War and Peace, and the dying reading habit in court: A case for why we should judge less harshly

  • There was much amusement in the press and on social media today about an innocent query by a High Court judge, seemingly regarding Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace.

  • It now emerges that the book in question may not have been the Russian classic, but apparently War and Peace in Junglemahal by Biswajit Roy.

  • How many public prosecutors have heard of Crime and Punishment though they deal with that subject every day?

There was much amusement in the press and on social media today about an innocent query by a High Court judge, seemingly regarding Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace. It now emerges that the book in question may not have been the Russian classic, but apparently War and Peace in Junglemahal by Biswajit Roy.

During the course of hearing the bail application of activist Vernon Gonsalves, adverting to the seizure of books, CDs and other supposedly incriminating material from his house, the learned judge was curious to know why a book “about war in another country” (Junglemahal?) should be a part of the book collection of the accused.

It was concluded by people on social media that he had not heard of (either Tolstoy or Roy’s) War and Peace before, and he promptly became the butt of many-a-joke.

But spare a thought for His Lordship...

How many public prosecutors have heard of Crime and Punishment though they deal with that subject every day? A majority of them, if asked, would in all probability think that it is some manual for training cops rather than a classic by Fyodor Dostoevsky.

 War and Peace, and the dying reading habit in court: A case for why we should judge less harshly

Bombay High Court. Wikimedia Commons

I am reminded of an incident which happened many years ago in the Bombay High Court.

The late Justice SM Daud, who was heading a Division Bench, had a flair for literary expression and was dictating a judgment aloud in open court after hearing a criminal appeal against conviction. The case pertained to an accused who had suspected his wife of infidelity and killed her in a fit of rage. While narrating the facts, the learned judge dictated with a flourish "...and then the Othello lurking within became active" —

The defence lawyer promptly got up and interjected: "Sorry to interrupt you Milord, but I must say this — the notes of evidence do not disclose anyone by the name of Othello!" Poor Justice Daud did not know where to look, and what to say! The story doesn't end there. The defence lawyer with scant knowledge of Shakespeare went on to become a HC judge too.

The problem with us is that we expect judges to be learned not just in the law but in general knowledge as well. While one can still come across well-read, erudite judges, such encounters sadly are becoming increasingly rare.

A senior colleague who had been a law professor was elevated to the Bombay High Court bench many years ago. He has now retired but used to share very interesting titbits from his judicial life whenever we met. Two anecdotes have stayed with me indelibly.

One was the startling revelation that most HC judges were not interested in reading any serious stuff and the maximum requisitions from the Judges’ Library were for film gossip magazines.

The other pertained to the allowance sanctioned to HC judges to buy books of their choice. It had not been revised since ages, and as a result, continued to be Rs 500 rupees per annum — a princely sum during the days of the British Raj, but a pittance by the time my friend was on the Bench. So he proposed a modest increase in the allowance to Rs 5,000 an annum, fully expecting the proposal to sail through in the Full Court meeting of HC judges. Imagine his consternation when hardly any of the learned brethren on the Bench supported the proposal! Many even laughed and said: "Why bother to read now? Did you not read enough while studying?" The proposed hike was deemed utterly wasteful by their lordships and only a token increase was approved!

I have seen judges who wax eloquent about copyright laws in court buying pirated copies of bestsellers off the footpaths on holidays. Hardly anyone chooses the classics anymore.

The point I am making is that judges too are human like us and we must not judge them too harshly.

And of course, we must thank the Lord for small mercies...

I would not be very surprised if in the future some learned judge were to ask quite seriously, if Anna Karenina was a foreign spy spotted in Junglemahal.

Raju Z Moray has been practicing law at the Bombay High Court for over three decades. He is the author of Court Jester, a book based on his court experiences.

Updated Date: Aug 29, 2019 18:22:45 IST