmost care. For some time, this appeared quite irksome to me. But with some experience, I overcame that. When I think of it today, I feel that this unnecessary practice that continued after the white people withdrew could have been ended by bringing it to the attention of the High Court. But at that time, it did not strike me. I am not sure if my successors continue to suffer the same trouble or if it ended now.
In Kozhikode too I received full cooperation from lawyers and court officials. Though heard very many civil and criminal cases there too, I cannot recollect any that were more interesting than the ones I just narrated. And besides, just as I was eager by now to enter the High Court, my readers too must be eager to know of my experiences there.