Wednesday, February 18, 2009

The Old Judge's Conundrum

The Old Judge finished reading the book and let out a sigh. He had been postponing an unsavory task for far too long. He stood up to walk to the old mahogany desk, but turned away and approached the window. He started pacing the room nervously.

The room was luxuriously furnished and filled with books. The room had a signature smell. The smell was an oddly pleasing combination of the usual smell of old books and the smell of moth balls, and the smell of wood polish and the smell of dust. There were hardly any visitors to the den, but the few who had had the privilege instantly recognized this smell to be the one people associated with the Judge. Society women had long speculated on where he procured his enchanting flavor of perfume.

The Judge of course, was oblivious. He was an odd man for any age, but he was positively an anachronism for his. Early on he had taken a policy of minimum social contact as well as banning newspapers from his house. He was steadfast about neutrality and treating the case as per its merits. Instead, he read and read and was truly one of the few polymaths in a time of specialization. He had written monographs ranging from religion to chemistry. However, in the last few years he had conceded defeat to the era of specialization and mostly stuck to the social sciences.

The Old Judge mused on his life. It was true that his name was a by word for integrity but it was also equally true he could afford these eccentricities as he had been born rich. At various times, he had seriously thought about what it was to be a judge. Did being a judge require moral purity on the judge’s part? Definitely, in religious works, the judge was a man higher than men, a man who possessed superior character and wisdom. However, in today’s world, the judge was a man appointed by a process, based on a test. Character was required no doubt, but everyone knew that the judge was no Man of God. He could be a man of character and wisdom but it was enough if he was a competent and consistent interpreter of the law.

While human beings constantly engage in activities that are questionable but not blatantly illegal, a judge could not be expected to do that. For often, the definition of Judge did carry on outside the court and the personal actions of one appointed as Judge were usually interpreted as “the right thing”.

The motivation behind this chain of reasoning would have seemed strange and intellectually fascinating to an outsider but to the Judge it was based on a pressing reality. While everyone knew the Old Judge of today, no one seemed to know of the wayward Old Judge in his young days. At that stage, he had been known to patronize localities that would cause scandal in the press. The Old Judge sometimes bitterly regretted the moral high ground he had seized. Yes, he had seized it as an ambitious man. Seizing the moral high ground placed him at an advantage in his profession. Integrity was the defining quality, not brilliance, and he had played it well. Of course, this did not mean the Judge was not smart. He was, extremely.

But he hated the moral high ground. It seemed as if he analyzed every action of his extensively and previously simple joys, gave him happiness no more. He could not, for one, frequent the delightfully decadent cabarets his city was famous for.

He was about to sentence a man to death. In his role as a neutral interpreter of law, it was a mundane matter. The evidence was overwhelming; it was an “open and shut” case. But the man had been poor and was not particularly bright. He really was not a hardened man, he was genuinely remorseful. The Judge knew the feeling. A feeling of impotence arising from situations beyond his imagination drove him to over react to an insult and he ended up committing his heinous crime. The man’s story reminded the Judge of one incident which had caused him many a sleepless night.


The Old Judge had embarked on a long travel when he was a student. His father had furnished him comfortably with money. As was his wont, he had squandered money in some disreputable places and there was no way he could account for his spending. One night he found himself sitting outside a railway station, shivering, contemplating what to do. The Judge had a strong spirit, so, nothing drastic occurred to him. He was thinking of what jobs he could do when a drunken man slumped beside him. The man was quite intoxicated yet he continued to swig. He staggered up to vomit but ended up vomiting around. The Judge walked away disgusted by this man.

He walked around the station twice. He came back to his old spot, to find the drunken man sprawled out on the platform. He looked at him for the man did not look like a bum. His dress was old, but the pieces of clothing were well chosen. It occurred to the Judge that the man could have obtained it from a second hand auction or as a hand me down. He still had taste to wear them in that manner.

The man seemed to be unconscious. He took the cask from him and drank the whiskey. He felt like a thief but the whiskey felt delicious in the cold. But he stepped away in shame, for he still felt bad for drinking without permission. After some walking around, he again came to the place where the man lay. He saw his wallet jutting out. He looked once, turned away, shocked that the thought passed over him. Then he reached for the wallet thinking he would have a look and see who the guy was so that he could contact his dear ones. He took the wallet and immediately darted to a dark area nearby. Unable to see anything, he edged towards some light from the station.

The Judge opened his wallet to see fresh notes. Then a strange thing happened, something he had tried to analyze and justify for years. He just snatched the money, placed the wallet back and ran.

It was as simple as that. Robbery.

As the sun dawned, remorse overtook him.

Perhaps, his family in the village needed this money and they would starve.

On the other hand, maybe he himself had been a thief. For a responsible family man would not have got drunk like that.

What if it had been a one off? Would his family die?

Maybe he was a drunk and wife beater.

Whatever he was, the man would tell the police.

But there were no witnesses.

What if there had been one? He came from a respectable family. All he had to do was to wire home, maybe his parents would have suspected, but they would have still given him enough to be respectable.

He actually sobbed for a moment. Then ran back to the station to the spot the man had been. The man was gone.

This incident troubled him for years. Had he acted out of self preservation? What is right? Hurting someone is clearly wrong. He had actually been waiting for the comeuppance and when karma did not extract its price, he went into penance.

Then he sighed. Let us, for a moment, suppose that this information was to get out. Would it then void his decisions as a judge? For clearly, had he not shown poor judgment? Had he been penalized for his misdemeanor he would not have been a judge. Yet, he was going to sentence a man to death, simply because he had tricked society to give him that license.

He came to the conclusion that he always came to - laws never prevented crimes for the criminal never really thought of the punishment when he committed the crime. A society bereft of spirituality would always find a way to beat the law. However, the organizations responsible for promoting spirituality, the religious organizations, seemed to promote everything but spirituality. And herein lay the conundrum he had grappled with for his life.