Thursday, May 15, 2008

Tales from the Court

Tales from the Court by Matthew Thomas.

"Banguuun," ordered the turbaned policeman. This signaled the entrance of Tuan Hakim Mohammed Ibdin bin Din, the resident Second Class Magistrate of Palong Likit, the local arbitrator of issues and dispenser of justice.

Tuan Hakim Mohammed Ibdin bin Din was a short, stout man with a beer belly although he protested that this was not due to any intemperate habits but to imbalances in his genes. He focused at the floor as he entered. The occupants of the court all arose in unison and bowed to Tuan Hakim who in turn returned the bow and sat himself. The crowd, then, followed suit.

Rukumani Devi, the court interpreter cum court clerk, cum file caller, cum amicus curiae of the court, cum confidant of the magistrate, cum Amway agent rose, a tinge of white ash smeared on her forehead and in a crisp yellow sari, looking important. She reeled out the civil and criminal action numbers with accompanying names of legal firms so fast that I missed mine.

She then called a second time around, this time angrily, "How many times must call-lah?"

Rukumani Devi conducted herself as would a maestro conducting an orchestra. Everything was at her fingertips, an upturned palm if she wanted counsel to stand and a down-turned palm for counsel to sit. The Magistrate, the lawyers and litigants paid her great heed.

The court house in Likit, next to a secondary forest, was a wooden structure that was once a barn, now converted into a place of justice. It had large doors in front and at all sides. As the court was not air-conditioned, electric fans dangling at the end of long poles, swirled endlessly purportedly to cool the hot air.

In the early morning of 14th January 1972 before the court became busy, there was a commotion in the courthouse. Rukumani Devi had marched into the courthouse as it was her daily routine with the day's court files under her arm, when to her shock and bewilderment, she saw seated on Tuan Hakim's chair, a monkey. It was a silver-tailed variety which Rukumani Devi recognized as a male as it had its legs raised and spread on Tuan Hakim's table. It had an altogether nonchalant look about it.

"Aiyoo, kurangu," exclaimed Rukumani Devi with a scream startled by this unexpected intrusion. Her scream did not deter the monkey as it continued to sit imperiously as though it was truly its judicially-santioned position to be there. Lawyers, litigants and witnesses rushed into the courthouse. All were taken aback by what they saw. Rukumani Devi loudly shooed the intruder. The threat only made it bare its teeth exposing pink gums. Rukumani Devi now kicked loose one of her slippers from her feet, hurled it at the monkey whose eyes trailed the flight of the footwear whilst scratching itself vigorously.

"Tuan Hakim would be here at any moment. This monkey is not moving from the chair. Andava, what am I to do?" said Rukumani Devi, this protector of the courts.

She banged on chairs, tables and cupboards and shooed, but to no avail. Her vilest tricks were doomed to failure. The recalcitrant intruder, there in a princely pose, a pillar of stone, sat oblivious to her protestations. Now Rukumani Devi realized the reputation of the court was at stake. If she did not act quickly this sanctuary of hope, this cradle of justice where even the hardest criminal is subdued not by the fist or sword but by the word, will become a mockery -- a laughing stock, subject to idle talk at the common marketplace.

At this very moment as though by divine intervention, the reverberation of gunfire was heard from the nearby plantation. The monkey, apparently accustomed to this sound and realizing that eternal vigilance was the key to survival, leaped into the air and in a moment of wanton fury vanished amongst the rafters of the building. Tuan Hakim Mohammed Ibdin bin Din opened the door of his chambers that led to his chair, quite oblivious to the happenings.

Abdullah Iskander stood charged in this court under Section 36(i) of the Road Traffic Ordinance for causing injury to another whilst driving his motor vehicle in a careless manner. I was in court representing him. As this was one of my earliest trials, I had sworn that I would not leave a single stone unturned till victory was sealed. The first witness called was the investigating officer, Inspector Azizuddin who took his stand in the witness box with a wide ricocheting salute. Before the Prosecuting Officer, Mr Maniam, could proceed with the examination of the chief witness, Tuan Hakim raised his hand and stopped the proceedings. He was writing something. This went on for a while in the absolute hush of the court. It was then that I saw from the corner of my eye the tail of the monkey from the rafters. It moved independently as though a precursor for the mechanical pendulum which in later time would tell the time.

"Right, proceed," Tuan Hakim ordered, putting his pen down.

The proceedings were rather acrimonious protestations on the irrelevancy of questions, arguments, objections yet more objections. All this while Tuan Hakim Mohammed Ibidin bin Din sat placidly with a judicious air taking down notes. He did not interfere, did not say anything, did not ask for clarification nor did he look at the witness to judge the demeanour, but just wrote. At times, when it became imperative that he intervened, he gave a judicial nod.

I noticed that Rukumani Devi was irritated by my, perhaps, all too numerous questions. I plunged ahead as a true soldier refusing to retreat under enemy fire. When it came to my turn to cross-examine, I was ruthless or at least, I thought I was. She wrote on a piece of paper and quietly passed the note to me.

It read, "Don't waste anymore time, finish case quickly. Fine for the offence is RM 150. It is going to rain soon."

I looked at her. She smiled unengagingly. "What cheek!" I thought. I plodded on. It came to a point in the cross examination where the witness was insisting the point of impact was 'X' marked in the police sketch plan and key. My onslaught did not dissuade nor threaten him. In order to buy time I insisted that a site visit would explain matters clearly. An application was immediately made by me. The prosecutor objected. Rukumani Devi hit her head with her palm in utter frustration.

Tuan Hakim stopped writing. He knocked on the far front end of the table. Rukumani Devi stood up and looked at him.

"We shall visit the site." Saying this he stood up.

"Banguuun," called the turbaned policeman. The court stood adjourned.

Rukumani Devi, now truly agitated, confronted me.

"You are from Kuala Lumpur. Look at the dark clouds. It is going to rain soon. What are you trying to prove? The judgment will be a fine of one hundred and fifty ringgit," she emphatically and decisively repeated.

"Let's see," I said, thinking 'you are not the judge'.

In a moment Tuan Hakim sent for me. I approached his chambers, pushing open the door. He, unlike Rukumani Devi, gave an engaging smile and invited me to be seated.

"Maybe I can ask Ruku to get us tea from the canteen," he stated.

"No, Tuan," I said, "but thanks, anyway."

"You are right. This tea is not tea but hot water and condensed milk, not good if got kencing manis," he volunteered this medical information, with a chuckle.

Having ensured I was reasonably comfortable, he asked, "Are you from Kuala Lumpur? You know any tile shop? Floor tiles type, organic-lah."

"I do, Tuan," I replied, as if I was an expert in this field as well. Anyway it was always safe to be in the good books of the magistrate, even more so if he was hearing your case.

"I need lebih kurang 200 tiles-lah," he continued, "for my kitchen floor. You know, my wife-lah, she insists must change." He talked and talked. "But I will pay for it, no favours here," he abruptly stated.

"I never thought otherwise," I lied.

"Honour and principles, we must uphold," he affirmed with the demeanour of a judge.

"We must," I concurred, not knowing where all this was leading to.

In the midst of our conversation, I heard the clap of thunder and suddenly it was pouring with rain.

"Maybe you can ask the salesman to send the tiles to my address," he continued. He immediately wrote me an address. "Say, within two weeks. Any earth colour will do-lah, preferably beige," he concluded.

As we sat chatting in the magistrate's chambers, yet another commotion was heard in the courthouse. Tuan Hakim got up. I stood up as well.

He whispered, "Keep this to yourself. Don't tell Ruku. She might misinterpret although she's an interpreter." He chuckled at the pun.

"Sure," I assured him.

There was a respectful knock on Tuan Hakim's door and in ran Rukumani Devi.

"Tuan, the monkey is in your chair again. What to do?"

Tuan Hakim dashed out of his chambers with Rukumani Devi and me hot on his heels. There, in judicial splendour was the monkey seated in Tuan Hakim's chair. Tuan Hakim pondered. Rukumani Devi glared. I feigned surprise. The monkey scratched itself. At that moment lightning struck and a roll of thunder reverberated. As a rush of wind filled the courthouse, a mother hen with her chicks scuttled into it seeking shelter from the rain. Another flash of lightning followed and a sharp snap echoed through the court house. The lights went out. The dangling fans heaved and ceased their circular motion. In all this confusion the monkey looked, scratched itself but never moved from its acquired position.

Rukumani Devi was on the verge of losing her temper with me. I read her mind. I was the cause of all her troubles. She looked lost, like a sleepwalker who had abdicated her sense of direction. The day's happenings were all too much for this 'high priestess' of the court.

"You see, Tuan," she addressed Tuan Hakim, "The case cannot proceed because of the monkey. We cannot visit the site as it is pouring."

She mumbled to herself, "Some people don't know when to stop," an obvious reference to me.

Tuan Hakim just smiled. "Sabar, Ruku," he whispered. "This monkey is not going to obstruct the wheels of justice," he stated authoritatively.

"Jaswant," he called to the policeman, "I am sure you can do something to get the monkey out."

"I try, Tuan," replied Jaswant and he left the court house with a bow.

"Meanwhile we continue the case from here," saying this Tuan Hakim pulled out Rukumani Devi's chair and sat down. The case continued. Rukumani Devi vacated her chair and now placed herself on a stool at the far end of the table. She refused to look at me but kept on smiling as though stating a fact, that is, I was wasting my time.

The case toiled on, amidst the lightning, thunder and rain, witnessed by the monkey, quite nonchalantly. Jaswant, bowed as he re-entered the court. He carried a worn out hockey stick, which he hid behind his back. Tuan Hakim silently stopped the proceedings once again as we waited for the other drama, placed a little above us, to unfold. Jaswant inched his way to the podium. He reminded me of a leopard that stalks its victim among the long grass of the Savanna, ever so light-footedly before it made the final leap. Surprise was the key to a successful hunt. It was everything. The monkey was so engrossed in the happenings before it that it momentarily let down its guard as Mr Singh made his approach from the rear. He lifted his hockey stick. It was like watching a flick in slow motion -- a frozen tableau from a silent film. Having achieved sufficient height, he brought the stick down forcefully and decisively at the monkey. At that very micro-moment the monkey turned. The years of unabated vigilance had paid off. It leaped into the air as the hockey stick came crashing down on Tuan Hakim's chair, causing untold damage. In the melee the long silver-tailed monkey let out a sharp shriek and disappeared once more among the rafters. It survived.

The rain continued. It was getting dark. The mother hen and its chicks zigzagged to another corner of the courthouse, protecting its chicks under its plumage. Jaswant examined Tuan Hakim's chair, then his hockey stick. He shook his head. Both could not serve their purpose any longer. Tuan Hakim realized that he would look ridiculous climbing the podium to conduct the trial where his legal abode lay in ruins.

"We proceed with the case," Tuan Hakim declared.

So we continued with the trial from where he was presently seated. Rukumani Devi was reading a magazine. Obviously she had given up, especially on me.

At one stage she turned and within my earshot spoke to one of the court clerks seated nearby, "This court has turned into a circus, we have monkeys, strongmen and clowns," an indirect reference to me.

At last the case was concluded. Submissions were made by both parties. All the while Tuan Hakim copiously took down notes. Suddenly the lights came on and the ceiling fans whined and moved. Tuan Hakim thanked us. He then adjusted his glasses and deliberated over the verdict.

"I have heard the witnesses' testimony, I have also seen the sketch plan and key, and have delved into all the possibilities as advanced by counsel and the prosecution," he said, adjusting his glasses and continued, "and having deliberated in depth, I now come to the judgment."

I looked at Rukumani Devi. She was simulating a 1-5-0 with her mouth.

"The defendant is guilty as charged under Section 36(i) of the Road Traffic Ordinance and hereby fined one hundred and fifty ringgit."

"There, what did I tell you?" Rukumani Devi muttered raising both her hands.

Tuan Hakim solemnly thanked both the prosecutor and me for the excellent presentation and got up stating, "Court adjourned."

As I was driving home on that wet evening, I told myself that I should not be too disappointed, for who can say, "There is no justice in the courts." To the injured man the offence has not gone unpunished. My client had to pay a fine of only RM 150, and I will be duly paid by my client. Tuan Hakim acquitted his responsibility in the temple of justice with my assurance that his floor tiles would arrive. Rukumani Devi has yet once again proved a point that she was right, and the monkey ...? Who knows what ran through that monkey's mind .

Postscript: the monkey was never seen in the court precinct ever again.