Asia | India | Tamil Nadu | Chennai (Madras) – Justice in Action
I’ve spent the last two days eating thalis and watching the Cartoon Channel. I feel slightly guilty about that, like I really should be out having religious experiences or something, but there are logistical reasons, and even religious experiences can be taxing if you have too many of them.
Which is not to say that I’ve been hiding from India. You can’t really do that; India doesn’t let you. Even watching the
Cartoon Channel, in English, in my pleasant single room at the New Woodlands hotel in slightly suburban Mylapore, the cartoons are interspersed with ads in which Scooby Doo joins the Indian cricket team and Tom and Jerry grin and hold up oil lamps for Diwali. Plus the food is excuse enough for anything. The New Woodlands just happens to make one of the best thalis in Tamil Nadu (which is saying something), and since a thali is different every time, I feel it makes perfect sense that I ate lunch there today, and dinner last night, and dinner the night before.
The thali is probably the greatest edible invention since….well, I was going to say the ice cream cone, but I’m sure it precedes the ice cream cone by at least a few years. It’s a big metal tray, or more commonly a bannana leaf, with four or five or six different cups arrayed along its edge, one containing lentils, one or two with vegetable sambals (stews), one with soup, one with raita, one with some sort of cabbage salad, one with yogurt. This can vary. At the New Woodlands, you also get pappad, puri, three kinds of pickle, a lump of this fantastic potato stuff, and some sort of sweet, rounded off with ice cream and a freshly rolled paan. In the middle of the plate or leaf goes a big pile of rice, which you mix together with whatever else you like and eat with your fingers. The eager looking guys in the Nehru caps drop by every 3 or 4 minutes to see if you want more of anything. So eating is a big enough part of the day that, even if you don’t get anything else done, it still feels productive.
Otherwise, I’ve been strolling around town, and facing further exasperation in my quest to get my return flight tickets re-issued. The Air India office wouldn’t even attempt a re-issue, saying it would take at least five or six days, so I’d better wait until I get to a town where I’ll be staying put or re-visiting a few times (Kochi seems the likeliest bet). British Airways, in their super-spiffy eighth floor office in a brand-new, mostly deserted round glass office building, were considerably more helpful at first, but have still not received confirmation from the head office and encouraged me to check in with their representative when I get to…Kochi.
Air India asked to see my police report. The pleasant, soft-spoken man at BA calmly informed me that they did not require that, but you do need to fill out this indemnity form and have it stamped at the courthouse.
My heart nearly stopped. I think I stared, rabbit-faced, at the representative for a good ten seconds, visions of five-hour lines and forms and forms and offices and waiting rooms danced through my head.
“Oh it’s quite simple, basically. You just take an auto-rickshaw up to Egmore Court building, the drivers will know where it is. Basically, we need this form stamped right here before we can process your claim. It shouldn’t take more than 5 or 10 minutes.”
I nodded dumbly, and collected my papers and departed, not knowing whether to continuing fearing, or be excited at this rare chance to see the Indian Justice System in Action.
The yard in front of Egmore Courthouse was a minor maelstrom of busy citizens and bored-looking advocates in well-starched British barrister’s attire…well, that funny-looking split white tie thingy they all wear anyway. No wigs, sadly.
I was pounced on by two of them asking my business, so I showed them my indemnity form, wondering why lawyers would be hanging around the front of the courthouse. When they offered to “stamp” it for me, the Spider Sense went off, especially as they both assured me it could be done simply by gracing it with their signatures, no stamp required. But I persevered until we reached another barristery-looking fellow seated at a school desk on the front porch of the courthouse itself, complete with a little nameplate announcing him to be both an advocate and a notary. I showed him the form, he glanced at it for about 10 seconds, had me sign it, then placed two stickers that looked like postage stamps on it, each reading “Five Rupees,” stamped it with a rubber stamp, then another rubber stamp, then signed it.
“I can go?” I figured this is where he asks me for the 10 rupees of which the stamps spoke.
“Yes, but must pay the consideration.”
“Oh, these stamps? Ten rupees?”
“Ah, no. Hrm. Stamps yes, they are twelve rupees, and my consideration also.”
“Yes. My fee.”
“Um. How much is your fee?”
“Mmm. Hrm. Five hundred rupees.”
Let’s put this in perspective. Lunch costs about 25 rupees in your average thali joint. My train ticket — second-class sleeper — from Agra to Chennai, a distance of around 2000 km, cost 440 rupees. So I may be forgiven for being a little incredulous.
“Sorry, I cannot pay you five hundred rupees.”
“That is my fee.”
I walked away.
Of course, I was shortly caught up by him and the two skulker barristers from before, and before long, two or three others joined in on the fun, until I was getting information on the reality of the Indian Justice System in Action from six different mouths at once.
The distilled wisdom is this: there is no official charge for this service. It is his “consideration.” Upon refusing to pay 500, I was asked “How much do you want to pay then?”
“Well, zero, actually.”
“What is the normal charge?”
“It can depend. Some people 500, some people 1000. Never less than 250. For you I can say 100 rupees.”
I gave him 12 for the stamps, 50 more for being such a nice guy, and stormed off to get a thali for lunch.