IT’S JUST LIKE any other hot summer afternoon at the office. Load shedding has ensured that we’ve not had electricity all day. All the litigating lawyers had left in the morning, in our white and black military fatigues. By the afternoon we’re making it back to the office after doing what we do best, making sure our cases have not been adjourned for too long.
She walked tentatively through the front door – her slim frame forming a silhouette against the late afternoon light. I was sitting in the front room. Instant noir film shot comes to mind. I walk up closer to her and ask whom she would like to meet. She opens her purse, takes out a scrap of paper and struggles to read the name on it and then asks for me.
I pick up my cup of tea and usher her into our client meeting room – darker than any other space in the office but much more private. I haven’t even seen her face clearly, her voice halting and unsure, partly I imagine, as she can’t see my face and partly because after all, this is a lawyer’s office. I apologise for the lack of electricity and ask how I can be of help.
She looks straight at me, from what I can tell in the dim light, and says, “I have a plan to murder my husband.” Her voice low but clear.
There is a pause.
I grip my teacup tighter and take a deep breath. Before I can tell her that she should say no more, she’s begun to describe how she intends to murder her husband. She’s obviously thought this through.
I am trying to recall some episode of The Practice. My brain is scanning through a series of black and white images. It settles on Walter Neff – hat, tie askew. Then rapidly switches to Phyllis Dietrichson, except in this version she has long black braided hair.
Where are my cigarettes? I grope in the pocket of my kurta, forgetting I smoked the last one a few minutes before she arrived. Taking two sips of my tea I tell her to stop talking. Luckily for me she hasn’t begun telling me any of the grisly details. I ask what has brought on this need for her to plan this murder. She shrugs. Enough is enough, she says. Followed by “Can you help me?” Can I help her with what – planning this murder? Or if she’s arrested, with her defence? Both, she says. How fantastic, perhaps a vigilante lawyer’s role for me in the film?
Opening shot: The Alternative Task Force office located on the second floor of Shivajinagar Bus Stand. Five women in their hoods and trench coats under my command waiting to get instructions for the day. I have been on the phone all morning with the Gulabi Gang. They need some assistance with one of their cases in Bengaluru.
I hang up. We’ll take care of it, I say. The Alternative Task Force and the Gulabi Gang go back a long way. We share the frustrations of working within the legal framework. Our organisations are designed to operate quietly with the sole aim of getting the job done. No fuss, no mess.
Taking two sips of my tea I tell her to stop talking. Luckily she hasn’t begun telling me any of the grisly details
Cut. Lights on. I am crudely jolted out of my reverie. That part of my brain which stores legal information is stirring from slumber. What is my responsibility as a lawyer? Is there any way I can get more details of this murder plan, without getting myself into an awkward spot? I decide to ask no more questions. Better a conservative lawyer than a voyeur.
Murder is against the law, I tell her. I will be constrained to report the information of the commission of a cognizable offence, if she told me any more, I say. We can file for divorce? Murder vs Divorce. By this time she is laughing. Yes, yes, please file for divorce. Make him out to be a mean and cruel man, she makes me promise. I will try my best.
I take out my notebook… So when did you get married? Can you describe your married life for me?
Aarti Mundkur is 31. She is a lawyer with the Alternative Law Forum in Bengaluru