Illusion by Rachakonda Viswanatha Sastry

Murthy received his law degree. He stood in front of the senior lawyer with humility. Then the senior lawyer gave him a valuable advice. He told Murthy to remember one important thing. He stressed that that was the only way to succeed in this world.

The senior lawyer spoke somberly, “The English man said that the early bird catches the worm. In other words, you have to wake up early if you want to catch the worm. The English man is not an ordinary man. He never says anything unless and until he has scrutinized its pros and cons thoroughly. He never does anything unless there is something in it for him. Therefore, you wake up early everyday, go to the court and have the doors opened. In the evening, wait until the court doors are closed and then go home. Make sure you are present in the court each and everyday. Prostitutes wait at the door. Foxes hang round the graveyards. The cranes linger by the shores. I know the similarity is not a pleasant one. Yet that is what we need to do. If you want to climb up the ladder, you will have to hang around the courts. You may play hooky, giving flimsy excuses—the cricket match at noon, a matinee in the afternoon, or some other errand, and so on. If you do that, I am telling you, you will not succeed as a lawyer. That is for sure, I am telling you from experience. Do you know what the term “court” means? It is a jungle. Do you know the Telugu word for hyena? dummulagondi. Hyena’s laughs sounds like that of humans. If you approach him, mistaking him for a human, he will eat you up alive. That is the way in the courts too. We have to entice the parties that come to the court. That is our job. What can we do but act like the hyena? We can’t blame him for eating up the man who approaches him. It is the man’s fault to go to the hyena. Are you listening? In fact, it is not only the hyena. There are other bigger animals as well. They maul us if we are not careful. Therefore, we have to be on guard all the time. If we are not, the parties eat us up. The truth is that is how the whole world moves. You and I cannot do anything about it. The English man had drafted the law in accordance with the principles of this stupid world. Never forget that he, the English man, handed down all these things to us—these courts, the law books, the law degrees, and the witness procedures. There so many courts for the parties to choose from. There are as many precedents for the judges to draw from based on a ruling the judges prefer to give. And there are just as many rascals in the country to get upon the witness stand and give their statements anyway you want them to. We are here to train the witnesses. Whether it is a criminal court or civil court, they are concerned with only the statements of the witnesses but not with truth. You can throw in all the sizzling terminology like ‘justice,’ ‘duty,’ and ‘truth.’ But remember that this is all just an illusion. That is the way the system is and we are acting within the purview of the system. That being the case, how can they call our action a sin? No, the sin will not touch us. If there is anything that can be called a ‘sin’ that goes to the judge who gives the ruling. The parties bear the expenses. The witnesses and the court clerks are entitled to bribes. We are entitled to our fees. That is the law the English man had laid for us. The officers take the apples and the people rake the leaves. The rules are the same whether it is our country or theirs. That is what he had taught us. Sweating is for the workers and profits for the owners. If anybody questions this rule and rebels, we have the courts to support us. And then there are jails. Without these things, there is no regime for the English man to call his. He is a great illusionist. Just imagine what a great magician he has to be! Look what he did. He came to our country, sold our own salt to us,[1] and turned around and taunted us, ‘You ate my salt. How can you not be loyal to me?’[2] He’d gotten the courts and jailhouses built for us, and beautiful mansions for himself. And what did he do at the end? He suspected that the stupid laborers might seize power—like the way it had happened in other countries. He was afraid that it could turn into a total disaster. So, he handed over the regime to his fellow businessmen and disappeared quietly behind the curtains. What an amazing showmanship! What a magnificent performance!”

The senior lawyer finished his speech. He always goes into raptures when he recounts the merits of the English man. He speaks with his eyes half-closed and lost in a fit of reverie. If he were a woman, he would have run away with some English man long time ago.

Murthy was baffled. He did not realize until that moment that the crooks carried such a huge clout in this world and that there would be gentlemen who could go into raptures at the mere thought of those crooks.

The senior lawyer noticed it and said, “Don’t think I am being cynical. I just spoke the truth. Drop the veil and that is what you will find anywhere anytime. No confusion there.”

Murthy still was not convinced of it, despite the detailed analysis by the senior lawyer, his guru. He had not experienced the revelation yet. He could not digest the lessons the seniors had tried to teach him. As a result, in this one year, his eyes sunk in and he lost weight. It looked like somebody would have to come forward, give him a massage and pull him up.

One day, he was on his way home, dragging his feet sluggishly. Somebody grabbed his shoulder from behind and stopped him. He turned around with a jerk and nearly fell. The man behind him stopped him from falling.

The man was looking like an eagle. He spoke quickly, “Babu! It, I mean the case is about a woman. The police arrested her and put her in jail. It is not a big case. A small liquor case. You have to get her out on bail. Here, this fellow and I are the bailers. Here are our legal documents pertaining to our properties. Our village munsif did not put the pen to the papers until after we had shelled down five hard rupees. This fellow is the defendant’s husband. He will pay you something. Please, Babu! You have to get her out.”

The second man, also looking like an eagle, was standing next to first. He was the second bailer. The defendant’s husband who looked like a sleepy fox was standing a little away from the two bailers.

The two men yelled at him, “You! Give Babu something now.”

The husband was a little tipsy. “Tell him to get her out first,” he said.

“How can he get her out without getting paid?”

“I am not falling for such games. Ask him to get her out first.”

“You put down the money. He will get her out.”

The debate went on for a while. Finally Murthy drafted the bail papers, got them signed, got her released, distributed the funds and was about to leave for the day. The bailer stopped him.

“What?” Murthy asked him.

“Come here. I have to talk to you,” he said.

“Okay. Say it.”

“Just come here.”

“I did. Tell me.”

“Babu! Where do you live?”

“Why?”

“I will bring her to your house.”

“Why?”

“You can take up her case.”

“All right.”

“Don’t accept less than one hundred rupees.”

“Can she afford it?”

“Why not? She is loaded.”

“All right.”

“Don’t go lower than fifty under any circumstance.”

“That is fine.”

“Just you stay put on that number I’ve given you. I’ll make sure she pays. She will. That idiot husband of hers won’t let go of a penny but she is not like that.”

“All right. Tell them to come tomorrow.”

“Sure. I will put her in chains and drag her if I have to. You do have to remember us though.”

“What for?”

“What for? Like you don’t know!”

“What do you mean?”

“You keep your share and let’s have ours. You don’t have to give it to us today. What do you’ve got to lose. I am talking about tomorrow.” He set out to leave and stopped again. “One more thing. Tomorrow she will say she is poor. I will also say ‘yes, Babu, she is poor.’ But you stay put on your number,” he said and left.

The next morning Murthy was sitting in a chair on the verandah. It was 8 o’clock. He smoked half a cigarette. The bailer showed up, with the woman behind him.

“Here Babu! She is the woman I told you about yesterday,” he said.

She could be about thirty-years old. Probably she was beautiful long time back. She must have put up her long hair in a fancy bun during that period. The black sari she was wearing now probably was new some time back. In all probability, she was eating well and was robust way back then. She sat down on the floor a little away from the backer. She kept staring at Murthy with piercing eyes.

“What did you say your name was? I forgot,” Murthy said.

“Muthelamma. I’d been to the court several times,” she said and came straight to the point. “I’d been to the court several times, retained famous lawyers and paid them huge chunks of cash. But those days are gone. I am not that Muthelamma anymore. I am crushed to the dust. My business is crushed. For every one liquor store in the past, we have ten stores now. Now the police are selling the liquor themselves. I am leveled to the ground. Forget the stories about my husband and me for a second. I can live with a slug of rice broth. My husband will not touch it without a drink. And then the children! One child died just two days back. I have two more. I am having hard time feeding those two kids. So, what I am giving is not money but my blood. Now tell me what is your rate for settling this case. Look at me, take a good look, think about and then tell me.”

“Can you pay one hundred rupees?” Murthy asked feebly.

“No Babu! I can’t raise that kind of money, even if I sell myself, and everything I have. I can’t give you one hundred, not even fifty rupees. I will if I had the money. I do have to have the money to give to you, right? You tell me the truth. Probably this bailer fellow told you to ask one hundred rupees. What does he care? He’ll say ‘give, give,” even if you’d asked two hundred rupees. If I paid you a paisa, he will take one-half of that. I know all these things very well. I can’t tell you how much I’ve learnt after starting this liquor business. Here! Listen to me! I will not trust anybody, not even if you swear on your life. You show a man and say, ‘here is a good man,’ I’ll not trust you. Not you, not this bailer, nobody, I trust nobody. Nothing is certain in this world except money. Take the animals. They can’t talk. Yet they have morals but not us. I’ve been to any school and I have no ethics. You have education and you have no ethics either. The entire world is prostituting itself for money. I am selling alcohol for money. You are selling education for money. The police are selling the law for money. You go to the hospital for drugs; they sell the drugs and beds for money. The streetwalkers are chasing rickshaws and cars and selling their bodies for money. You go to the temple, give them half a coconut and a paisa. They will sell you god’s grace for money. Lawyer Babu! in the elections this bailer, you and I, all of us are sold for money. Sale! Sale! Sale! There’s nothing but sale in this world. I have no schooling yet this is the truth I’ve come to see. Tell me if I am wrong. you prove it to me. I’ll listen.”

“Yesyes,” said Murthy.

“You can’t prove me wrong. I know that too, lawyer Babu! I’ve seen them all. I’ve got nothing to look forward to, no reason to live. I am tired. I have no faith in anybody—the man I was married to, the child I gave birth to or anyone for that matter. I have reached that point that I don’t care anymore whether I live or die. Life and death are the same for me. Why are you staring at me like that? You think I am talking philosophy? No, Babu. This is what I’ve come to see and understand. I am not saying this to confuse you.”

That’s true. Murthy was baffled by her outpour.

“Babu! Sometimes I see my life and think it’s better to die than live this way. After starting this business, I have seen the worst. When I was little, I used to work for daily wages. Money was not much in that but not this horrible either. Then, greed took over and got me into this mess. Am I rolling in riches? No. All I’d done was only to support the police and the others. I did not earn a paisa for myself. I got into this liquor business and ruined the drunks and myself. I am ruined every which way. Babu! At home, I have nothing to cook but the grill. In the grill, there is nothing but the ashes, not a splinter to start fire. It is more than a week since I had a sale. In the past one week, I did not have a drop to sell. I am living only because I could not kill myself. Then this head constable shows up. He raided my place twenty times because he had not received his kickback. That drove me crazy. Last time he showed up, that was it. Seen the waves rise in the ocean; that’s how the throbbing in my stomach flared up. I have a bad mouth even on ordinary days. On that day, I hit the roof. I had a couple of rounds liquor too. Babu, mine is a wretched life. I couldn’t think straight, I picked up the pestle … it was awful … the head constable ran away, didn’t even care to pick up his red cap, which fell off in the scuttle. He ran away on that day and yesterday he did this, locked me up. Lawyer Babu, I am heart-broken. I buried my daughter last week, exactly a week from today. She just turned six. That’s it. Why was she born? Why did she die? Who could tell? Who cares about my pain? I cried and cried. My life is a living hell. Lawyer babu, you did not see her but I am telling you, even girls in your families are not that sharp. You may not believe this. During last peerlu festival, she played a lion. The entire village came rushing to watch my little girl play the lion. During other festivals also she went up the stage and performed the dances from all the movies. I was hoping that some day some big man would come and take her into the movies. But, babu, it is my liquor business that ruined my life and home.

“My girl used to sit at the corner of the street from dawn to midnight watching the police. As soon as she spotted them, she would come in calling out, ‘Amma, dogs, dogs are coming.’ At once, I would pick up and hide away all the tubes, beakers, glasses and the rest of the stuff under the trash in the backyard. The same thing happened that day too. It was about a month ago. She came rushing in and calling out, ‘amma, the dog … the dog bit me.’ I thought she meant the police as usual and got busy hiding away my liquor stuff; I did not look at her. My girl was scared and kept saying the dog bit her. At first, I panicked. Then I calmed her down, ‘its okay, just a small scratch. It’s all right.’ I did not realize that she was bitten by a mad dog. I buried my own child in the dust. I buried my pearl, a doll of gold. Lawyer Babu, I was busy hiding the liquor tubes but not my own child. What kind of life is this? My husband was lost to the liquor; my business has gone to the police and my daughter to the dogs. Ccha. What kind of business is this? What kind of life is this? I was feeling rotten with all this and now this police officer slapped this case on me only because he did not get his kickback. Yesterday I’d not had one gallon of liquor, not one glassful, not even a drop. All I have is two more children. I am swearing on their lives. You may or may not believe me. The head constable handed down this to me only because I attacked him the other day.

“Therefore, lawyer babu, I will give you not one hundred rupees, not fifty but twenty five. Even for that, I will have to sell my man, my kids and myself. There is no other way. Yet I will make sure that you will get your money. Would I ask you to work for me without paying for it? If I can’t pay you cash, I will work; wash dishes in your house. How much will you pay for washing dishes, tell me? Probably four or five rupees if I work for one whole month. That is it, right? This case takes one hour for you if settled on the first day. Or you may ask for continuation for second and even third time. No matter how many continuations you seek, you will spend only one hour for arguing this case. For that one hour of your time in the court, I will wash your dishes for six months and settle the account. I know nobody should rob others of their labor. Do you think I don’t know that? I know. You argue my case. I will certainly repay you. Until then you keep this ten rupees.”

Murthy felt embarrassed to take the money from Muthelamma. He took it though. Muthelamma got up to leave. The bailer did not move. She told him to get up too. “I will pay for your coffee. Don’t ask Babu for money,” she told him and dragged him out from there.

Murthy decided that he must get her out somehow. He was convinced that the case was fabricated. He talked to the head constable and got him to admit it. The head constable admitted, “True Babu. This is cooked up. But you didn’t hear her language on that day. Shouldn’t she show respect for the red cap at least? I wanted to show her place. What do you want me to do? You go ahead and argue your case. You do your duty and we will do ours.”

On the day the case was presented, the entire courtroom was filled with hustle and bustle. The head constable and a police officer took the stand and gave their statements. After that, first Muthelamma and then Murthy walked out of the court.   Muthelamma pulled Murthy to a side and asked him, “Babu, what do you think will happen?”

Murthy felt he had a strong case but did not have the courage to say so. “They said they would give the ruling by the end of the day,” he said.

“What did the police officer say?”

“He was firm.”

“And the Head?”

“He fumbled. His statements were fuzzy. We have a good chance,” Murthy said. He was in fact very excited that he caused both the witnesses botch during his cross-examination.

“Does that mean the head constable’s statements are no good?”

“Yes. We have proved his statements wrong.”

“That is what I thought too.”

“What made you think so?”

“I just thought.”

“Why?”

“Why? Here is why. Yesterday the head constable came to me. He said, “Let bygones be bygones. What do you say?” What can I say when he says like that? He agreed to falter and I agreed to pay him his cut. The truth for the courts is different, babu. I’ve been there so many times; I know it very well. For them all that matters is the witnesses’ statements. What if the head constable also stayed put like the police officer? I will do the jail term. These witnesses may go up on the stand one after another and give their sworn statements. But the reality is they would have their stories corroborated with each other long before that. Also, they would listen to each other’s statements from verandah. They would stand at the window and sign to each other. If the witness at the window were forced to leave the premise, somebody else would take his place, listen to the first witness and fill in the second witness. It doesn’t really matter whether they have listened to each other or not, they all belong in the same side. Even otherwise, they’ve seen thousands of cases like these; they know the process only too well. They know what to say. Let’s see, what questions would you ask normally? Something like this—When did you leave the police station? How many of you went there? Did you wear plain clothes or uniforms? Did you walk or ride bicycles? Which one of you saw her first? From how far? Did you measure the liquor? Did you smell it? Did you do the routine check up although it was considered a liquor store? That is what you would ask too, right? Yes, Babu! That is really nothing for them. The judge listens to all this and says that everything is in order. ‘No loopholes in the witnesses’ statements. Even if there are, they are minor ones. Therefore, you pay the fine. Or else go to jail.’ That’s what the judge would say. Babu, I paid fines three times, two hundred rupees each time—that was my blood, Babu, my blood! Therefore, Babu, I thought what the heck and paid him off. I was worried though. Worried wondering—what if he goes back on his word and tells a pack of lies on the witness stand. He did let it go after all. Good. No problem,” Muthelamma told Murthy reassuringly.

She was quiet for a few seconds and then said, “You were very good too! You were very tough in your cross-examination. I was a little scared at first, thought you were new at this sort of things. But you did good. When you questioned the first witness, he nearly fell apart. The head constable also wouldn’t have crumbled like that if you hadn’t been that tough. I heard everything and I saw everything. I was right there watching you. You’ve come down hard on them.”

Murthy was disheartened like a fizzled balloon. He understood now why the entire case was cleared up so easily like the morning fog. After the case was dismissed, Muthelamma came to pay him the balance. Murthy felt embarrassed and refused to accept it. Muthelamma had no choice but to leave with her money.

For Murthy the whole thing looked absurd and illusive. It was like a magic show. There was no liquor. But the police brought charges against her on the pretense that liquor was found. Then again, they dropped the charges saying liquor was not found. Actually, it did not happen. They said that had happened which in reality did not happen. They said what really did not happen had happened. It is and it is not. That is one heck of an illusion. But …

Murthy went on thinking about Muthelamma. “What a heartrending pain in the midst of all this illusion!” Then the senior lawyer came to his mind. Evidently, the senior lawyer had recognized only the nature of the illusion but not the pain. Then again, did he not know about the pain? Or, knew but did not care? Did he not really know that, in this world of illusions, there are also people like Muthelamma? Did he know or not?

Good God! Why not? Of course, he knows definitely, just does not care; that is all!

(The original in Telugu, “Maya,” was published in the 1950’s and later included in the anthology, “aaru saaraa kathalu.” [Six liquor stories]. Vijayawada: Visalandhra Publishing House, 1962.)

Translated by © Nidadavolu Malathi.


[1] During the British Rule, the government imposed tax on salt and the Indians protested, famously known as Salt Satyagraham. The famous salt satyagraha led by Gandhi in 1930 was a crucial part of Indian Freedom Movement.

[2] A famous adage in Telugu, similar to ‘biting the hand that feeds.’