It was a busy time in the High Court. The afternoon session was about to begin. Important-looking lawyers, hugging important-looking files, were hurrying to their courtrooms. Judges, revived by the lunch break, were giving finishing touches to their wigs before stepping into their courtrooms. Litigants were trying to have one last word with their solicitors, solicitors with their advocates, advocates with their juniors...
The corridors of the court were busier, if anything. Sultan stepped aside for a chaiwallah rushing with a tray of glasses, a policeman leading handcuffed criminals in a line, a group of men pouring out of a lift and rushing to a courtroom on his left. Intrigued, he made his way to the entrance of the courtroom. Every chair in the room was occupied, and people were standing before pillars, walls, windows…
“Quite a crowd!” he stepped back and said to a man in a lawyer’s gown who had just come out of the courtroom and stopped to light a cigarette. “What is the case about?”
The man turned his head to look at him, but continued to light his cigarette. Then, still looking at him, he put out the matchstick with a flick of his hand, put the used stick back into the matchbox and took a deep puff.
Sultan remembered that he was not wearing a black coat. “By the way, I’m Sultan Kowaishi,” he introduced himself, “from Middle Temple. I’ve just enrolled myself as an advocate in the High Court – this afternoon, as a matter of fact – so don’t quite know what is what.”
“Yes, Sultan Samiullah Kowaishi,” he offered his hand.
“Glad to meet you,” the man took his hand. “I’m Jinnah, Mohammed Ali Jinnah.”
“Oh!” Sultan’s jaw dropped. He should have guessed. The man’s height alone was a giveaway. “I heard about you in London,” he said.
“All good things, I’m sure.”
“Huh? Of course,” Sultan managed.
“Hmm,” Jinnah smiled, then answered his question. “The crowd has come to hear the judge’s ruling in the case of Emperor versus Mahadaji Godbole and others. Does the name ring a bell? No? Godbole, the principal accused, has been charged with attempting to deface the statue of Queen Victoria, the one near Flora Fountain – “
“ – and the others, with waving black flags and chanting ‘Victoria murdabad’ before the statue.”
“Bizarre! When did this happen?”
“On the anniversary of the death of Queen Victoria – and in the presence of a large number of British officials and loyal natives who had assembled at the site to pay homage to the Great Mother. It was all in the papers.”
“I missed it,” Sultan said. “But it is a terrible thing to have happened, on such a solemn occasion too. Queen Victoria had great affection for Indians.”
“Oh yes. Her favourite bearer, Abdul Karim, was an Indian.”
“Y-es,” Jinnah nodded. “I remember it now. He was packed off to India without pension the day she died.”
“I...er...but don’t you agree that it was a terrible thing, trying to deface her statue?”
“It was idiotic,” Jinnah said. “The terrible thing is what the defence lawyer did after that. He got half a dozen witnesses to swear that the principal accused was not carrying a bucket at all, let alone a bucket of black paint; that in any case he had gone nowhere near the statue; and that the others were shouting Victoria zindabad, not murdabad. I warned him the trick would never work. The police would produce twice as many witnesses who would swear to the exact opposite – and for once, they would not be lying. Come, let us go to the canteen and have some tea. The judgment is a foregone conclusion. I had gone to the courtroom only to check some details about a case of mine that is coming up next week.”
“How would you have defended the case?” Sultan asked him as they sat down at what seemed to be his favourite table.
“Ek pot Darjeeling chai aur do cup,” Jinnah told a waiter before answering Sultan. “I would have got the men to plead guilty and tell the court the truth: that they did not mean to insult the late queen; they meant only to register a protest against the way India is being governed in the name of the Crown.”
“Would that have helped them?”
“They would not have been set free, if that is what you’re asking,” Jinnah said, stubbing out the cigarette. “The British are getting fed up of us Indians agitating for no reason – as they see it. And the jury is all white. It always is in such cases. The judge too is white, which too is not surprising, considering that we have so many British and so few Indian judges in the High Court, in all our courts in fact.”
Jinnah paused as the waiter brought their tea. Jinnah picked up a cup, took a sip and continued, “But they would have escaped with a light sentence, the usual quid pro quo for pleading guilty. Look at what they are likely to get now: one year’s rigorous imprisonment for the main accused and at least three months of the same for each of the others, apart from heavy fines. To add insult to injury, they have ended up looking like liars – worse, like fools. But enough of Mahadaji Godbole.”
Jinnah brought out a tin of cigarettes and picked one out. “Tell me about yourself. Whose chambers are you planning to join? Or have you joined someone already?” He lit the cigarette.
“I’m planning to set up my own practice…”
“I see,” Jinnah took a deep puff, exhaled a cloud of smoke and studied him through the smoke.
“…and specialise in criminal law,” Sultan added.
“Bombay is not a particularly criminal place,” Jinnah said after one more puff. “There is not much work for criminal lawyers. And almost all the solicitors are British. They tend to take their briefs to British, not Indian advocates. My advice is, pick up whatever comes your way. And join some established firm, British if possible. They will pay you next to nothing – not that that should worry you – but the experience would be useful.”
“Doesn’t working for a British firm cramp one’s style?” Sultan asked. “I mean, what would they say if I were to take up a case like today’s, for instance?”
“Would you take up a case like today’s? Defend a man accused of defying the British rule?” Jinnah asked, watching him with interest.
“I, er...was just giving a hypothetical example,” Sultan stammered. “I mean, it would be awkward for them, wouldn’t it, if someone from their firm took up a case like this?”
“They wouldn’t bat an eyelid,” Jinnah replied. “They are British, true, but they are lawyers first. I know what I’m talking about. I worked for a British firm once.” He took out his pocket watch, looked at it and rose. “But you must excuse me. I’ve to meet someone at three-thirty.”
“Maybe we can meet over lunch one of these days,” Sultan rose courteously.
“Certainly,” Jinnah said. “Ask in the library or common room and they’ll tell you where to find me.”
Excerpted with permission from Jinnah Often Came To Our House, Kiran Doshi, Tranquebar.