Thursday, March 29, 2007

Vakil Sahab

This is a character sketch that I wrote. I wrote it over a period of time, with the idea coming to my mind when I saw this man, nearly 4 years ago. I wrote my initial draft on the spot. I converted it into a full-blown sketch last year but never got around to putting it up on the blog. A character sketch has no story, it is just what the name suggests; a character sketch. Do leave your comments on this one.

A small town. A slightly dusty afternoon. The dampness of yesterday’s rains has started to give way under the relentless attack of the freshly bathed sun. A bit of heaviness hangs in the air. Like an unpleasant thought that refuses to go away. It is as humid as anywhere yet a bit more cool in the large tin shade outside the local courts. The shade houses close to a hundred and seventy-five lawyers. A jumble of black coats, dark pants, white shirts and kurtas, dhotis and pagdis. The sickly sweet smell of stale tobacco mixed with pungent sweat, dust and rancid decay enters everyone’s nostrils. No one feels it.

A lawyer in this hodgepodge. Small town creature. Short, squat, possessor of a closely-cropped pate; hair that has been cut so short that it stands at its ends, resembling the back of a porcupine. The skin-folds at the back of his head bulge and peek through this liberally oiled bush every time he throws his head back to look at the ceiling. The hair is grey, black and white; all thrown together in equal measure. The oil promotes quick growth and is a quick preparation for its next shearing. It seems that the hair is shorn off completely once a month so that his prospective clients can identify with him more closely. The oil trickles down along with copious amounts of sweat and gives his face an extra luminousity. He wipes off the sweat with a deliberate and slow action, using both the shoulders of his shirt alternately. He is slow, not because he is weak, but because he can afford to. He has all the time in the world.

His pencil moustache harks back to the heroes of black & white movie era, frozen in a time capsule. Once a fashion has been adopted there is no deviation from it. He hates change. A shave has been executed today morning by the neighbourhood barber and the results are there for everyone to see. A bit of hair is left unshaved near his jowls. He strokes it out of boredom. This will make its presence felt only today. Since the shaving ritual is performed on alternate days, this extra growth will hardly be noticeable on the second day. This ritual saves money and anyway who needs a shave everyday?

A paunch rests gently on the thighs, heaving with a slow rhythm of breathing, doing complete justice to years of sitting and talking. Talking to fellow lawyers and clients over endless cups of tea - tea with too much sugar, too much milk and too less tea.

A mandatory white shirt with an extra dose of indigo that makes it look almost bluish. Dappled with yellow. Striped pants complete the ensemble. The attire tells prospective clients that he is “Vakil Sahab”.

The feet sport an old and decaying pair of sports shoes, the ones probably purchased at the local shoe store, because it had got a new lot from the city, and was giving a nice inaugural discount to kick-start the shop. Or may be the shop was closing down and gave a nice discount to rid itself of the old stock.

A small hole in the vest is visible from under the now-translucent-from-sweat shirt. He doesn’t care for he can’t see the hole. Even if he could, it would not matter. The button holding the most critical part of the shirt, the one directly above the paunch, seems to be close to yielding, but miraculously stays put. He looks at his watch for the seventeenth time in the past fifteen minutes yet fails in his desperate attempt to look busy. There is no client till now. It is already 11 in the morning. The court has been open since 10. He must get a client today, if he is to get his bottle in the evening.

He takes out a small key from his top pocket and puts it in the keyhole of the top drawer of his table. It turns smoothly. He opens it slightly to release the mechanism that protects the lower drawers. He opens the middle drawer, takes out a small rag, cleans the imaginary dust from the table and wipes away some sweat that seems to have trickled down along his forearms and elbows, onto the table.

He promises himself to wear the old full-sleeved shirt tomorrow, instead of this half-sleeved one. They full-sleeved shirt does not look bad, just a bit frayed at the collars and cuffs – maybe his wife could repair them once again – but at least the mess on the table would not happen. Appearances are important in this business and a sweaty creature has a far lesser chance of trapping a client than a somber-looking man.

He plans to get a fan soon. A fan increases the prestige one has among the clients. Some lawyers have their own fans and their own private air. Most others make do with whatever blows their way. His first priority is to replace the broken armrests of a chair in front of him, one of the two that the clients sit on. But before that he needs a better lock & chain that guards his belongings when he leaves for the day. The present one seems to be decaying like his practice. People don’t fight enough in this town, or may be he does not know many litigious people.

He replaces the rag at its place. He rummages through the other contents of the drawer. An old receipt for eleven rupees for a Jagraan, which some local boys took from him. He wanted to give five, but as everyone was giving eleven, he had to stick to the norm. Those boys looked like scoundrels! Must have had foreign whisky from the money they collected. He knew the Jagraan was a sham to collect money yet could not protest.

An old notice from his landlord. Eviction! At least he could fight this case properly, as there was no payment problem with this client. Most others were always short on their dues. Most of his clients are farmers with small land holdings in the villages near the town and fight civil cases over land, inheritance or money. And sometimes criminal cases over the not-so-uncommon violence - a result of the civil cases. Most people paid fees by mortgaging land or valuables.

An old bar council election handbill. Cheaply printed on recycled paper. “Vote Support Elect. Chandan Singh Awana Group.” He had tried his hand at the local politics but that demanded too much money and he could barely make both ends meet. Plus everyone demanded too much money for even getting small jobs done. He was content being on the fringes.

A photo of him and a prominent local politician. He had garlanded him outside his house when the politician was canvassing for votes in the last elections in his area. A photographer had charged 30 rupees for a copy of the photo. The thug! But at least he had a nice souvenir. He should have this framed before it loses its sheen. But where will he put it up? One needs a wall for that, and all he has is one side of a metal pole of the tin-shed. Maybe he will tie a metallic wire and make a loop that will accommodate the photo.

©Ankur Jain, 2007. Any copying, by any means, without express written permission, is illegal.


  1. I am able to see vakilSahab in front of me.

    Some places which I find absolutely brilliant:11 Rs. Jagran Note, Looking at watch continually so as to seem busy.

    also 30 rupee photo will do wonders for him. Vakil Sahib must go for it.