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Mr. Drunk Corrupt Lawyer, AIBA

Mr. Drunk Corrupt Lawyer, AIBA

March 08, 2011

This man is very clever man. This man is very powerful man.

I had occasion to visit a lawyer in Varkala last week, and as we all know, the key word when it comes to bureaucracy in India is 'corruption'. Or 'baksheesh'. Or 'bribery'.

He was tucked away at the end of a long row of second floor offices, jammed into a space that demanded sideways shuffling but somehow big enough to accommodate his enormous, imposing desk - a desk that was stacked high with numerous piles of documents. The midday sun that streaked in through the open saloon-style doors had turned the papers a few shades lighter than their original greens, browns and greys. Each document looked very official, and very forgotten.

Mr Lawyer was in his forties or fifties. As I and my two foreigner friends entered, he peered out at us from behind sunken and bloodshot eyes, his hairline receding and moustache bristling. A friend/assistant, seated by the door, was in his sixties and had wild, haphazard white patches of hair on his scalp, above his eyes and around his mouth and chin. (Focusing on hair seems to be the easiest way to describe a Malayali.)

The thing which distinguished both of them from every other lawyer I've met, however, was their state of intoxication
. They were, as my friend put it afterwards, absolutely stinking drunk, and the sweet-yet-unpleasant stench of alcohol breath subtly permeated the room. From man to man, speech is affected by alcohol in different ways. While Mr Lawyer on the other side of the gargantuan desk spoke only in rare commands of absolutely necessary detail - "sit", "passport", "home address" - his older, white-haired friend crackled forth with a constant stream of repeated phrases. "Your name please?..." x6; "I am from Edava." x4; "My name is [slurred mess of consonants]." x3; "This man is very clever man" and "This man is very powerful man" (gesturing toward Mr Lawyer) x14 each.

We were there to make a tenancy agreement, and the fact that Mr Lawyer had a reputation as a clever and powerful man was exactly why our rickshaw driver had taken us to him. Throughout the consultation, the rest of us sat while the rickshaw driver remained on his feet. Even though he would have noticed the officials' contemptible inebriation, and quite possibly noted that neither of them were likely to remember any part of this exchange later that evening, he chose to stand as a mark of respect. The caste system remains present in everyday Kerala, and a rickshaw driver is so many rungs below a lawyer on the social ladder that almost nothing will keep him from observing the seniority effect.

With our driver standing to one side, we three foreigners sat in a row of creaking chairs before the monolithic desk. We listened as intently as we could to the older man's drunken ramblings, interrupting him occasionally to address a muttered request from Mr Lawyer. We were trying to follow our driver's example and show them both a degree of respect, but as time wore on and increasingly random details were scrawled on Mr Lawyer's loose sheet of green paper, our respect withered. I thought back to my single experience with a lawyer in New Zealand, a notarising consultation which took three minutes and was conducted with utmost professionalism. Could official procedures in India ever be that way?

Finally, Mr Lawyer announced that he was finished and that we should come back tomorrow with our landlady to sign the agreement under his authorised witness. Then, as we got to our feet and prepared to thank him, Mr Lawyer spoke his clearest and longest sentence of the day - a sentence that must have been practiced thousands of times over decades of officialdom:

"Please give me 1000 rupees; that is the charge for this service."


Finally! After two and a half years here, my first case of baksheesh in India! I can look back at it as a milestone now, but at the time, I couldn't believe it.

"1000 rupees," I said back to him with a stare. I knew the genuine rate was 150, maybe 200 rupees - tops.

"Yes, that is the charge for this service."

My usual tactic in situations I wish to extract myself from is to try and talk my adversary down, so that's what I attempted
. I told him this had never been the case with my previous two tenancy agreements. This is law, said Mr Lawyer. I asked whether my powerful friend in the nearby police station would say the same thing. This is law, said Mr Lawyer. I wasn't getting anywhere. All the while, with all of us standing except Mr Lawyer, the older man continued to whisper "he is very powerful man" into my ear with a devilish smile. Things were getting more and more surreal.

Finally, I said we would go and confirm the rate with my contacts and withdraw the money from an ATM. He clearly wasn't happy to see us leave but he was too inebriated to stand, so he continued to bark statements regarding law and authority at us until we were out the door. A bizarre half hour had come to an end, and we were clear at last-

-but wait, no we weren't. Mr Lawyer had taken down passport numbers, names and addresses in his erratic lines of questioning, and he had a copy of the main page of my passport. He may not have deserved our respect, but the boasts of power from his stooge weren't ill-founded - apparently Mr Lawyer was the son of a very important government official, and he could quite easily take any names on his paper and make a lot of trouble for them.

So, back I went to retrieve the two papers, one green, one white. I hadn't seen where he'd put them, and the desk was covered in similar documents, so I asked him for it directly. I need to copy it, I said. His refusal was lazy yet adamant, a simple "No" as he leaned back into his chair, still trying to focus his eyes on the white-skinned shape in front of him. I tried a couple of other tacks; none succeeded. My adherence to diplomacy was coming unstuck fast.

At that moment, one of my friends walked assertively back into the room and asked me, "Did you get it?" When I replied in the negative, he looked at the table, immediately located the papers and snatched it up. He looked Mr Lawyer in the eye and said "Thanks," then exited as purposefully as he'd entered.

I followed closely behind. Mr Lawyer didn't budge, of course. His white-haired friend did - scurrying as fast as his feet would carry him, grabbing my friend's clothes and reaching for the papers in his hand. My other friend bravely grabbed the old man's arm, and I got between them all.

"It's done," said my brave and assertive friend with absolute certainty. "It's done." The old man's hand dropped back to his side, and off we went, leaving two venerated men with a memory they might have never forgotten... if they hadn't been absolutely stinking drunk

2 Comments

  • Barnaby Haszard Morris
    By
    Barnaby Haszard Morris
    11.03.11 10:32 AM
    So true :)

    Good for you. Do you have any stories to share?
  • adite
    By
    adite
    09.03.11 07:30 AM
    The "corrupt and the powerful" are also very cowardly. A little bit of assertiveness is all that it needs to send them scurrying into their rat holes. I speak from personal experience. And believe me, they hate it when they are 'done in' by a woman! :)

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