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Premashila’s seven-year-old son died on the train. Mother and son were travelling to their village from Hyderabad along with some daily-wage labourers whom she worked with in the city. The boy had been suffering from fever for the last three days. Someone had given her a tablet to bring down the temperature, and she had somehow made her son swallow it, but Premashila could not be sure if the temperature was actually coming down or rising. Over the two-day journey, she had given her son only a few bananas and some tea.
Sometime in the night, Premashila touched her son. He felt unusually cold and stiff. Her heart lurched violently. She looked around and found everyone asleep. She lay down by his side and shed silent tears. A feeling of emptiness numbed her senses; she couldn’t think or see anything clearly. Her hand strayed to the waist-fold of her sari where she had kept two thousand rupees in a tightly knotted bundle; she had earned this amount in the six months she had spent working in Hyderabad. It was still six or seven hours before the train would reach the railway station near her village and she lay beside her dead son, careful not to make any sound.
In the morning someone asked, ‘Has the fever come down?’
Premashila shook her head but didn’t say anything. The man reached out to feel the boy’s forehead but she stopped him. ‘Let him sleep,’ she said. A few others came up to her before the train reached and wanted to know if the boy’s fever had come down. Premashila shook her head each time and didn’t utter a word.
She was afraid. They would all loot her hard-earned money if they learnt that her son had died. The vultures would suck the last paisa out of her; first, the broker who had employed her; the Railways police would pounce upon her next; then the station master, the guard, the rickshawala, the doctor and, finally, the town police would take turns to harass her. She would not have even ten or twenty rupees left at the end of the day to cremate the body.
She hoisted her son on to her shoulder with much difficulty, careful not to let anyone know that he had died. Despite the precautions she took, a man by her side, his eyes wide with suspicion, looked at her once and then at her son. But he did not say anything.
Instead of trying to harden her heart, Premashila made it as light and soft as cotton-wool. Her eyes held a vacant look, there were no tears in them. She moved nervously, slowly, towards the exit gate of the platform, fearing that any moment the vultures would swoop down and snatch away her son’s body. There was no one around. She exited through the gate but before she could take even a step forward, the vultures appeared out of nowhere and descended upon her. Premashila felt faint. The world before her dry, tearless eyes went blank. She shut her eyes.
When she came to—she didn’t know after how long—Premashila found herself in a police station. Her son was no longer on her shoulder and when she reached for the waist-fold of her sari she found nothing there. Her bundle had disappeared, too.
She had had this same experience two years earlier when her husband had died on the platform of Vishakhapatnam Railway Station. Her husband’s body couldn’t reach home even after she had spent all her money. Premashila didn’t try to remember where and how he eventually vanished.
Premashila didn’t know why she was kept in the lockup. There, they took her thumb impression on several pieces of paper. Only much later did she find that a criminal case had been filed against her, that she had been accused of murdering her son. She was made to stand in the dock and explain why she had committed such a terrible crime. There were a number of nightmarish journeys from the courtroom to jail and from jail back to the courtroom during the six months or so which followed her arrest. Later, she heard, though not very distinctly, that the verdict on her case would be pronounced the following day. Her dazed mind couldn’t fathom what she was being accused of. Everything seemed blurred. The only images which made an impression through the numbing haze which surrounded Premashila was that of a flock of hungry vultures, a dense crowd swirling about her, and an immense void.
Soon, though, events took an unexpected turn.
One morning, a gentleman wearing a track suit and sneakers opened the front gate of the sessions judge’s house and stepped inside. His hands were hidden within gloves and a wide-brimmed white hat covered his head. The judge’s servant emerged and looked askance at the man.
‘I have come to meet the judge,’ the gentleman said. ‘I want to discuss a case with him.’
The servant asked the man his name.
‘I am God. I have come from heaven.’
He is trying to bully me, the servant thought, but did not say anything. He cast a quick glance at the wide-brimmed hat and the gloves and went into the house. He came out again after a few minutes, accompanied by an old man.
‘Yes, what can I do for you?’ the judge asked.
The man who had introduced himself as God said without preamble, ‘I understand that you are going to sentence the woman to seven years. I am here to discuss certain things related to the case.’
The judge was shocked. How does this man know this? he wondered. Did the steno pass the information on to him? Maybe he is a lawyer.
‘May I know who you are?’ he asked aloud.
‘I am God. I have come from heaven. I know all about Premashila’s case.’
Inwardly, the judge was a little irritated. An advocate wouldn’t answer in such a silly fashion, he thought to himself. This must be a man out to make mischief. The judge had no intention of continuing the discussion. ‘Come to court at exactly eleven in the morning tomorrow and say whatever you want to say.’ He said this in a dismissive tone and went back inside his house.
At eleven a.m. the following day the courtroom was packed to overflowing. Premashila stood in the wooden dock on one side of the room, her gaze fixed on nothing. Her dry eyes caught blurred, occasional glimpses of black coats, black heads and black faces but her mind couldn’t register a thing. Facing her, and standing in the dock on the other side of the court room, stood the gentleman in the track suit and the wide-brimmed white hat. Since no one looked at him, he probably had not drawn anyone’s notice.
The judge walked in and everyone stood up. Everyone sat down once he took his seat. As soon as the judge’s eyes fell on the man in the track suit he asked the advocates, ‘Do you recognize this man? Is he your witness, complainant or client?’ The people in the courtroom looked at one another. Then they looked at the gentleman, and their curious eyes appraised his outfit. But no one said anything.
‘Who is your advocate?’ the judge asked the man in the dock.
‘I haven’t one.’
‘Who put you in the dock?’
‘No one. I came here on my own.’
‘Will you introduce yourself?’
‘I am God. I have come from heaven.’
A loud uproar filled the room. The judge struck his gavel and ordered everyone to be silent.
‘You are wasting the court’s time with such rubbish.’
‘No, what I say is true.’
‘Why should we believe that you are God?’
‘The existence of God need not be proved. It is a question of faith. Besides, you and everybody else in this court can see me standing here.’
‘But the court needs evidence. You have to substantiate your claim.’
‘What kind of proof do you want?’
‘Well…’ The judge thought for a moment. ‘Tell us the names of your parents, your caste, the name of your town or village. The court would like to see your voter card, ration card or driving licence. The court also will need to know your address, everything about your job if you work in some office or institution, or about your business if you are a businessman—things like that.’
‘My address? I live in heaven. It cannot be proved, since that is also a question of faith. I don’t possess any of those documents you just mentioned.’
‘Does God wear a track suit, sneakers, gloves and hat?’ the judge asked sarcastically and laughed. Everyone except Premashila joined him in laughter.
‘I wear whatever I want. God never wears a uniform.’ The man who called himself God replied, completely unfazed by the laughter.
By now the judge was visibly annoyed.
‘Please leave now,’ he demanded and, in a louder voice, repeated, ‘You are wasting the court’s time.’
‘How can I leave? I haven’t said anything about Premashila yet. In fact, that is the reason why I have come here,’ the man in the track suit said with mild stubbornness.
This man is not normal, the judge thought. For a brief moment he considered handing the man over to the police but decided on second thought to give him a hearing. ‘Okay, I can give you two minutes. You have to say what you want to say within that time. But before that you have to swear in the name of God that you will tell the truth and nothing but the truth.’
‘How very strange!’ the gentleman exclaimed. ‘How can I swear in my own name? Only human beings do so. But you can trust me; rest assured that I will tell only the truth.’ ‘No.’ The judge shook his head. ‘You have to abide by the rules of the court. You have to swear and, further, you have to furnish proof of your identity,’ he declared with an air of finality.
‘You are asking me for my proof of identity yet again. What proof should I give you?’
‘Give us a miracle, okay? Keep this paperweight hanging in the air,’ said the judge, picking one up from his table. ‘Everyone will witness that.’
Then, it happened—
As everyone looked on in breathless silence, the paperweight slipped out of the judge’s hand and hung in the air. Then it started to spin around the courtroom at great speed. The people were scared out of their wits. The advocates lowered their heads, fearing that the hurtling paperweight might slam into them. There were seven more such paperweights on the judge’s table and all of them began to spin in the air. ‘Your Honour, you accept the revolving of these seven tiny paperweights as proof of my existence. What do you have to say about the nine enormous paperweights hanging in space for ages?’ the man who called himself God asked amusedly.
The judge broke into a sweat and his throat parched. He drank a glass of water and tried to calm his nerves. But his rational mind could not completely dismiss lingering doubts. He might be a magician for all you know, he told himself.
He waited for a while and asked, ‘Can you make it rain? Now?’ God smiled. He did not say anything but a storm sprang up. The wind tore about the room in violent gusts and rain poured in torrents. People tried to grab at the sheets of paper that flew around the courtroom to prevent them from getting drenched. Some tried to run but could not. All the doors were closed and nobody could open them. The floor of the courtroom splashed with water six inches deep. Everyone except God and Premashila were drenched. Their clothes, their shoes, socks and wristwatches—everything was soaked by the rain. Files and papers floated about in the water even as the rain kept pouring with force. Everyone was frightened.
‘Shall I stop the rain?’ God asked the judge.
‘Please,’ the judge begged. ‘Please.’
The rain ceased as abruptly as it had begun. Everyone in the court stood paralyzed by a nameless fear. Premashila alone was in the dock, unmoved, unaffected by everything that was happening around her.
‘Do you need any more proof?’ God asked the judge.
The judge swallowed to ease his dry throat. ‘No,’ he said hoarsely.
‘Now, should I say something about the accused?’ God asked. The judge couldn’t speak. He merely waved his hand about twice, indicating an adjournment. He rose slowly from his chair and was about to leave when something strange happened.
He saw that everyone had knelt on the water-logged floor of the courtroom and was praying. ‘God, please forgive us. We know what a heinous crime we have committed. We are ready to return Premashila’s money with interest. Please forgive us.’
A blinding flash of lightning lit up the room and an earsplitting thunderclap filled the air. The people gathered felt as if the lightning and thunder spanned the insides of their heads. They screwed their eyes shut and it was only after two minutes or so that they could open them.
They saw that the dock where God had stood was now empty. Some people lay near the dock, unconscious. Premashila found that all the hawks and vultures who had circled her lay scattered all around.
The honourable judge declared that the judgement would be pronounced the following day and warned the culprits that all of the money due to Premashila should be deposited with him before the session began.
An envelope stuffed with Premashila’s money reached the judge’s house before he left for court the following day.
The judge delivered his verdict exactly at eleven a.m. ‘Premashila is guilty of murder. She is to be hanged until dead,’ he declared solemnly and, without breaking the nib as he signed the papers, he re-capped his fountain pen and put it back in his pocket. After the verdict the judge went on indefinite leave.
Premashila stood in the dock and heard the judge read out the verdict. Her face registered no expression. She appeared not to have understood even a word of what she had heard.