He was not Rafiya Begum’s first lawyer. The first two operated out of ramshackle offices next to the district courts and had been referred to her by neighbours. The very first one was a sickly and lackadaisical man with a wealth of excuses for the lack of progress on the case. He was also easily intimidated and her opponents soon browbeat him into dropping her case altogether. The second one was more resilient, but he had the highly annoying habit of rubbing his thumb and forefinger together as soon as he saw her, and then uttering a long refrain, the gist of which remained the same: ‘Rafiya Bibi. I will provide all the legal arguments, but the court staff also looks for some other arguments. It needs persuasion. It needs inducements. It needs well-timed encouragements or fairly soon one discovers that court proceedings have slowed down to a halt or that one’s case file has been accidently lost or drenched in the rain or a key document carried away by a crow. One does not get a suitable date for the next hearing or one’s case slips down to the very end of the daily list of hearings that already has over a 100 cases. Even if there is a hearing, the evidence does not get properly recorded under one pretext or another. Furthermore, affidavits, certified copies, witness statements, other important documents and even the witnesses suddenly develop the bad habit of mysteriously disappearing, and can only be brought back at great expense. I don’t really blame them – how is a person expected to feed his family with this inhuman inflation?’ Rafiya Begum tried her best to keep up with his perpetual demands to meet all kinds of unexpected costs and inexplicable expenses. However, as soon as she fell behind, he lost all alacrity and plainly told her that this was a highly improper way to fight a legal battle.
Her third lawyer was a polite, hard-working, middle-aged man. She chose him of her own accord, simply by observing his industrious manner, for she often saw him entering and exiting different courtrooms and patiently explaining things to his clients. He treated her with respect and seemed to make a genuine effort to safeguard her interests. But then the presiding judge was transferred and the hearings had to essentially start all over again. Soon after, there was a protracted clash between two antagonistic factions of lawyers that kept disrupting all court proceedings for over a month. And just when she thought that she had started making some headway, her lawyer got embroiled in a personal land dispute. As he had to increasingly spend a lot of time in his village to prevent illegal occupation by his opponents, she had to reluctantly let him go. He tried to help her out by referring her to a one-time mentor of his, who unfortunately turned out to be a very old man. It was a miracle that he was still practising law because he could barely see, was hard of hearing and suffered from memory loss. Then he suddenly died.
That was when someone advised her to try her luck near the Lahore High Court, for that was where most of the hawkish courtroom warriors roamed and famous legal eagles built their eyries. That was how she made her first acquaintance with the congested road behind the colonial-era Indo-Saracenic red-stone buildings of the high court, and also got to know the various roads, lanes and side-lanes that branched from it. The place – with its characterless four- to five-storey buildings, the older ones disfigured by lawyers’ signboards, nameplates and plaques, as well as new plazas with glitzy glass fronts – swarmed with lawyers.
It was Rafiya Begum’s fourth trip to the lawyers’ hunting ground since her old lawyer had given up practice (permanently). She was haplessly wandering about and looking at different signboards, with her case files tightly clutched to her chest, when a young man approached her and inquired whether she was seeking legal assistance. She had been forewarned that some predatory lawyers used networks of agents to rope in clients, but that they were invariably greedy and desperate and thus best avoided. But Rafiya Begum was tired. Her back and feet hurt terribly, and she was no wiser about how to find a suitable lawyer. The young man was a smooth talker and somewhat persuasive. He claimed that his employer was a man to be feared for he stalked the courtrooms like a Bengal tiger. The agent went on to narrate several episodes in which the redoubtable man had physically thrashed opposing lawyers, clients, a few police constables and, in one instance, even a civil judge. When her sense of shock showed plainly on her face, the agent hastened to explain that his employer had absolutely no tolerance for any impediment to justice, for he was an unstinting and well-known lover of that virtue. She remained reluctant to hire the services of such a violently disposed man, noting that none of the stories hinted at his legal prowess. But then she hadn’t got far with the less aggressively inclined counsel either.
And that was how Rafiya Begum ended up engaging the services of Chaudhry Furqan Nazeer Mayo, BA, LLB (Advocate of the Superior and the Subordinate Courts).
The young man escorted her to a three-room office on the second floor of a nearby building, complete with plywood panelling and ceramic-tile floors. At first sight, the Bengal tiger didn’t appear to be even remotely tiger-like. He sat uncomfortably stuffed in an ample, red Rexine swivel chair, perspiring profusely despite the large and noisy air conditioner directly above his head. Rafiya Begum noticed the various gilt-framed pictures of the ninety-nine names of Allah and holy cities of Mecca and Medina that graced the walls, with small-scale models of the same encased in glass cubes on the green baize-covered desk. The man appears to be genuinely God-fearing, she consoled herself.
The lawyer greeted her with an almost obsequious deference and invited her to sit on the sofa directly before his desk. Overspilling case files, thick and worn legal books with numerous neon page-markers and three brightly-coloured telephone sets fought for space with decorative knick-knacks, golden pen stands and various glass jars full of biscuits, dried fruit, shelled chickpeas, sugar-coated almonds and an overflowing crystal ashtray – telltale signs of a busy lawyer who worked long hours at his desk. Or one who wanted his visitors to think so. At one edge of the desk was a large cardboard box for special circumstances – this she found out much later – containing an arm sling and various detachable plasters and bandages. The lawyer had been known to employ these to diffuse the ire of a long-suffering and particularly frustrated clients. After all, most were persuaded to restrain themselves when faced with a heavily bandaged Furqan Mayo, the miraculous survivor of a Terrible Accident.
Furqan Mayo chain-smoked and chain-slurped large mugs of tea, depositing cigarette ash on the floor. He respectfully addressed her as maaji and declared that her legal problems were as easy to dispose of as halwa, promising that he would secure her claim in a matter of months, all the while wiping his forehead with a small, striped towel. ‘This is not just any legal case, Maaji. I have called you Maaji and hence I am your baita. Now it is a matter of honour and pride for me, and Chaudhry Furqan Nazeer Mayo never compromises on his honour and pride,’ he declared.
Rafiya Begum wasn’t entirely convinced, but his fervour did have some impact. Once she had signed the papers giving him the power of attorney, he promptly asked for a down payment. It seemed exorbitant, but her mumbled objections brought a broad smile to his face. He insisted that it was a one-time payment and that he would not even mention the topic of money till the case had been decided in her favour. The reality turned out to be very different, of course. Not a hearing went by without some new demands for funds to meet urgent expenses. It further turned out that a large portion of Furqan Mayo’s time was taken up by his political activities – which meant that it was often very difficult to locate him. He led, as she found out, a group of lawyers grandiosely called ‘Furqan Mayo’s Galaxy of Advocates’ that had a reputation for turning up en masse in the courtrooms to harass judges or opposing parties.
So who was Furqan Mayo? Merely a Jack in a pack of cards? Or a badshah when he invaded a courtroom surrounded by his ‘Galaxy of Advocates’? She tried to be hopeful, but there was something very ominous about the man.
Rafiya Begum’s initial fears were not unfounded. She had most recently witnessed her lawyer dancing with unusual abandon at a midday feast arranged by a candidate for the bar elections in the heart of the district courts. That was her last sighting of the man, for soon after, two things had happened. The courtyard filled up with so many people that it became impossible to keep an eye on his rapidly moving figure – especially after lunch was served. Second, she had been waiting for far too long on an empty stomach, having left her house very early; her day’s exertions caused her to faint. Some kind souls revived her. Someone gave her water. Someone else helped her to a bench. By the time she felt that her head had stopped spinning, the revellers in the courtyard had departed, leaving behind a veritable battle scene littered with discarded bones and leftovers. She looked around in vain. She had no option but to start on the long and uncomfortable journey back to her house.
Over the next few days, she regularly called Furqan Mayo Advocate from the local store, but did not get any response. Wearily she decided to pay an unannounced visit to his office, praying that he would be around. After another long and bone-rattling auto rickshaw ride on a very cold morning, she found herself again at her other least-favourite place besides the district courts. Before going up the stairs, she walked over to the fortune teller with the parrot. He too, like the astrologer, the numerologist and the palmist she had once consulted, had no clue about what lay in the future. But he was more entertaining. She cheered up at the sight of the parrot, which tiptoed seriously to draw a tarot card from the frayed and mouldy pile and returned with it dangling from its beak. That parrot worked hard and she found its serious attitude to its job heart-warming – it was far, far superior to Furqan Mayo Advocate’s work ethic. She often brought the parrot some crumbs of bread mixed with cane sugar that it accepted gratefully. Some day perhaps it would pick the right card, for it worked with honest intent.
The road was unusually crowded that day. Rafiya Begum also noticed a few parked police vehicles and official-looking cars with darkened windows. Groups of lawyers stood chattering, some of them gesticulating animatedly and pointing at the officers’ vehicles. Someone important must be visiting their lawyer, Rafiya Begum thought as she took the stairs to the second floor. The front room of Furqan Mayo’s office was abuzz with animated voices. Lawyers from his galaxy seemed very excited about something and kept pointing to the floor above while having their interminable cups of tea.
Furqan Mayo’s munshi saw her approaching. He seemed quite taken aback but quickly recovered to say, ‘Salaam, Maaji. How are things? I didn’t know that Furqan Sahib had asked you to come and see him today. Your next hearing isn’t until two more weeks, is it?’ Rafiya Begum told him about what had transpired at the last hearing and how she had not been able to meet the lawyer. She tried hard not to make it sound like a complaint. ‘Oh, that day? You see, it was a very important election meeting and the lawyers had requested the judges not to hold any court hearings for a few hours. But they wouldn’t listen. So the lawyers went ahead anyway. You know how our Furqan Sahib is. Once he puts his mind to something there is simply no stopping him. That is also the situation involving your case. Only the other day he told me, “Amjad, I will shake the very foundations of the legal system if I have to, but I will ensure that Maaji gets justice.” Would you like some tea? He has stepped out for a while – there are so many cases on his plate these days that the poor man hardly gets any sleep or respite – and I am not sure when he will be back. Why don’t you just go home and rest? I will make sure that he calls you to set up another meeting. But have some tea first.’
Rafiya Begum simply nodded. She could tell that the munshi was trying to get rid of her. She knew that once she was gone, no one was going to call her. She averted her eyes and obstinately stood waiting. Suddenly, there was a commotion and some people could be seen hurriedly descending the staircase from the upper floor. Soon after, a densely packed group of people arrived. In their midst and at the centre of all their attention was a short, bent and ancient-looking lawyer.
He held his spectacles in his left hand, chewing at one of its earpieces while listening intently to a strongly-built man with close-cropped hair who was dressed in casual pants and a full-sleeved shirt despite the cold. The ancient man seemed to be somewhat deaf for he wore a hearing aid and often bent his head closer to the speaker. His wrinkled face wore an expression of supreme smugness. He briefly stopped, and turning around to some of his younger apprentices who were holding large leather bags seemingly stuffed with books, shook a finger and issued some instructions. Two of them rushed upstairs as the conference continued in the middle of the hallway. A bunch of police constables and plainclothesmen surrounded the group constituting the ancient one, several other lawyers, the man in the shirt and pants, and a couple more who were dressed like him. The last two took turns covering their mouths and speaking urgently on their walkie-talkies and mobile phones. So this is what an aika or an ace lawyer actually looked like, thought the overawed Rafiya Begum as she took in the scene.
‘Who is that man, munshi sahib?’ Rafiya Begum could not resist asking. ‘Maaji you are a pious woman and hence safe from the forces of evil. I, for one, always recite the prescribed prayers from the Holy Book whenever I cast an eye on him or whenever I have to utter his name, for he is the very devil. The devil, as you know, has many names and the one this one goes by is Aminuddin Ameerzada. Now, don’t tell me that you are thinking of hiring him because Furqan Sahib will be rather upset to learn that. Also, you’ll need to sell ten apartment buildings before you can dream of getting him to even look your way; but if you have that kind of money, you won’t need to go to him for he will sniff you out himself. A great sniffer is that one, I tell you. That is why he is not for the likes of us.’ The munshi got pulled into another repartee with the lawyers in the office.
Rafiya Begum was impressed. She got to her feet and walked over to a window at the end of the corridor to catch another glimpse of the great man. No one noticed her leaving. The grimy window overlooked the crowded road below. She saw the ancient one being ushered to a large black car with darkened windows. He disappeared inside, accompanied by the man with close-cropped hair. Sirens whined, the traffic reluctantly parted and the cavalcade sped away. The clusters of onlookers broke up.
Rafiya Begum was about to turn back when she caught a glimpse of the very person for whom she had been so anxiously waiting. Chaudhry Furqan Nazeer Mayo Advocate was ambling along the pavement across the road. She silently sent her gratitude to Allah that her trip would not go to waste after all. Then her heart skipped a beat. The two men walking alongside her lawyer and laughing at something he had said were her legal adversaries! The very men who had made her life such hell! This was no chance encounter: Her lawyer stopped midstep and putting his arm around the shoulders of one of the men, started a long and serious conversation. The two men listened intently, nodding their heads. He must have ended with something light-hearted, for they all laughed and fondly slapped one another’s hands. After this, the two left him. Rafiya Begum had to support herself against the wall as she felt she was about to faint once again. The lawyer stopped by a roadside kulfi seller to buy ice cream.
The above is an excerpt from Osama Siddique’s debut novel, Snuffing Out the Moon, which is available now on Kindle.