It was the strangest day of my life. I lost my court case and he won his. An hour later he died, right there, standing next to me, midway through a sentence. It made no sense at all. Fate gave him a great victory and then took him with the smile still on his face. What kind of justice is that?
It was a warm, sunny April day. The mayflower, already in bloom, scattered the hot summer pavement with red petals. His name was Ramlal Shah. We had both emerged from long stone corridors of the High Court and he was walking on air, smiling, euphoric.
I hardly knew him. I knew his case better than him because it often came up on the same day as mine and he, too, was suing his brother. After years of struggle, and a loss in a lower court, he had finally won — by default. His brother had died and there was no other claim on the disputed apartment. Strangely, his brother’s death did not seem to bother him at all.
We stood on the pavement talking. I congratulated him on his victory. He hailed a cab and a rickety old black and yellow pulled up for him. He was talking as he put out a hand to open the door. Then he broke off and stiffened. He was looking past me and I saw a very strange look on his face.
I turned to see what he was looking at and when I turned back he was lying in a crumpled heap right there, on the street, without a sound, without any warning.
As suddenly as that, death had visited on a sunny afternoon. I was standing so close that it had almost brushed me in passing.
It was the look on his face which bothered me. I could not place it. Not fear. There was no fear. Surprise, recognition? No, that was not it. They say your whole life flashes in front of your eyes in a micro-second. Had he seen his life or had he seen his death?
“We lost,” I told my wife at dinner.
“Good,” she said.
I scowled at her, “You’re happy that we lost?”
“I’d be happier if this farce did not go any further. Why can’t you just take what your brother is offering you?”
“You know very well he is not offering enough.”
“You just don’t want to agree with him on anything. It’s enough to buy a farm. The kids are all settled. We could live happily in the country. Didn’t you always want that mango orchard?”
“And we will buy it, I promise you. We will.”
“I meant before I die,” she snapped at me.
I did not want to talk about death so I changed the topic. It was no use talking to her anyway. She just did not understand.
I did not go to his funeral, but a while later I saw that his case was on the board.
A thin girl was talking to his lawyer. I had seen her struggling to manoeuvre a heavy wheelchair with an exhausted, grey-haired woman in it. The wife, I supposed.
When his case was called, the judge gave Mrs Shah his condolences, the court clerk gave her the keys, and the judge asked the court guard to help her with the wheelchair.
“The wife must be a wreck,” I said to her lawyer, whom I knew a little.
“If I was her I’d be out dancing,” he said. “Wheelchair and all.”
I looked at him.
“The husband was a real bastard. He threw them out. Told her to go and die on the street. She’s been living on the mercy of relatives. Now she has an apartment worth a fortune. Is that justice or what?”
I thought about that all the way home, taking a cab from almost the very spot where he had died. It was a message for me, coded in life’s secret language of actions. There was an edge to it, a scent of danger. I could heed it or not, at my peril.
“I got the papers for the appeal today,” I told my wife.
“Is there no way to din some sense into your thick head?”
“But I keep thinking of those mango trees.”
She stopped pouring the tea and looked at me.
I smiled. “I think I am going to take his offer and then I can retire and we can buy the orchard.”
“Are you serious? What made you change your mind?”
“I don’t know. I think it’s the way Shah died. I don’t want to be angry and bitter, arguing over some dusty brief. I would rather die under the trees.”
“So,” she said, “his death did some good after all.” She gave me a brilliant smile and went back to pouring the fragrant, steaming tea.
I said nothing more. I was not ready to talk about it yet.
On the way home, in the cab, it had all fallen into place. Suddenly I knew what that look in his eyes had been.
Not surprise or fear.
It was remorse.
I knew Shah had felt it deeply. He had seen the ruins of his life and known that winning the case had counted for nothing.
That was not all.
There, in the midst of the noisy traffic, my own past flashed before me and I knew that I was heading down the same angry path. I had done things I did not want my wife or anyone to know.
But it was not too late.
I had to make peace with my brother and take whatever he offered — even nothing. I could afford to lose the money. What I could not afford was that expression on my face when death came for me.
I saw it very clearly.
There, on that bright, hot, flowery, summer afternoon, death had given me a second chance.
Rohini Gupta is a writer who lives by the sea in Mumbai, India. Rohini says: “I have published nonfiction and poetry books and am now writing fiction. Flash fiction is keeping me happy while writing longer stories.” Rohini’s blog is at wordskies.wordpress.com.
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