In writer Raavi Sastry's portrayal of Prohibition-era Andhra Pradesh, an enduring critique of an anti-poor State
In Aaru Sara Kathalu, Raavi Sastry, who was then a practising lawyer himself, portrays the relationship between the lives of the poor people who were forced to turn to crime, and the apathy and indifference of the system, which was at the disposal of the powerful and rich
“It is all dark in the courtroom. The tablecloth on the desk in front is covered in darkness; when ink spills on it, it is indistinguishable, like poison mixed with poison. Darkness, just as ugly and cruel as the lawyers’ black coats. Stripes of darkness line the red caps of the police. Darkness fills the empty arrack pots strewn all across the courtroom. The eyes of the accused are filled with the darkness of their ignorance.”
Raavi Sastry (Rachakonda Viswanatha Sastry), a practising lawyer during the Prohibition era in Andhra Pradesh, portrayed the judicial system as he saw it — a system stacked up against the poor and the working class. This portrayal is a major theme in Aaru Sara Kathalu (Six Liquor Stories) published in the daily Visalandhra in 1961. Sastry's stories in it were centered on the illegal liquor mafia and trade during this era, and the pitfalls of the judiciary.
Prohibition was introduced in the Madras Presidency (including the Telugu-speaking areas of present-day Andhra Pradesh) before Independence. It continued in these regions till 1969 in many forms and structures.
Raavi Sastry found the ways of the State and its polity, through its courts, police and offices, to be anti-poor and critiqued them in his literary work. The police represented the State and its methods of justice. The judicial system was overburdened, and the writer's stories lay bare the many schemes and tricks of unscrupulous people in the system, including the police and the lawyers. He also portrays the relationship between the lives of the poor people who turned to crime and the apathy and indifference of the system, which was at the disposal of the powerful and rich.
Aaru Sara Kathalu features each and every character who played a part in the ecosystem of illicit distillation and trade of liquor. In a rather democratic fashion, a panchayati agreement is drawn up to divide the illegal liquor business geographically between two rival groups in the first story, 'Paapi' (Sinner). A parallel system — the sara system — is in place, which ‘prospered with peace and harmony among its many players’. Ministers and the police act as intermediates between these rival groups and regulate their rampant businesses. Smaller businessmen manage the flow of liquor on the ground, and if ever they get caught, there is always a pool of young men ready to go to jail or act as fake witnesses, for a price. Sara flowed in the town with absolutely no restriction — through motor tubes, in cars, on bicycles, on boats, carried by the shoulders of men and hiding in the sari pallus of women. Glasses into which it was poured at shops were quickly drained. If needed, it could even be carefully delivered to homes. The shares of profit from the trade reached designated pockets like clockwork in this efficiently designed system.
In this universe, lawyers worked in the legal framework left behind by the British. Murti, a junior lawyer fresh out of law school, is at the receiving end of a rather cynical lecture from a senior lawyer about the botched-up court system in 'Maaya' (Illusion). The senior praises the laws introduced by the British to create a fool-proof system to suppress any kind of dissent: “This is the justice system established by the British. It is the same in their country. It is the same in ours. This is the lesson the Englishman taught us. The work goes to the daily wagers and the profits go to the owners. If anyone questions or fights our system, we have the strength of the police, courts and jails on our side. The British rule wouldn't have been possible if not for these.”
Fighting against this system are working class people like Muthyalamma, whose husband is an addict, and who took to the already established illegal liquor trade for sustenance. She reaches out to Murti to get bail in a fake case filed against her. Tired of paying the police and lawyers, she games the system to ultimately win the case, much to the shock of the young lawyer. In what is perhaps one of most powerful monologues in Telugu literature, Muthyalamma dissects the societal conditions, the role of money and power, and the flaws of the judicial system:
“Pleader babu, listen to me! Not you, not him, I will not believe anyone who claims to be good. There is nothing in this world other than money and business. Animals, voiceless commodities have values and ethics, but not us. Neither uneducated me, nor educated you. I sell sara for money, you sell all your knowledge. The police sells justice. The hospitals sell medicines and beds. God’s blessings are sold for a coconut. During elections, pleader babu, we are all sold. Sale! Sale! Sale! There is nothing in the world other than this.”
In such a corrupt society, the State feels the need to let people know, from time to time, that it is still in control; that crime will continue to be regulated, even if it is not solved or the true culprits aren't found. The police raids businesses when they receive tip-offs and resolve issues at the ground level for a small fee.
Aaru Sara Kathalu describes the contempt with which those who are most vulnerable in a predatory system — the voiceless — are dealt, often being sentenced to prison time. In most cases, the owners of the illicit liquor businesses account for fines and prison sentences as added operational costs.
Cases pile up on the desks of overburdened district magistrates. Offering any understanding or sympathy to those stuck in this trade is seemingly impossible, even for the kindest of magistrates. When they must preside over hundreds of prohibition cases each month, they resort to delivering justice in a swift manner: sentencing all the accused to a month or two in jail. The guilt of sentencing innocent, uneducated people who aren't aware of their rights to prison catches up with a few. 'Moksham' (Salvation) portrays the inner turmoil of a district magistrate, who ponders over the injustice meted out in the name of justice; over jails filled beyond capacity; fake witnesses and the rigged nature of the system. The absurdity of the situation combined with his helplessness and guilt lead him to madness, and he is taken to a government mental asylum.
“Government Mental Hospital! Oh I’ve forgotten! The poor government has gone mad, hasn't it? Let’s go and see!”
At the core of Aaru Saara Kathalu are a few pertinent questions staring us in the face: What happens when poverty turns into a crime? Who creates these ‘criminals’? What is the role of the State with respect to crime — to mitigate, regulate or facilitate? Who is visible to the State and who isn’t? How is the State perceived by those who are protected the least by it? The relevance of these questions remains even today.
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