Stay Order

They will move. They always have. Why doubt them now? Their expressions were the best thing in their defence, the only thing in fact. They had nothing else to show, offer, or present as proof of their promise. They had a precedent, but their lawyer never had any hope that it would hold up in a court. He did not have much hope or interest in the case either, having been given the brief because he was near retirement and had been recently transferred here on his last promotion. He didn’t know the people he was fighting the case against, those who claimed to be natives. Nor did he know those he represented, who said they were a tribe, a tribe different from the natives. And yet, the natives who wanted the fifty-odd tribals to vacate the small piece of land that they occupied knew all of their names. They had even come in the same bus, shared the same dialect and understood each other far better than the two lawyers who represented both the parties, and the judge who was presiding over the case understood them.

“We will move.” That’s all the head of the tribe would say, whether he was being questioned by the lawyer arguing for the villagers, or by the lawyer who argued on their behalf. And the villagers would nod too. They knew they would. They said they never had any doubts about that. Things would come to a point where the judge and the two lawyers would feel that they were fighting a case among themselves, and this throng here was just a spectator who had dropped in for some entertainment, or to escape the dry heat outside under the high ceiling of the court-room with its whirring fans.

Gulabnath always carried a bag. It wasn’t really a bag, but just a rectangular piece of cloth with its ends tied up and the loops resulting from it swung over his shoulder. The weight of the things he carried ensured that the cloth stayed in place, and the contents stayed inside. That, once their lawyer P.K. Mairose had spent a little time with these people, realised was the best proof that there was truth in their assurance. This had always been a nomadic tribe that liked carrying all their essentials on their person. A tribe that moved from one village to another, offering their services and moving when the immediate needs of their hosts were met, and some money made. The service they offered was one that every village needed. Villages, at least till some time back, were little hamlets of far-flung houses around a water body that filled both their drinking and washing buckets, as well as watered their fields and crops. The houses were largely made of bamboos, mud walls and windows and doors that were seldom closed. Snakes, in these parts and for this reason were a common menace. And this was a tribe that knew how to catch one. They were called at odd hours, to far-off houses, fields and wells, and a handful of them would rush out bearing nothing but a wicker basket to catch the snake in, a bamboo pole with a curved top to catch it with, and a chant dedicated to Lord Shiv who was their patron god. They had never let a snake get away. But they had never killed one either. Once caught and tucked away in the basket, they would walk for a full day, sometimes even more, and leave the reptile in a jungle, near a stream, by a waterfall, under a cacti, over a hill — they knew which one should go where. And in return they would be given some money, or grains and potatoes, old clothes, broken or discarded toys. And permission to stay on the fringes of the village where their tents and cooking fires didn’t get in the way of the villagers, and where they were close enough to be called at any hour. In time, enough snakes would be caught and with each snake taken away, the village would feel safer. Till a day would come when there would be no more sighting for a few days and the village would start seeing the tribe and their cluster of tents and the smoke from the cooking fires as unnecessary. And so they would be asked to move away. And they would. Without malice, without any sense of having been used, or discarded. That was their way. That’s how it had always been. And besides, if there were no snakes left, it meant there was no money or food for them either. So this shooing away for them was like the sound of a river changing course, telling them to shift to more fertile lands as the one they were in right now was about to get barren. And they would move to the next village. And then the next. Every one of them. And in time snakes in the villages they had cleared would be back, and they would be back too. Welcomed with much relief by the same people who had asked them to leave some time back. This constant movement meant their children never got a chance to go to any school. They were taught by a few of their tribe who knew how to read and write. But everyone knew how to spot a snake, catch it, and prepare antidotes for snake-bites. And every child knew this, almost by birth.

The judge was shown pictures of 6-year old children playing with snakes twice their length, and at times of the same girth. These pictures, clicked by documentary makers and momentarily-lost travellers who kept their promise of sending them a copy and sent them before they had moved to another village, were shown to the judge not as an evidence, but almost as a thing to be marvelled at. The lawyers knew, and the judge knew that the out-of-focus shots of serpentine figures dangling from the necks of children who shielded their giggling faces without caring for their nakedness were not going to affect the outcome of the case, but the discussions over these pictures between the three gentlemen of the justice took the longest time in the proceedings. It was times like these that the two lawyers seemed to be one side too, like the two warring parties. Chubla, one of the tribe’s younger men who was the first to discard the traditional dress for the jeans-and-shirt get-up pitched in as the photographs were being passed around.

“Judge sir. If anyone in our tribe dies of a snake or scorpion bite, his entire family is thrown out of the tribe.”

This trivia made the judge forget that the court had been insulted by an accused speaking out of turn and without permission. His expressions showed that he wanted that obstinate young man to continue.

“If a snake’s poison can kill one of us, then the person and his entire family can’t have our blood running in his veins. He can’t be one of us. That’s why.”

Like the pictures, this little explanation didn’t have anything to do with the case, but that didn’t stop him from being cross-examined on this point by the lawyers, the judge and by a small-time reporter who had dropped in thinking they were hearing the other case about that man who was rumoured to have plotted his own murder to escape the night-long demands of his wife who hadn’t conceived in the fifteen years of their marriage.

That day was the day of the eighteenth hearing, give or take a few. This far, a few things had been established beyond doubt. The tribe had, as they claimed each time they were questioned, moved as many times as they had settled. They had been of tremendous service to the villages, and had been tolerated by them despite their eccentric ways and loud music that never changed its tempo during birth, death, or marriage. That cities and town had spread, swallowing up villages and land under crop, leaving very little land for snakes to venture in. That villagers had started building houses of brick and cement with paved courtyards and with proper doors and windows so that the few snakes that were now hardly ventured inside. And that these gypsies who lived off relieving people of their unwanted guests, ended up becoming one themselves. They had, at least the younger generation, taken up other jobs like driving camel-carts and working as guides and cleaners in the hotels and resorts at the lake-town that was a few kilometers away. But one thing they still believed, and said, was they would move. Eventually. They knew no other way. They were just waiting for their chances to dry up.

By now, even the judge started believing them. But he, having a more worldly view, also knew that unlike the snakes, the tourists wouldn’t be going away soon. Unlike the snakes who were taken to far-away places and left, the tourists who were guided to those very points only brought back more of their kind when they returned home with tales and pictures of adventure and of vast, open spaces and sand-dunes. The earnings from these wasn’t going to dry up each season. And these people would continue to stay on borrowed land, in accommodation that was designed to be wrapped up and shifted at a moment’s notice.

All that had been established beyond doubt. This wasn’t a case of settling what was right and what was wrong. It wasn’t about separating the black from the white. It was the toughest thing the three had handled, and often, when the day’s work was over, the three would sit in the small canteen, their teas spiked with rum, and talk about running away from it all, or dragging it till a point that either the lake would dry up and so would the stream of tourists, or they would all retire, or get transferred elsewhere.

Today was the eighteenth day. The judge had come up with a way to postpone the next hearing by a month. But before he could take his seat in his court-room, the attendant rushed outside and stopped him from setting his foot in.

“My lord! There is snake inside!”

The judge stopped in his tracks. Soon, the entire courtroom was around him. The lawyers were at his right, and the officials from other rooms and chambers all around him. The attendant who had spotted the snake started by calling it a cobra as thick as his lordship’s thigh, and at least 8 feet long. But repeated viewings by some of the braver men scaled the estimates down to somewhere around 4 feet, and probably as thick as the lordship’s wrist. It hardly looked like a cobra, mostly because no one present here knew how to identify one. And also because it hadn’t reared its head since it was spotted. It lay in a tranquil coil, hugging itself to sleep, oblivious to the delay it was causing to the state machinery. But despite the reduction in its size and stature, it did little to bring the court back in order. The hearing was to start in less than half an hour, when it just dawned on the judge that this was as good a excuse as any to postpone the hearing. At the same time, it dawned on the lawyer for defence that his clients were perfectly capable of dealing with the situation. The judge heard his plea in front of all present, and therefore could not rule it out. But he made a mental note to bring it up during their drinking session later that day.

They all looked to their right and saw that the tribals were walking into the premises, led by Gulabnath and his bag. It took a while for them to figure out what the mass of humanity gathered outside the judge’s entrance to the courtroom was trying to say, but having caught a few stray words like ‘snake’, ‘chair’, ‘dangerous’, ‘life-threatening’, ‘vicious’, ‘judge’, ‘help’, they pieced together the situation. The man dived into the bag swinging over his side, and brought out the stick, the basket and a roll of breads that he dropped back to eat later, and walked into the courtroom. He was out in no time, carrying the basket in his hand. He offered to show the contents to the judge, who refused, but agreed to postpone the hearing as the snake had to be taken far away to be released into the jungle. The only deviation he made from his earlier plans was to fix the date for the very next day. The tribe had done him a great service, and he was ready to read out his decision.

The next day, in the court, sitting on the very chair that had been occupied by the snake, the judge read out his sentence.

Before he would announce the verdict, the tribals were to be paid a sum of Rs 1000 from the state’s coffers for services rendered. And now that their services were no longer needed, they were to vacate the villagers’ land within a month’s time. They were to move elsewhere to a place that belonged to no individual, community, or government. If such a place could be found, or if it existed, they were welcome to make it their own. But till such time a place like that could be found, they were welcome to occupy the fields behind the courtroom. The occupancy of those fields, the judge said, was for a maximum of four years.

With that he adjourned the court, to the smiles and cheers and backslapping of the villagers and the tribals. And as he walked out, shaking hands and smiling back at both parties who were thanking him, he wondered if he should tell the two lawyers the one thing he hadn’t told the others. That the location and duration of their stay in the fields behind the courtroom had been decided by the fact that his own retirement was due in four years. The exact amount of time that he would have to occupy his chair, and he desired no threat to it.

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