My Date With Kafka: T. SHER SINGH
Tuesday, August 21, 2012
Continued from yesterday …
The lawyer’s secretary had just spoken to the court office. She informed me that there was a warrant out for my arrest, that the police were looking for me.
“What does that mean?” I asked.
Oh, no problem, she said. Just go to the Old City Hall and explain to them that you forgot about the Court date, that’s all, and they’ll give you another one.
“But I didn’t forget any date. I didn’t even know I had to be in Court.”
“Oh, don’t worry,” she said, “Jim sometimes forgets about these things.”
She made a gesture indicating a bottle.
“But not to worry. You go to the city Hall, and they’ll give you a new date.”
So, off I went to the Old City Hall. I found the court officer I was to talk to. Explained what had happened. He checked the file. Yes, a warrant had been issued. He asked me to sit down. He made a phone call. A police officer appeared in about 20 minutes. He asked me to identify myself. He checked my birthdate and address.
Then he told me he had to put me under arrest.
I was handcuffed.
There was nothing to say, nothing to do, but to follow him.
We were in the south-west corner of the building, on the main floor. We walked out, walked the entire width of the building to the East side, and north … towards the cells.
It couldn’t have taken more than a minute or two. But it felt like a lifetime. It felt like the crossing of the Sahara. I just wanted to disappear, to die.
I don’t believe I have the capacity to convey what went through my mind as I was led by the police officer through the crowded main hall and down the busy corridors, hand-cuffed like a criminal.
They kept me in the cells until past lunch hour, brought me into a packed courtroom, put me in the prisoner’s box, along with a number of other accused.
The Judge gave me another date and let me go without much ado.
I found another lawyer by the next morning. He heard my story patiently and examined the various documents in detail.
“A-ha,” he said, “your name has been misspelled in the charge. Maybe we can do something with this.”
It was obvious he didn’t believe my story.
I walked out and decided that only I could convey to the Judge what I had been through. I gave it a lot of thought and many a sleepless night and became confident that I could convince anybody and everybody that I was telling the truth -- but only if and when I was given a full opportunity to do so.
The date set for the trial arrived, 10 months later.
I arrived in court. Well before the 10:00 am time I’d been given. A police officer introduced himself. I told him I would argue my own case. He asked me if I wanted to discuss the matter. Sure, I said. Fine, he said, plead guilty and you’ll be out of here in an hour, a fine of a few hundred dollars, no more.
I looked surprised: “For running down two people?”
“Well, we don’t know. We can’t find the women. They’re not here today.”
“Have you ever spoken to them?” I asked.
“Well, no, but they’ll be here when we need them.”
I told him I had not done anything, so I could not plead guilty no matter what he offered to do to “help” me.
He avoided me from that point on. Sometime in the afternoon, during a break, I cornered the Crown Attorney -- the prosecuting lawyer -- and explained my story. He said he’d check with the officer and get back to me. He did. He said: “The officer wants a guilty plea, or we go all the way.”
At 5:00 o’clock, my name was called. The judge gave me another date eight months down the road.
Eight months later, I came back fully prepared for battle. The officer was there. But no women. I tried to ask the Crown if he would review the file, but he scolded me for bothering him and ordered me to remain in the body of the court until my name was called.
At 5:00 pm, my case not being reached again, I was given another date, again several months away.
I came for the third trial date. Nothing had changed. This time, no police officer, no women. The Crown wouldn’t talk to me. I tried to speak to the Judge, very politely, but the Crown ordered me back to the seat. The Judge said nothing.
At 5:00 pm, when I was being given yet another date, I complained bitterly to the Judge: Three full days wasted, no income, no police officer, no witnesses.
“Sorry, sir,” he said, “the best I can do is give you another date.” I tried to explain. He threatened to hold me in contempt and jail me if I didn’t keep quiet. I went away with a fourth date in my pocket.
Finally, almost 2 ½ years after the initial arrest, the matter came to trial.
* * * * *
The police officer was the first prosecution witness. This is what I got from him in cross-examination:
- that my car was never examined for any damage or markings. He did not feel it was necessary.
- that he had never met or spoken to the complainants. They were not in court. There were no statements from them on file.
- that no attempt had ever been made to meet with the complainants on the day of the alleged incident, or to have them medically examined. Why not, I asked. Because he could not physically examine a female, he replied. Have you heard of such a thing as a “female” police officer? Yes, he answered, but we don’t have any in our station. Did you ask the complainants to go to a hospital to get examined? No. Why not? We just didn’t, he said.
45 minutes after the commencement of the trial, the Judge interrupted my cross-examination. He asked the Crown what other witnesses were being called.
None, was the reply.
It was, and remains the shortest wrap-up of a trial I’ve ever witnessed.
The Judge asked: “Well, counsel, is there anything you can say to assist us?”
The Crown shrugged his shoulders and said nothing.
There was total silence for about 60 seconds.
His Honour then proceeded to dismiss the charge against me.
* * * * *
Ever since, I have not nursed a chip on my shoulder. I have no anger, and I continue to believe in the system for one reason, and one reason only: the fact that the judge finally saw through it all and the truth came out, despite my ignorance of the procedure, despite my lack of training in legal matters, despite the way each and every person I came into contact with had failed the system.
I have thought a lot about that string of events since then.
I was aware that I had a few assets which had served me well: I was reasonably articulate, educated, patient, willing to let the system work its way through. I did not have an accent. I understood, without any difficulty, each and every person I had to deal with, and was able to relate to them as equals.
And that depressed me.
How would somebody else, someone with a thick accent, less fluent language skills, have survived the experience? Not without a heavier price, for sure.
That night I sat with my child in the rocker as she slept, and I cried. The pain, the humiliation, the embarrassment, the frustration, the powerlessness, the impotence, the hell that I had been through, but had never been able to share with anybody, poured out.
I was fortunate in that it did not turn into anger.
And this was possible only because in none of the good souls that I met during that 2 ½ year period, neither the lawyers I encountered, nor the police officers, nor the court officers, nor the judges, in none of them had I seen malice.
The incompetence and negligence they had displayed, the pain they had inflicted, was not perceived by them. They had just noticed that I was different and automatically inferred, possibly at a subconscious level, that I would not fully understand them and/or that they would not fully understand me; therefore, it was not worth their time or effort to put in that little extra effort which they decided they might have to expend on me; and concluded that it was alright to neglect me and my rights. It was okay to give me sub-standard service. I wouldn’t notice it; nobody else would notice it; in fact, no one would be the worse for it. They thought: nobody would know. Nobody would care.
It was intellectual laziness and dishonesty at its worst.
What I had seen was a mere product of human nature -- the dropping of standards to the lowest level permissible by a system, while maintaining the semblance of the service originally intended.
What saddened me all the more was the reminder that I lived in the best country in the world. What would’ve been my fate if I had been caught in a similar vortex in say, India?
* * * * *
I should hasten to add, before you jump to conclusions, that even though it took me a few more years to figure out my blessings, I have thereafter thanked God virtually every day for that string of events.
It planted a seed in me, which changed my life forever. It gave me the strength I needed to extricate myself from all that had tied me down till then. And to overcome further hurdles that came my way.
Within a year after I walked out of that courtroom a free man, I was well on my way to law school.
More than three decades after that day, as I look back at it all today, I wouldn’t want any of it changed a bit … for one reason only: for what it did to change me.
A gift, I have learned, comes in a package. The wrapping gives you no clue of what lies inside.
Conversation about this article
1: Sangat Singh (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia), August 21, 2012, 8:11 AM.
The abysmal incompetence and negligence displayed was a script for a Hollywood picture like the one that produced a Rambo following the same route. His intellectual nonchalance was the crucible that produced a highly successful attorney named T. Sher Singh who roared later in Canadian Courts.
2: Harbhajan Kaur (Ludhiana, Punjab), August 21, 2012, 11:42 AM.
"dukh daroo ..." I fully understand and appreciate your closing paragraphs. Indeed, you've been blessed with just the right dosage of dukh - pain, challenges, set-backs, sorrow, what-you-will ... and see how much we have all benefited from it. Thank you for baring your soul. God bless you.
3: Tejinder Pal Singh (Houston, Texas, USA), August 21, 2012, 12:18 PM.
I have a technical question for you. Is it correct to say that your case was up for trial during the first time and you were absent, so the warrant was issued against you? And then your case was put in a low-priority list as it was already up for trial. Would that explain why it was not up for trial during the next 3-4 times you went there?
4: T. Sher Singh (Mount Forest, Ontario, Canada), August 21, 2012, 12:32 PM.
Good questions, Tejinder ji. The first court date would've been to "speak to the matter", when the accused or his lawyer indicates whether he will plead guilty or not. Usually, another date is set then to speak to the matter again, because the lawyer needs time to get disclosure from the police, etc. The trial date is set usually on a second or third appearance. I found out during the course of my two decades of practice as a trial attorney thereafter that Crown prosecutors routinely, especially if they have a weak or no case, drag the matter through delays such as the ones I experienced, in order to put pressure on the accused to plead guilty and/or to accept a lesser plea. The entire system - the prosecutors, the police, the judges - know this and either actively participate in it or turn a blind eye. However, if you have clout, if you have a "good' lawyer, or if you know your rights and wield them effectively, you weave your way through it and ultimately prevail. The one thing I had going for me was that I was adamant on pushing my innocence and no amount of "pressure" was working on me. The system didn't know how to deal with my obstinacy and ultimately had to let me win. It had also become apparent to me very quickly that everyone within the system knew I was innocent; they just didn't want to admit their mistake. And they found it morally easy to marginalize my rights merely because they saw me as "different" and therefore "less", in some warped thinking pattern they have been brought up in. It's a universal human trait - to treat "others" as less, so that you can then enjoy more than your fair share. Moreover, it allows you to be lazy, careless, negligent and/or incompetent and get away with it.
5: Harpreet Singh (India), August 21, 2012, 1:34 PM.
While reading this piece, I was reminded of a few things I have read in newspapers. The founder of Amnesty International, although honest, was arrested and had to spent just one night in prison and after coming out he totally devoted his life to ensure that no innocent person suffers punishment. During the recent Sikh struggle there were news reports that many ordinary Sikh youth, after being incarcerated in Indian jails, came out as militants freshly committed to separatism. I also remember the contents of the autobiography of Bhai Randhir Singh - "Jail Chitthiaan" (Letters from Jail). On the positive side, many of his jailers in the Hazaribagh Jail in Bihar became spiritually inclined and even adopted Sikh practices, having been influenced by the gursikh lifestyle and demeanour of Bhai Sahib and his gursikh fellow prisoners.
6: Sunny Grewal (Abbotsford, British Columbia, Canada), August 21, 2012, 2:24 PM.
Great story. It has motivated me to tackle another day of studying for the Law School Admission Test ("LSAT").
7: Mahanjot Sodhi (Mississauga, Ontario, Canada), August 21, 2012, 4:36 PM.
What a story! This reminded me about another real sad story that another Sikh gentleman known personally to me underwent recently. In this case the accuser was an old female of Caucasian background, and had accused the gentleman of inappropriately touching her during a flight from overseas to back home in Canada while the gentleman was sleeping in the dead of the night! Once again (similar to your case) the system had miserably failed because the defendant looked different than the one accusing her. The Gursikh man who had been in a wheelchair at that time had been an articulate and a well-educated person who had travelled across the globe numerous times during his heydays but over time had become weak and frail and occasionally fumbled due to his age. He was too shaken by the insult and humiliation of being hand-cuffed in full public view at the Pearson airport that he had lost his will to survive after living his life in full glory for over 70 years! After almost 2 years of dates and humiliating trials and 35 thousand dollars down (that came out of lifelong retirement savings!) for a top notch lawyer - the case against the gentleman was finally dismissed! The experience has left an indelible mark on his soul, though. The story of a number of immigrants can be just summarized in a few words - "haan dharti to(n) tuttey te ambar to(n) diggey / te arthi nu apni rakhangey kithey? / na dharti hai apni, na ambar hai apna te arthi nu apni rakhange kithey?"
8: Harneet Kaur (North York, Ontario, Canada), August 21, 2012, 7:42 PM.
I must confess that I am absolutely captivated by your writing - by both its style as well as its content. But I feel compelled to ask you: Why do you write? What makes you lay your soul bare, the way you do? I know of no other writer who does it, daily, honestly, unsparingly, the way you do. I know that it isn't an ego trip. How do I know? Simple: I don't know any other person who would be willing to describe in great detail his failures and his low points, along with his joys and his celebrations, the way you do so freely. If it was ego at play, you wouldn't have put those stories forward. Certainly not, for example, of being charged with "Hit & Run", or being thrown in a jail cell, etc. Would love to hear from you about why you write, and why you write what you write.
9: T. Sher Singh (Mount Forest, Ontario, Canada), August 21, 2012, 9:06 PM.
To be honest, I don't know the answers to these questions. I'm not even sure if a writer is truly capable of answering such questions. Certainly, I am not. I think it's for the readers to decipher.
10: Gurpreet Singh (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), August 21, 2012, 9:17 PM.
My admiration for you, T. Sher Singh ji, grows day by day. Will meet you sometime again even though I have already in the past but after reading your numerous stories, my impression about you have changed a lot, you don't sound like that elite, stuck up Sikh any more which I wrongfully thought you were.