essay Law

Brought To Book

An author recalls the ordeal of defending his fiction against spurious litigation

By MURZBAN F SHROFF | 1 January 2016

AT THE START OF APRIL 2009, I couldn’t have been better positioned. My book of short stories, Breathless in Bombay, published the previous year, had been shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize. I was working on a novel about the eunuchs of Mumbai. I had two years of research behind me, and a character and a story I believed in.

On the afternoon of 8 April, I got a text message from a journalist at the daily Mid Day, asking if she could call me. She said it was important. I asked her to call in 20 minutes, which she did. She got straight to the point, and asked for my response to the criminal complaint against my work.

Criminal complaint? I had no clue, honestly! She proceeded to explain.

A person by the name of Vijay Mudras, a resident of the Mumbai neighbourhood of Parel, had filed a complaint against me at the Metropolitan Court in Dadar, under Section 153B of the Indian Penal Code, taking issue with the use of the word “ghatti” in ‘This House of Mine,’ one of the stories in Breathless in Bombay. Mudras’s petition said my “offensive” book “had the tendency of fomenting and promoting disharmony, feelings of enmity, hatred, and ill-will on grounds of work, residence and language,” and that it would “harm the reputation of Maharashtrians.” He claimed that the book contains “scandalous and derogatory remarks,” and “represented to the state government to forfeit all the published books bearing the same title”—in effect, to ban it.

In ‘This House of Mine,’ the tenants of an old building negotiate with a corrupt housing board to have a sudden eviction order rescinded. One secondary character, a foul-mouthed but companionable alcoholic named Olaf, makes a habit of referring to those he disdains, including corrupt officials, as “ghattis”—originally a word for people from the Western Ghats, and now pejorative Mumbai slang for anyone deemed lacking in urban sophistication. Section 153B deals with “imputations, assertions prejudicial to national-integration,” and the speaking or publication of any material that “causes or is likely to cause disharmony or feelings of enmity or hatred or ill-will” between “members of any religious, racial, language or regional group or caste or community … and other persons.” Violations of it are punishable with up to three years’ imprisonment, a fine, or both.

The Metropolitan Court had admitted the complaint, and directed the police to investigate the book’s publication. Mid Day received a copy of Mudras’s complaint, and the journalist wanted a comment from me before she broke the news. She told me she didn’t have the time to read the story for herself.

To my mind, it seemed like one big misunderstanding. Mudras had failed to understand the context in which the word was used. I meant no harm to any community. The intended message of the story was of unity and harmony.

I asked the journalist to invite Mudras to the Mid Day office, so I could explain myself, and she agreed to convey my offer to him. She called back moments later to say Mudras had rejected it. He had responded that he would see me in court. “And behind bars,” the journalist added, apologetically.

Worried, I called up a family friend who was a senior partner in a firm of solicitors. He asked me to come to his office right away. When I got there, he was somewhat agitated. It was the time of a national election, he said, and Maharashtra’s regional parties could be looking for issues to play up. The complainant could belong to one such party, or have political ambitions. “This is India,” he told me. “Anything can happen.”

Meanwhile, a friend advised me to speak to the owner of Mid Day, whom I knew well, and get the story withdrawn. I refused.

The next day, 9 April 2009, the story broke in Mid Day. My friend had assigned two lawyers to my case, who thought this could be a political conspiracy and recommended that I go underground. That evening, I packed a bag and moved to a friend’s apartment.

NO SOONER did the Mid Day story appear than regional television channels turned up at my home. Since I was not there, I could not tell my side of the story, or dispel any doubts about my stance on the Maharashtrian community.

Worried that publicity of this nature would move Maharashtrian chauvinist parties to violence, the police sent a van to my residence. It was stationed outside my building for two days. The police cautioned my family—my parents, both elderly, and my wife, a quiet, self-contained schoolteacher—to keep all doors and windows locked.

Eight kilometres away, I was left to worry. After two days of isolation, I ventured out, onto the Colaba Causeway. The same streets I had once walked freely, that I had written about in great detail, I now treaded with unease. I looked upon passersby with suspicion. Could one of them be a Vijay Mudras, who wanted to put me away?

On the Mid Day website, I saw a video interview with the complainant under a provocative, communal headline. “Me not ghati, me Marathi,” it said. In a plaintive voice, Mudras insisted that I was “after Maharashtrians.” I wondered how that could be. I had lived in Mumbai for over 40 years, and had an almost umbilical relationship with the city. Some of my closest friends were Maharashtrians, and our friendships spanned more than 30 years.

From there, my ordeal played out. Over almost three years, I faced police interrogation, media scrutiny and multiple appearances in court, as I defended myself against the case in Mumbai and another in Tamil Nadu. I spent copious hours worrying, about whether I would go to jail, whether I would ever return to my everyday life. Even as I met the steep financial costs of legal battle, I was unable to write, and had to bear the indignity of failing to provide for my family. And all over fiction that intended, as I state in the introduction to Breathless in Bombay, to portray the life of a “city of evolution … a miracle of coexistence and acceptance.” The book, I wrote there, is an attempt to capture “a series of journeys, through the mental lives of its citizens, their conflicts, their betrayals, their realization, and their redemption.” The last thing I meant to do was to cause offence or trouble, yet trouble came pouring my way.

Over the coming days, there were some hard lessons in store for me.

First, in taking on the legal cases, I had to do most of the groundwork myself. In the view of the law, the burden was on me, as the accused party, to prove myself innocent of all charges. I had to give my lawyers a complete dossier on why I had written the book, what I had meant to convey, my choice of characters and their actions, and the purposes of the stories under attack.

Second, I was stunned at the intensity of the anger some people carry in them. For instance, going by viewer comments on the Mid Day website, people who had never met me—and who did not seem to have read the book— wanted to slap me, beat me, even expel me from the city.

Third, there were many disappointments and betrayals. A Marathi poet told me he would dig up instances of Marathi writers using the word “ghatti” in their work. He asked me a lot of questions on how to go about getting published in the West, and then I never heard from him. A friend cancelled an event she had planned for me, and I never heard from her again either. There was an uncle who accused me of having committed a crime, and a cousin who said I had better watch what I wrote the next time around.

Finally, I was disturbed by how easily my views could be misrepresented, and how blithely I could be dragged into painful legal proceedings based on incomplete and skewed readings of my work. Neither the magistrate who admitted the complaint against me, nor the journalist who broke the story, bothered to consider a basic question: had the book caused any disturbances in the 14 months since it was published? If they had read the story, they would have seen that, in the end, the protagonist and narrator concludes that the building’s diverse residents had been thrown into a common crisis because “we were all meant to experience and understand the level of coexistence we were capable of.” Even looking narrowly at the use of “ghatti,” they would have seen that the protagonist swiftly rebukes Olaf for using the word.

Fundamentally, under the right to freedom of expression, my use of an offensive word in itself should not have been an issue at all. It was not logical or fair to equate the disagreeable views of one of my fictional characters with mine. Mudras’s charges against me were arbitrary. Other authors, I later learnt, had used the word “ghatti” in their work too, without causing offence or facing legal action—Suketu Mehta, for one, in Maximum City; and Rohinton Mistry in Tales from Firozsha Baag.

My predicament, however, was not exceptional. It has become a trend for authors in India to face threats, harassment and censure. Very often, legal cases against authors are based on perceived slights to communal sensibilities, and are tinged with political motives. India was the first country to ban Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, in 1988, after an outcry from conservative Muslims. In 2004, a book on the seventeenth-century Maratha king Shivaji, by the historian James Laine, was banned in Maharashtra after various political groups deemed it an attempt to malign the iconic leader. That restriction was finally lifted by the Supreme Court, in 2010. In 2008, Hindu activists protested the inclusion of ‘Three Hundred Ramayanas,’ an essay by the literary scholar AK Ramanujan, in the history syllabus of Delhi University. The university dropped it, and although a Supreme Court-appointed panel later ruled in favour of retaining the work, it has yet to be reinstated. In 2010, the vice-chancellor of Mumbai University ordered the withdrawal of Rohinton Mistry’s novel Such a Long Journey from the university’s literature syllabus. He acted after a complaint from the heir apparent of the far-right Shiv Sena, Aditya Thackeray, who felt the book was insulting to his grandfather and the party’s founder, Bal Thackeray. More recently, the publisher of the historian Wendy Doniger’s The Hindus: An Alternative History, Penguin India, ordered all unsold copies of the book to be withdrawn and pulped, to settle civil and criminal lawsuits filed by a Hindutva activist. The examples go on.

I wrote Breathless in Bombay with faith in my fellow Indians’ ability to appreciate the intent of my work, and in the capacity of this country’s institutions to safeguard the freedoms of speech and expression. But before the cases against me were closed, that faith was profoundly tested.

ON 18 APRIL 2009, the police issued me a summons. Two days later, I was to appear at the NM Joshi Marg Police Station, in Lower Parel, for interrogation.

My lawyers panicked. Just a month earlier, a client of theirs had been called in for questioning and roughed up. Money had to exchange hands before he could be released. They advised me to escape to the hills and lie low until they got the complaint quashed in a higher court. I said I preferred beaches, and, besides, what was the point of writing if I was to run at the first sign of trouble? I had done nothing wrong. There was the constitution, the judiciary, and a police force to protect me. My lawyers were exasperated, but agreed to send an advocate with me to the police station.

I arrived there, on 20 April, accompanied by a lawyer and two friends. The lawyer advised my friends to wait outside, while I headed in. There, I met the inspector who had assigned a police van for my family’s protection, and I thanked him for that. After waiting for almost three hours, I was introduced to the investigating officer, a sub-inspector. I asked him if he had read the story. He hadn’t.

The interrogation began. The sub-inspector asked, in English, why I had written this book, who I had written it for, and whether any of my characters were based on people I knew. A young constable at an outdated computer recorded my answers in Marathi—which, since I did not know the language, added to my nervousness.

After initial questions, the officer asked what my thoughts and feelings had been when I was “putting words into Olaf’s mouth.” I immediately understood what he was trying to imply, and said that I had merely been building a character. “But you must have felt something,” he said, “some anger, some hatred?” I objected, as did my advocate.

Just then, a constable came in and said I was wanted outside. I rose to my feet, and so did my advocate, but the constable told him, “Bassa! You sit. Only him.”

I was led down a narrow corridor to a set of freshly painted doors. The constable knocked, and a voice ordered us in. I found myself facing six officers seated around a long table. One officer introduced himself as the deputy commissioner of police, and presented his colleagues. I shook hands with each officer, and took my place in a solitary chair placed before them.

I asked the deputy commissioner if I could share a few things about myself, and he agreed. I spoke about how I had quit a fine career in advertising and embarked on a six-year journey to write Breathless in Bombay. I had spent time with the people I wrote about—washermen, cabbies, carriage drivers, pimps, sex workers, street vendors—and reworked the stories many times over just to get my facts right.

The deputy commissioner asked me to explain why I had written what I had. I began by asking the policemen if they had read the story. They said they hadn’t.

“Okay,” I said, putting my mind to a simple analogy. “Imagine you are watching a Hindi film, where the villain heads a gang of terrorists. In a fit of anger, the villain threatens to destroy India. ‘Main Hindustan ko nasht kar doonga!’ he says. Then, would you hold his words to be the view of the director?”

“Of course not,” they exclaimed, almost unanimously.

“That is precisely my point,” I said. I explained that in any work of fiction, conflict was a necessary device: to establish right I had to show wrong, and I had to use dialogue based on spontaneous, everyday speech. The deputy commissioner nodded, and so did the others.

After a pensive pause, the deputy commissioner suggested that I submit a statement in English in addition to the requisite one in Marathi. In it, he said, I could explain my point the way I had.

I left the station with a deep sense of relief. I had stood by my work, and was convinced that I had done the right thing in appearing before the police. Now, all that was left was to file a petition in the Bombay High Court asking that the complaint admitted by the Metropolitan Court be quashed. My lawyers would see to that.

But, convinced that I would come to no harm, my head lawyer applied himself to other matters, and became largely unavailable. As May approached, the High Court went on vacation, and so did he. I wanted to file the quash petition as quickly as possible, but found I was without a lawyer.

I approached another, with no success. It was only in mid June that I managed to get new representation—an attorney who came well recommended, knew a lot about persecuted writers, and worked out of a simple office on the terrace of an old building in the downtown neighbourhood of Fort.

Around this time, I travelled to the United States for a reading tour put together by my publisher. When I returned to India, in mid September, I was angered to hear that my family had been receiving threatening calls. Once, a policeman had called to say he had heard that a regional party was planning to attack our home. He told my family to watch out for itself. They had shared none of this with me, fearing that I would cut short my trip and rush back.

By then, my new lawyer had filed a quash petition in the Bombay High Court. On 18 September 2009, the case came up for its first hearing there. It had made front-page news in a mainstream city paper that morning, and the courtroom was packed with reporters. The complainant, Vijay Mudras, was present too, along with two friends. He was a short, well-dressed man, with a boyish face and black, restless eyes, who looked somewhere in his mid thirties. His friends subjected me to long, hostile glares.

My US editor was also in town, on vacation, and had insisted on attending the hearing. Without realising it, she went and stood right beside Mudras, and gave me an exuberant thumbs up. Mudras was visibly perturbed by this—a white woman, in shorts, cheering his opponent.

The hearing began with the public prosecutor saying that a charge sheet—a formal document of accusation by the police, which follows a complaint and is crucial to initiating a criminal trial—had been filed against me based on Mudras’s complaint. The judge was dismissive of the complaint, stating that I was “an author not a troublemaker.” He passed an interim order that no coercive action be taken against me.

Soon afterwards, on 23 September, the police submitted an investigation report to the Metropolitan Court. It countered the public prosecutor’s claim, and made it clear that I had never been charge-sheeted. It also certified that the police had found my story to carry a message of unity, not divisiveness, and recommended that the charges against me be dropped.

The next hearing was scheduled for 2 December. If the Metropolitan Court accepted the police report—it had the option to question it—the complainant would be told that the charges had been rejected, and the case would be closed.

A period of anxiety followed. Everything depended on the hearing. I tried to return to writing regularly, but was unable to apply my mind to it. In the evenings, I would go for long walks on Marine Drive, where, on a couple of occasions, I was followed by goons who tried to pick a quarrel. I realised what the game was, and avoided a showdown. But there was still more trouble in store.

ON 21 NOVEMBER, I received a summons from a court in Kodaikanal, in Tamil Nadu, asking me to appear before it on the last day of the month. I had been charged under Sections 292 and 293 of the Indian Penal Code. The first charge pertained to obscenity, the second to promoting obscenity among young people. The summons did not mention what writing I was charged in connection with.

And so began a frantic search for a lawyer to represent me in Kodaikanal. I did not have much time. Finally, with the help of a friend in Tamil Nadu, I retained a senior advocate.

Upon reaching Kodaikanal, I found my advocate to be a sturdy, astute man with a reassuring air of competence. I also discovered that the court’s magistrate was on leave. I would have to wait in town till 2 December, the same day my matter was to come up again before the Metropolitan Court in Mumbai. While I waited, my lawyer managed to get a copy of the complaint, and we learnt that it had to do with a story titled ‘Traffic.’

In it, Vicki Dhanrajgiri, a young Bollywood producer who, alone on her birthday and depressed after breaking up with her schizophrenic boyfriend, walks the streets of Mumbai, trying to escape her thoughts. As I imagined her, she is a generous, resilient and modern woman. She drinks, she smokes, she enjoys art films, and, yes, she has slept with men before.

The complainant, TC Gopalakrishnan, had been offended by statements such as “she allowed him to curl up night after night, in her arms, in the folds of her body,” and “her tenderness would give way to torrid love-making, mostly silent, in the dark.” In his petition, he alleged that “not only is the book obscene, but in a country like ours where Indian women are leading a dignified life with great moral value the manner in which the character Vicki is projected is highly derogatory to the womanhood of India.” He said that Vicki was a woman “indulging in aggressive sex with a passive man,” and that “she was hitting very hard on his willy”—that is, penis.

I struggled to understand what Gopalakrishnan was talking about. Nowhere in the story had I written of a “willy.” I could only guess that he had misread “wily,” as it appeared in the story:

Not ready to disillusion this victim-child of an abusive father, she would moan and groan away. She hated herself for doing this, for being this wily, thrashing woman, but if it served to enhance Nandkumar’s confidence, if it made him feel as good as the next man, she was game.

Under a different set of circumstances, I would have found the distortion funny. But here, I had taken an expensive flight halfway across the country, then a six-hour ride into the hills, puking twice at the hairpin bends, and had had to hire a lawyer to keep me out of prison. I was not amused.

In the Kodaikanal court, on 2 December, the magistrate started by asking me my name and address. This was in Tamil, but, thankfully, my lawyer had arranged an interpreter. I also met TC Gopalakrishnan, a dark, bespectacled man, who came up to briskly shake my hand. I realised that my presence was just a formality. My lawyer filed a dispensation request, asking that I be exempt from future personal appearances, but the complainant objected. He said he needed time to file a response to the request, and the magistrate set another hearing for 30 December.

Afterwards, my lawyer in Mumbai phoned. He told me he had sent a representative to the Metropolitan Court in his stead, and she reported that Mudras and his lawyers had failed to appear. The magistrate, the same one who had admitted the case in the first place, had asked my lawyer’s representative why she was present. I was told there was a heated exchange of words between the two of them, and the magistrate had walked out of the courtroom. He declared that the next hearing would be held in his chamber, on 30 January.

When I called up the investigating officer, he was confused as to why the magistrate had not ruled in my favour. The police report admitted by the High Court clearly testified to my innocence.

At this point, some writer friends and my publisher in the United States brought my case to the attention of PEN International, a global writers’ organisation that advocates free speech. My communication with PEN officials started on 2 December, and in less than a week they had a plan in place. I was heartened by their speed, and no longer felt as alone. Yes, I thought, outside India the arts were getting their due, were respected and protected. This was more than what I could say for my own country, where artists were often threatened and persecuted, and where not a single author had come forward to speak for me. Even my editor at Picador India did not so much as issue a statement in defence of the work. The only public support I got here was from a handful of English-language journalists—and to them I am still grateful.

I RETURNED TO MUMBAI in mid December. In Tamil Nadu, my lawyer in Kodaikanal secured an adjournment, and I hired lawyers to file a quash petition with the Madurai Bench of the Madras High Court.

PEN International kept in touch throughout. On 15 December, the organisation faxed an appeal to the prime minister, Manmohan Singh, and also sent copies of it to the president of the ruling Congress, Sonia Gandhi, and the chief minister of Maharashtra, Ashok Chavan. It expressed fear for my freedom and safety, and concern that the charges against me were politically motivated. PEN urged the Indian authorities to uphold provisions in the country’s constitution, and in international treaties to which India was a signatory, by ensuring that all criminal cases against me were dropped. The government did not respond.

It was a quiet 31 December for me. My wife and I were invited to the suburban home of some friends, where we drank wine, ate a homemade meal, watched a movie, then retired to the guest bedroom. It was the earliest we had ever slept on a New Year’s Eve. It had been a hectic year for me, and for my wife, on whom the stress of litigation was also showing.

On 20 January 2010, my matter came up for another hearing in the Bombay High Court, where my quash petition was proceeding independently of the Metropolitan Court case. The public prosecutor pointed out that I had not been charge-sheeted, and that the police report submitted to the Metropolitan Court showed no evidence to substantiate any of Mudras’s charges. The judge ruled that in light of these facts, nothing survived in the original complaint, and, therefore, my quash petition was dismissed. In effect, the judge anticipated that it was now merely a matter of procedure for the Metropolitan Court to throw out Mudras’s petition, and hence there was no point in taking the quash petition forward.

The next day, the High Court in Madurai declared that my presence was not required for further hearings in Tamil Nadu. But the court refused to issue a stay on proceedings in Kodaikanal, which meant they would continue unabated.

On two or three occasions, my wife shared apprehensions that she was being followed on her way to the school where she taught. I urged her to file a police complaint, but she refused, fearing that this would bring her undue attention at work.

On 30 January, the Metropolitan Court returned to my case, once again with the same magistrate who had first admitted Mudras’s complaint. My lawyer’s representative preferred not to be present, as she did not want to antagonise the magistrate again. We expected a routine dismissal of the case.

It never came. Mudras’s advocate presented a protest petition challenging the validity of the police report. It argued that the police had relied solely on my deposition, and had failed to record statements from five bookstore owners whom they should have called as witnesses. “It is not necessary that ill-feelings in the mind of people is to develop immidately,” it read. “The author has attempted to develop the same which is enough even in long term to disturb the hormoney in the society and harmful to the national intigiry. The detail investigation in the matter is necessary.” Mudras’s lawyer asked for further investigation by another branch of the police. The magistrate assented. He rejected the police report, ordered the Social Service branch of the police’s Criminal Investigation Department to look into the matter, and adjourned the case until the fresh investigation was completed.

I was shattered. So far I had borne it all: the indignity of having to explain my work; the trauma of being painted as anti-national; the endless delays; the adjournments; the financial stress; the running between two states; the cost to my work; and, most importantly, the toll on my wife and elderly parents. I spoke to the officer who first investigated the case, and he, too, was bewildered. He mumbled something about a conspiracy.

Slowly, the consequences of the order dawned on me. I would have to return to the Bombay High Court to file a fresh quash petition. That would mean another round of expense, uncertainty and delay. I would also have to go through another interrogation, and this time I did not know whether I would face police who were as understanding.

I remember thinking that I would never forget this day for the rest of my life. And then I realised that this date, 30 January, was also the one on which Gandhi had been killed. I thought: If we couldn’t protect him, if we lost him within six months of Independence, then what hope for me, just one among 1.3 billion Indian citizens?

For a fortnight, I remained in a state of outrage. I blamed everyone: the country, the courts, the complainant, his lawyers, my lawyers. And I found myself given to thoughts of violence. This was a shame, for I was a meditator and considered myself free of such extreme emotions.

PEN International drafted another appeal, more urgent and detailed. It was met with silence too.

ON 19 MARCH 2010, I once again found myself in the Bombay High Court, where my lawyers had submitted a fresh quash petition. The presiding judge, Justice BR Gavai, was unsparing in his observations. He said the magistrate had not applied his mind in admitting the complaint. He demanded to know the complainant’s antecedents, to which political party he belonged. Mudras was present, but avoided attention and did not answer the judge’s questions. The public prosecutor asked the judge for three weeks for the police to conduct their investigation. The judge consented, but passed an interim order that no coercive action be taken against me.

On 3 April, I received a summons from the Social Service branch. Two days later, I went to the Criminal Investigation Department’s office at Crawford Market, in south Mumbai. This time, I was alone. An inspector asked me to return the following day with a statement answering five questions: Where was the book printed and published? Who had financed its publication? What sources and reference material had I used? Had I written this book on my own, or with the help of a group of people? Who was responsible for the statements where the word “ghatti” was used?

When I came back the next day, he also asked me the names of my editors in the United States and India, and wanted the address of my Indian publisher. He told me the police would send queries to all the police stations in Maharashtra, to find out whether anyone had reported being offended by my use of the word “ghatti.” What a waste of taxpayers’ money, I thought.

On 12 April, another judge in the Bombay High Court, Justice VM Kanade, after hearing arguments from both parties, observed that simply using a word sometimes deployed against a specific community was certainly not a criminal offence. Mudras’s lawyer promptly asked for an adjournment, and we were told to come back in a week.

When we did, on 19 April, I spent the whole day in court, waiting for my case to come up. At 4.30 pm, Mudras turned up, accompanied by three lawyers. My lawyer had already left, but, fortunately, the matter was postponed.

The next day, Mudras arrived with yet another lawyer in his team. He argued well, and drew the judge’s attention to the term “ghatti buggers” in my book. Justice Kanade showed his irritation. “Ghatti,” he said, “is a slang word. For every community there are such words. There are many such words for Parsis, but they don’t mind it. The unfortunate part is that our tolerance level has gone down.”

Mudras’s lawyers asked for another adjournment. The judge set a hearing for 22 April, and warned that there would be no more adjournments thereafter. But on 22 April, he granted one again, and fixed a final hearing four days later.

That day was Monday, 26 April. My case was argued at length by my lawyer, and refuted by the complainant’s lawyer, a new man who was obviously a seasoned counsel, who could twist and turn sentences, and hold onto his argument in the face of Justice Kanade’s comments. His principal contention was that it was fine for Maharastrians to refer to each other as “ghattis,” but if someone from outside the community used the term, it could cause a riot.

The next day came the closing arguments. My lawyer made two strong points. First, he argued that in examining a work of art or literature, the work has to be scrutinised as a whole in order to judge its creator’s intention. Second, he cited a landmark Supreme Court judgment which, based on an earlier ruling, established that in assessing an artistic work, “The effect of the words must be judged from the standards of reasonable, strong-minded, firm and courageous men, and not those of weak and vacillating minds, nor of those who scent danger in every hostile point of view.” Justice Kanade said he would declare judgment the following week.

All of the following week I waited, but there was no news. The court closed for the vacation until early June, and I braced myself for a long period of anxiety.

In that time, a personal crisis hit me. My wife, after 12 years of marriage, said she wanted a divorce. I loved her immensely, and couldn’t understand what was driving her away. I tried to dissuade her, but her mind was resolved. I still wonder sometimes how I didn’t see it coming. What had I missed during those extraordinary circumstances?

The High Court reopened on 8 June. I visited the court website, and saw my next hearing was set for late September. My heart sank. How would I live with the anxiety for so long?

Strange as it sounds, on the evening of 21 June, I felt an urge to check the website again. It said the pronouncement of judgment was scheduled for the next day. I promptly informed my lawyer, and he asked me to be in court at 11 am sharp.

When the court opened that morning, my case was adjourned until 3 pm. I left to meet a friend for lunch. When the case resumed, I found myself sitting in the same row as Mudras. I had been advised to avoid him, but could not help but sneak a look. What struck me most was the size of his shoes. His feet were enormous, compared to his body.

When my case came up, I rose and moved to the front of the courtroom, but still I could barely hear the judge. In a low voice, Justice Kanade dictated his ruling to the stenographer. My and Mudras’s lawyers made their way out of the courtroom. His lawyer was laughing, and had the air of a man who had succeeded at his job.

Outside, I asked my lawyer what the verdict was. He declared that we had won.

I was numb with delight. I thanked my lawyer profusely. He informed me that the judge would deliver the written judgment in a few days.

A few days later, it came. The complainant had asked for a two-week stay on the judgment, to appeal against it, but it was declined. The judge stated,

There was no necessity on the part of the learned Magistrate directing further investigation … The learned Magistrate clearly committed an error of law which is apparent on the face of the record. I am of the view that the police have rightly summarised that if the story is read as a whole then there is no substance in the complaint.

My case in south India dragged on over the next year, with numerous hearings and adjournments. My lawyers kept me informed, and I went to Kodaikanal two more times. Except for the initial hearings there, the complainant did not show up again. Finally, I won the case on merit.

Still, many questions remain in my mind. Why was there no penalty for Mudras and Gopalakrishnan, who dragged me through years of hassle and expense on what were adjudged bogus grounds? Why do Indian courts not have filters to weed out cases such as these?

And after all this, what did anyone gain? All I had to show for my scars was an unwelcome notoriety. I remember walking back to the Bombay High Court after lunch on the day Justice Kanade pronounced the judgment. Along the way, a salesman accosted me, a fellow with a broad grin and a pile of books in his hands—cheap, pirated copies, of the kind commonly sold at traffic signals and on pavements. One by one, he held out his wares, walking along beside me. The last book he showed me was Breathless in Bombay. “Very lafdewali book,” he said. “Problem book! You buy?” 

AT THE START OF APRIL 2009, I couldn’t have been better positioned. My book of short stories, Breathless in Bombay, published the previous year, had been shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize. I was working on a novel about the eunuchs of Mumbai. I had two years of research behind me, and a character and a story I believed in.

On the afternoon of 8 April, I got a text message from a journalist at the daily Mid Day, asking if she could call me. She said it was important. I asked her to call in 20 minutes, which she did. She got straight to the point, and asked for my response to the criminal complaint against my work.

Criminal complaint? I had no clue, honestly! She proceeded to explain.

A person by the name of Vijay Mudras, a resident of the Mumbai neighbourhood of Parel, had filed a complaint against me at the Metropolitan Court in Dadar, under Section 153B of the Indian Penal Code, taking issue with the use of the word “ghatti” in ‘This House of Mine,’ one of the stories in Breathless in Bombay. Mudras’s petition said my “offensive” book “had the tendency of fomenting and promoting disharmony, feelings of enmity, hatred, and ill-will on grounds of work, residence and language,” and that it would “harm the reputation of Maharashtrians.” He claimed that the book contains “scandalous and derogatory remarks,” and “represented to the state government to forfeit all the published books bearing the same title”—in effect, to ban it.

In ‘This House of Mine,’ the tenants of an old building negotiate with a corrupt housing board to have a sudden eviction order rescinded. One secondary character, a foul-mouthed but companionable alcoholic named Olaf, makes a habit of referring to those he disdains, including corrupt officials, as “ghattis”—originally a word for people from the Western Ghats, and now pejorative Mumbai slang for anyone deemed lacking in urban sophistication. Section 153B deals with “imputations, assertions prejudicial to national-integration,” and the speaking or publication of any material that “causes or is likely to cause disharmony or feelings of enmity or hatred or ill-will” between “members of any religious, racial, language or regional group or caste or community … and other persons.” Violations of it are punishable with up to three years’ imprisonment, a fine, or both.

The Metropolitan Court had admitted the complaint, and directed the police to investigate the book’s publication. Mid Day received a copy of Mudras’s complaint, and the journalist wanted a comment from me before she broke the news. She told me she didn’t have the time to read the story for herself.

To my mind, it seemed like one big misunderstanding. Mudras had failed to understand the context in which the word was used. I meant no harm to any community. The intended message of the story was of unity and harmony.

I asked the journalist to invite Mudras to the Mid Day office, so I could explain myself, and she agreed to convey my offer to him. She called back moments later to say Mudras had rejected it. He had responded that he would see me in court. “And behind bars,” the journalist added, apologetically.

Worried, I called up a family friend who was a senior partner in a firm of solicitors. He asked me to come to his office right away. When I got there, he was somewhat agitated. It was the time of a national election, he said, and Maharashtra’s regional parties could be looking for issues to play up. The complainant could belong to one such party, or have political ambitions. “This is India,” he told me. “Anything can happen.”

Meanwhile, a friend advised me to speak to the owner of Mid Day, whom I knew well, and get the story withdrawn. I refused.

The next day, 9 April 2009, the story broke in Mid Day. My friend had assigned two lawyers to my case, who thought this could be a political conspiracy and recommended that I go underground. That evening, I packed a bag and moved to a friend’s apartment.

NO SOONER did the Mid Day story appear than regional television channels turned up at my home. Since I was not there, I could not tell my side of the story, or dispel any doubts about my stance on the Maharashtrian community.

Worried that publicity of this nature would move Maharashtrian chauvinist parties to violence, the police sent a van to my residence. It was stationed outside my building for two days. The police cautioned my family—my parents, both elderly, and my wife, a quiet, self-contained schoolteacher—to keep all doors and windows locked.

Eight kilometres away, I was left to worry. After two days of isolation, I ventured out, onto the Colaba Causeway. The same streets I had once walked freely, that I had written about in great detail, I now treaded with unease. I looked upon passersby with suspicion. Could one of them be a Vijay Mudras, who wanted to put me away?

On the Mid Day website, I saw a video interview with the complainant under a provocative, communal headline. “Me not ghati, me Marathi,” it said. In a plaintive voice, Mudras insisted that I was “after Maharashtrians.” I wondered how that could be. I had lived in Mumbai for over 40 years, and had an almost umbilical relationship with the city. Some of my closest friends were Maharashtrians, and our friendships spanned more than 30 years.

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Murzban F Shroff is a Mumbai-based writer. His fiction has appeared in over 50 literary journals in the United States and United Kingdom. He is a recipient of the John Gilgun Fiction Award, and has garnered six Pushcart Prize nominations. His short-story collection Breathless in Bombay was shortlisted for the 2009 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, and rated by The Guardian as among the ten best books on Mumbai. His novel Waiting for Jonathan Koshy, published in December 2015, was a finalist for the Horatio Nelson Fiction Prize.

READER'S COMMENTS

One thought on “Brought To Book”

This is an important, urgent, disturbing and a tragic story which needed to be printed in bold letters. Murzban is not the person who should have written this story though; the writing is too soft, the tone weak and almost apologetic and feels that the writer is treading too cautiously having been bitten hard once. This story should have been written by someone else to hit hard on the way our justice system is manipulated, distorted and abused by some unscrupled scoundrels, who should be heavily penalised for wasting the court’s time and vitiating the intellectual climate of this country.

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