On my very first day in the Bombay High Court I noticed an elderly woman in the long corridor of the main building carrying a load of case-papers in her hands and a knapsack on her back full of bundles of old documents frayed at the edges.
She was often seen walking in the corridor or sitting on one of the benches in the corridor wading through her papers.
With thick glasses, several broken teeth and a ready grin for anyone who looked at her, she was almost like a fixture in the corridor.
But I never saw her inside the courts.
As I walked behind my senior one day she stopped right in front of us and started asking my senior when her case was likely to be finally heard.
My senior told her that final hearing matters hardly ever reached but she must not lose hope and be patient…especially as she was now appearing in person.
Then she looked at me with a twinkle in her eyes and with an impish smile asked my senior:
“Will he take up my case?”
My senior appeared a bit taken aback by her question, but soon they both burst out laughing…after a while we walked away!
Naturally, as soon as that day’s work was over and I went with my senior to Marosa Cafe on Meadows Street for our evening round of cup cakes and hot tea I asked him who that old lady was.
This is her story as was narrated to me by my senior, who incidentally, is a far better raconteur than I am…but has unfortunately not penned his memoirs.
Let me call this lady Mrs.Mary Banana.
She was married to an advocate who we will call Adv.Harry Banana.
He was a pugnacious little fellow with a big ego who practiced mainly in the Small Causes Court but used to sit in the bar room of the Bombay High Court.
Where you sat and with whom mattered in those days.
If one called a client for a conference at the Bombay Bar Association the atmosphere gave the client a big high though his cause may be quite small..and filed in the Small Causes Court.
More importantly, there was no haggling about fees with people who used to suffix Esq.after their names.
The esquires had dignity.
And it was not dignified to haggle over fees in the hallowed portals of the Bombay High Court.
Hence Harry Banana frequented the High Court when he had no matters anywhere else…which was almost daily.
Harry and Mary never got along but everytime they tried to amicably part ways the built-in mechanisms of catholic do-goodery got together to stitch up a truce through the medium of the Church with its assorted parish priests and counsellors.
Matrimonial disputes added spice to the humdrum life of pastors and priests for whom they were a good alternative to soap operas in those early days of black and white television shows full of boring documentaries.
As Harry and Mary were Christians and their marriages were supposed to be made in heaven, the British lawmakers had made it very difficult for Christian couples to sever the holy bond of matrimony.
In those days, cruelty was not enough of a ground for Christians to say goodbye to unendurable alliances.
It had to be coupled with another ground such as desertion, impotence or adultery!
Moreover, the grounds had to be proved.
The ‘Indian Divorce Act’ governing Christians then was an archaic piece of legislation which flew in the face of the equality clauses of our Constitution but as it was an issue involving minorities no one wanted to touch it with a bargepole.
Another unique feature was that marriages made in heaven and solemnised in heaven’s local bureaus known as churches, could not simply be dissolved by civil courts alone!
One had to petition the Ecclesiastical Tribunals to get such matrimonial bonds “annulled”.
After enjoying sex for years one had to satisfy priests that the marriage was never consummated.
If one simply managed a divorce through the civil courts without also getting an annulment through the religious tribunal, one could not get married again in the church.
It was an unbelievable system and quite unbelievably it remained in place for ages.
Harry Banana had had enough of Mary.
And she too wanted out.
Both thought that the other had gone bananas.
It is a natural habit of celibate, sex-starved priests to don the role of marriage counsellors inter alia to enliven their vocation with nuggets of salacious gossip which comes as an essential perk with that job.
When Mary started confessing her problems to sympathetic priests, Harry grabbed his chance and filed for divorce.
Cruelty was always a ground.
Now he targeted his wife with allegations of adultery with her more-than-friendly young counsellor.
All hell broke loose in that matrimonial heaven.
A furious Mary and shell-shocked counsellor decided to fight these allegations tooth-and-nail.
(Perhaps that’s how Mary Banana had so many broken teeth)
The case of ‘Banana vs. Banana’ was filed in the Bombay High Court.
There was no Family Court in those days and all cases under the archaic ‘Indian Divorce Act,1869’ were filed in the High Court.
Annulments by collusion were encouraged as they added to the disposal statistics but contested causes were long-term investments for lawyers.
Evidence was recorded by the Civil Courts where contested matters were transmitted.
Then the whole pile was dumped back in the High Court’s compound for milords to take a call.
This game could go on for years and such prospects were always music to every black coat’s ears.
When ‘Banana vs. Banana’ commenced there was just Harry Banana as Petitioner in the M.J.(Matrimonial Jurisdiction) Petition.
Mary Banana and her counsellor were respondent and co-respondent.
Mary had engaged an experienced lawyer to represent her while Harry pleaded his case in person.
Soon it was evident that Harry was no match for Mary’s lawyer who ran circles around him in legal arguments.
But Harry knew how to make a small cause big.
He alleged that Mary was having an affair with her lawyer and added him as Respondent No.3!
The lawyer had no option but to give up the brief.
Over the years, Mary went from lawyer to lawyer and Harry added each of them to the array of co-respondents in his M.J.Petition…there were about a dozen co-respondents by the time a Parsi milord of the BHC heard Harry’s petition.
The Parsi milord, who became CJ of BHC later on, dismissed all allegations of adultery against good old Mary with a remark that was oft repeated thereafter as part of the oral history of Bombay High Court lore….
“Mr.Banana, all these co-respondents are lawyers and even you have not alleged that your wife is insane.
I can never believe that any sane woman would go anywhere near any lawyer after her experiences with one lawyer like you!”
Though Harry’s petition was dismissed with costs, he was directed to pay interim maintenance to his wife in a motion taken out by her.
He had no intention of either paying costs or maintenance.
Thus, Harry Banana did not comply.
Contempt proceedings followed and Harry was sent to jail for wilful disobedience.
He was quite happy to spend six months on a prison vacation if he could avoid paying a dime to Mary.
Harry Banana came out of prison after serving his sentence.
His legal head was figuratively bloodied, but unbowed!
Now Mary Banana filed for divorce.
All erstwhile co-respondents covertly helped her on condition that she would not ask any of them to represent her in the proceedings.
She had no choice but to fight her own battle.
That is why she was always in the corridors of the High Court waiting for her case to be taken up by some milord.
I then realised why both she and my senior had guffawed when she had inquired if she could ask me to be her lawyer.
They had remembered the fate of a dozen previous lawyers who were conferred the status of “co-respondents” by Harry Banana.
I later learnt that my senior too had been one of them.