Fire In My Lap.

The courtroom was packed to capacity. Most of the seats were occupied by noisy women activists who had come to gloat, hoping to see the rapist convicted for life if not hanged. The Media was there in full force, cameras poised and ready. But there were only a handful of friends and well wishers of the man in the dock. Dr. Sudeep Menon the man accused, sat beside his lawyer. He had very little faith in this young man who was going to defend him pro bono. He was already resigned to a life behind bars.

Judge Vandan Rai was to preside over the court hearing. Everyone rose to their feet as the portly figure walked in and settled in his chair. His demeanour indicated that he meant business. Rumour had it that he was a cantankerous old man, whose judgements were not always pleasing to the plaintiff. In this case, it was the Child Welfare Organization that functioned on behalf of the State Government.

Judge Vandan’s eyes swept over the courtroom. He took in the number of activists restless in their seats.

“They are like vultures waiting to stoop down on the kill,” he thought.

By now he was familiar with the rabid shenanigans of these women activists, who saw offence where there was none and thought nothing of destroying an innocent man’s reputation with their mindless slogans and high sounding causes.

Judge Vandan’s eyes rested on the man in the dock. He noticed his sunken cheeks and lustreless eyes. His clothes literally hung on him like crumpled linen dangling from a clothes stand. Something in the man’s hopeless resignation made him wonder if this was one of those cases, where a man was condemned merely on hearsay or circumstantial evidence. The sad, worried woman sitting behind him was obviously his wife. There was no one beside her to give her moral support. Friends had distanced themselves from the accused, as if proximity to him would tarnish their reputation.

Judge Vandan was known for his integrity. He was somebody who performed his duties without fear or favour. The case before him was the first for the day. The Child Welfare Organization had filed charges of rape against Dr. Sudeep Menon. He was accused of raping his adopted daughter when she was eleven years old. Judge Vandan knew that when a government organization was the litigant, it was a foregone conclusion that the government would win. A cut and dried case framed by the police, embellished by government social workers and blown out of proportion by women activists, was tried by the Media, long before the case came to court.

The judge listened carefully as the charges were read out. He could hear the buzz of the activists like a battalion of bumble bees in flight.

“Hang him, hang him,” they whispered among themselves.

Judge Vandan rapped the table with his wooden gavel.

“Silence please, or I’ll have the benches vacated.” Turning to the defendant he asked,

“What say you?”

The defence lawyer promptly jumped up and said, “Not guilty, Your Honour.”

Sudeep had first been refused bail. On his second appeal, another judge had let him off on a hefty sum of five lakhs. Because of all the adverse publicity, his patients had deserted him. Gossip travelled fast and the entire community believed he was a rapist and boycotted him. Sudeep had to close down his clinic. His circumstances even made him mortgage his house. Meena his wife had been running from pillar to post trying to get the trial expedited, so that her husband’s name could be cleared. But everything took time especially if one was fighting against the government.

Though most of Sudeep’s friends had deserted him, there were a handful of loyal ones.

One of them phoned his wife.

“Meera, I’m sending you a link to a site which actively supports men who have been harassed by false complaints. Go to the site and see if you can get help for Sudeep.”

Both Meera and Sudeep read some of the harrowing tales of victims who had been falsely accused of rape, sexual harassment and dowry demands. Women had misused the law with the sole intention of extorting money from them. Meera lost no time in contacting the chairman of this site, giving him details of Sudeep’s case and the false charges foisted against him. All she wanted was someone to help expedite the case and discover that he was innocent. The prompt reply she received was balm to her troubled mind.

“We have our group of defence lawyers in Bangalore. We will send them your address and telephone number. We assure you of our support. You must fight to clear your husband’s name.”

A young lawyer turned up at their doorstep.  Sudeep was not very impressed. He looked too inexperienced. But when Arjun began to shoot questions at him, Sudeep wondered if he was for the defence or the prosecution.

“Don’t leave a thing out,” Arjun said, “Start from the very beginning. I can’t help you if you withhold any information from me. And I won’t defend you if you are guilty.”

Arjun also interviewed the staff of Vishranthi Adoption Agency.

Judge Vandan adjusted his spectacles to get a better look at the accuser – a young girl seated between the prosecutor and a representative of the Child Welfare Organization. Though she tried to appear extremely modest and shy, her eyes like a vixen darted from side to side, and frequently rested on the man in the dock. For some inexplicable reason, he felt a surge of animosity towards the girl.

“She looks like an illusionist capable of conjuring up a rabbit out of an empty hat,” he thought. “No, no, I shouldn’t be prejudiced. I must maintain my judicial impartiality until I’ve heard the whole story.”

The prosecutor got up to present his case.

“The accused Dr. Sudeep Menon adoptive father of Rekha, is charged with raping his eleven year old daughter. He has abused the father-daughter relationship, emotionally traumatized the young girl and offended her self esteem and dignity. Your Honour, we submit that the man be given the maximum sentence under the law. We also submit for your scrutiny her file, and her letter to the Child Welfare Organization about what transpired on that fateful day.”

The Child Welfare organization had directed the Special Juvenile Police Unit to investigate and file a case against the accused. Now the prosecutor called the Inspector to the stand, to brief the court about his investigation and findings.

“Rekha, Dr. Sudeep Menon’s adopted daughter complained orally to the Adoption Agency from where she was adopted, that her father had raped her. On hearing this, she was sent to the Child Welfare Organization for further action. The girl gave a detailed report of the incident. Only then were we called into the picture.”

“And did you collect sufficient evidence that she was raped?”

“Dr. Menon himself by his evasive answers, showed that that there was some unlawful sexual contact between them.”

With a smug expression on his face, the prosecutor turned to the defence lawyer.

“Your witness Sir,”

Arjun slowly rose to his feet and took measured steps towards the Inspector.

“Inspector, when did this rape take place?”

“In 2009, when the girl was eleven years old.”

“Was it just one incident or had she been repeatedly raped over the five years since her adoption?

“She only complained of one incident.”

“Nevertheless it is a heinous crime,” Arjun said. “Please make it clear to the court whether you actually confirmed that rape had taken place.”

“We have the girl’s written complaint and Dr. Menon’s own admission of guilt. The Child Welfare Organization had a physical examination done to confirm the rape.”

“Do you have the medical report Sir?”

“It’s all in the file.”

“So your confirmation of Dr. Menon’s guilt is based on the girl’s complaint and the medical report?”

“Yes,” said the Inspector, sweating under his collar.

“I have no more questions for the Inspector but I would like to call Rehka to the stand.”

The prosecution was up in arms.

“She is a minor and we don’t want to traumatize her further by putting her on the stand.”

Judge Vandan said, “If she is old enough to make a complaint, surely she can answer a few questions.”

Rekha boldly walked to the witness stand. Clad in a pink salwar-kameez, her hair plaited and tied with bows on either side of her face, she resembled any school girl of her age. She was conscious of all eyes being on her, and her face lit up with a triumphant smile. She swore that she would tell the truth and nothing but the truth. Arjun could tell that she had never been inside a courtroom. She was totally unaware of the methods lawyers used to twist their victims into bundles of confusion. Arjun gave her a friendly smile. He had to win her confidence. His preliminary questions were about name, address and background.

“I was abandoned near the Russel Market when I was three years old. Someone took me to an orphanage and left me there. I was shifted from one orphanage to the other until I was brought to the Vishranthi Adoption Agency.”

Rekha declared that she was now fourteen years old and had been back at the Adoption Agency for the last three years.

“Can you point to your adoptive parents? Are they in court?”

Rekha pointed directly at Dr. Sudeep Menon and his wife sitting behind him.

“For how many years did you stay with your adoptive parents?”

“Five years from the ages of seven to eleven.”

“Were you happy? Did they treat you like their own child?”

“Yes, they were good parents and loved me. But they were also strict about following rules and traditions. They were over protective.”

“When did things change?”

“When I was eleven. Appa came into my room when I was fast asleep and did bad things to me. He warned me that if I told anybody about it he would kill me. I was afraid so I didn’t say a word.”

“Did he repeatedly rape you after that?”

“No, only this once. After about a month we were to go on summer vacation. I refused to go with them. So they left me at the Agency until they returned.”

“And you refused to go back with them?”

“Yes, I was happy and safe at the Agency.”

“But you never told anybody about the rape?”

“No, I didn’t want to cause trouble for Appa.”

“Good girl!” Arjun said. “Your Honour, at the moment I have no more questions for her. But I would like to call her back to the stand later if necessary.”

It was Sudeep Menon’s turn to take the stand. The buzzing in the visitors’ gallery rose to a crescendo.

“Hang him. Hang the rapist.”

Judge Vandan brought down his gavel with such force that the entire courtroom was subdued into silence. The once dapper young doctor was now a shadow of his old self.

“Tell us Doctor, what was your reason for adopting a girl of seven.”

“Just a year earlier, we had lost our teenage son in a road accident. My wife and I were totally shattered. But instead of clinging to each other, we cocooned ourselves in our own private hell. I had my work to keep me busy during the day. But my wife had nothing else to do but grieve. She was withdrawing into herself. I felt having a child in the house would keep her occupied and also bring us closer together.”

“You didn’t want to have one of your own?”

“Not at our age. I was going on fifty and she was forty seven. We were well past the stage of having a child of our own. We thought adoption would be a better decision.”

“But a girl of seven?”

“We heard from the Director of the Agency that it was very difficult to find Indian parents for such a big girl. We decided to take her thinking she would be a good companion to my wife.”

The prosecutor’s voice rose a decibel higher.

“Did you rape your adopted daughter? Did you go into her room with that intention?”

“No, I did not go into her room at all.”

“By your own admission to the police you said that you had sexual contact with her.”

“I said nothing of that sort. But of course I have held her hands, put my arms around her and hugged her sometimes just like any parent would. But that doesn’t infer that I was sexually abusing her. Don’t you have children of your own Sir?”

“Then why would she make such allegations about you?”

“Because, as she grew older she began to change. She played hookey from school and roamed the streets during those hours. She made friends with suspicious characters. We came to know about it only when her school informed us of her truancy. We often found money disappearing from the house. The more we tried to persuade her to mend her ways, the greater was her rebellion. Two things happened in quick succession. First I caught her red-handed taking a 1000 rupee note from my wallet. Soon after, I found her in our garage at night, cutting capers with the neighbour’s son.

‘Oh my God!’ I thought, ‘She’s so young. How has she become so naughty? We have to protect her.’

I was really angry and gave the boy a slap. I also warned him never to contact Rekha again. I put my hand on her shoulders and shook her, threatening to punish her if she misbehaved again. She hated me after that and refused to come with us on holiday. When we got back, she said she preferred to stay at the Adoption Agency.”

“Well,” said the prosecutor, “It’s your word against hers. She has written a detailed complaint and we believe she is telling the truth.”

“Your witness,” said the prosecutor, turning to Arjun.

“No questions now but I would like to call Rekha back to the stand.”

“Remember you are still under oath Rekha. For how long have you been with the Agency after this incident with your father?”

“Three years.”

“And you didn’t make any complaint until recently.”

“I did not want to make trouble, but I heard the social worker say that I would have to go back to my parents as Hindu adoptions could not be annulled. I had other plans. I wanted a good life. I saw many children being adopted by foreign parents. They looked so happy and carefree.”

“So you cooked up this story?” Arjun asked.

Her eyes flashed with anger.

“So what? If a little lie could bring me a better life why not?”

She suddenly realised that she had said too much, but Arjun continued questioning.

“Tell the court why you lied.”

“I had seen so many children going abroad. They had such wonderful lives in rich countries. They sent photos to show how happy they were. I wanted that life. My adoptive parents were so ordinary. No fun. No excitement in their lives.”

She burst into tears.

“Your Honour, we have one last witness,” Arjun said.

Dr. Jehroo Mehta an experienced gynaecologist took the stand. Arjun showed her a certificate.

“Doctor, was this certificate issued after you examined Rekha?”

“Yes, I examined her soon after she made her oral complaint to the Director of the Agency, and before she was sent to the Child Welfare Organization.”

When Rekha refused to go back to her parents, the Director had casually asked if she would like to go to a couple in Italy, if the court agreed to the annulment of her previous adoption. It was then that Rekha had put her plan into action.

“Don’t send me back to them,” she sobbed, “Appa is a bad man. He raped me one night.”

“What? How come you never mentioned this before? You’ve been here for three years. Are you making all this up?”

The Director was not convinced. Something told her that the girl was lying. However, it was mandatory that she report the matter to the Child Welfare organization. But for her own peace of mind, she called in a senior gynaecologist to examine Rekha. The doctor confirmed that there were no old scars or injuries and that the hymen was intact. A copy of this report had been conveniently removed from Rekha’s file.

“Your Honour, this certificate proves that there was no rape. My client is innocent.”

The prosecutor jumped up again.

“But there’s no proof that there was no unlawful sexual contact.”

“Sit down,” said Judge Vandan. “I have made some notes during this trial. I would like to go over them and deliver my judgement tomorrow. We’ll meet at 10 a.m.”

Judge Vandan walked into the courtroom the next day, on the dot of 10. The accused stood beside his lawyer, expecting the worst. Clearing his throat, the judge began.

“I find this complaint against Sudeep Menon false and filed with malafide intent. Charges were not proved beyond reasonable doubt. Every man has the right to guard his reputation and status. This man has suffered humiliation, defamation, alienation and loss of income on the mere babblings of a juvenile. The complaint was not lodged by her but by the Child Welfare Organization. I therefore order that a compensation of six lakhs be paid to Dr. Sudeep Menon. This must serve as a deterrent to government institutions who abuse the law. I would also caution activists who champion unjust causes. As for the girl, she will be retained in a juvenile home until the age of eighteen. She must receive counseling, opportunity to continue her education or if not so inclined, to learn a trade by which she can support herself later. She will not be eligible for future adoption.”

Turning to Sudeep Menon he said, “Your annus horribilus has finally ended. The book of Proverbs says, ’Can a man scoop fire into his lap without his clothes being burnt?’ You never know who you are adopting into your family.”

For the first time in months, Sudeep dared to smile.



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