My grandfather got his first promotion as a Kerala policeman by means of a false conviction for a petty crime. This career- building tactic was
regrettably commonplace in British India;
he was urged into it by his superiors. As the
story went, he made eye contact while the
defendant was being led out of court in
handcuffs. The victim whispered to him in
passing: Ejamaanne arrayilyay, nhaan
The question was icily polite: I assume
you know I didn’t do this?
I found it even creepier that the frame-up
accusation addressed the crooked cop as
In the end, he entered early retirement by
rejecting violence in Shakespearian fashion.
He said that he walked out onto the pier in
Kozhikode, unbuckled his holster and
hurled his revolver into the Arabian Sea.
When I told my kindergarten son the gun
tossing story, he processed it for a couple of
days and came back with an interesting
question. What if my Achacha had changed
his mind and wanted to go back to his job,
but his gun was gone forever? Could he
have started over again as a traffic cop?
I never sorted out this existential puzzle.
Indeed, I seldom thought about the fact
that my grandfather had once been a
policeman. After all, the only Achacha
whom I had actually known was a peaceful
rocking-chair student of Buddha and
Krishnamurthi. But the day came when this
early avatar of my ancestor circled back to
greet me unexpectedly in America.
The ambush popped out of my mailbox, a
summons to jury duty. It drew me into a
case of capital murder, with a terse caution
that I might be sequestered for weeks.
Fidgeting with dozens of other candidates
in the court anteroom, I was soon wishing
that I could get out of there and get on with
my life. So, I paid little attention to the
bailiff’s dreary instructions about how we
should conduct ourselves in court, where to
find food and how many bathrooms there
That is, until he got to the relationships
rule. In a case that could bring the death
penalty, the bailiff warned us, jurors were
obliged to tell the court if they had any
personal connections to law enforcement. I raised my hand.
The judge quizzed me in chambers on
all things about my grandfather. I explained
that I was not trying to duck my civic duty,
but that listening to Achacha endlessly balancing his philosophical checkbook had left
an indelible impression on me. She sent me
back to the anteroom under advisement.
As I waited, the defendant was brought
in. He was a handsome, immaculately suited brown-skinned man with grease soaking
his spiky hair. He looked around and smiled
confidently. Nobody had said his name, but
I made one up in my head. Juan looks pretty slick. Maybe they got the wrong guy.
I never discovered his name or his fate.
The bailiff brought back a note saying that
the judge had excused me. I drove home
wondering if my grandfather had unwittingly made me miss something interesting,
something which would never come my
But it did. Three years later, I got another
This time the indictment was only armed
robbery, three days of duty at most. Even if
my conscience had let me play the relation-
ship card again, I could not. Though this
was a serious felony, apparently one could
be from a police family and still be objective
about this one. The defendant was already
in place when I walked in. I only saw the
back of his head.
He was a black high school student in a
hoodie. I looked at Tyson slumped forward
in his seat and thought: This won’t take long.
Today I find it chilling that this conviction
flashed through my brain so quickly. It did
not, in fact, take very long — but not the
way that I had imagined.
I entered the jury box early. Tyson’s public defender, a cheerful and petite blonde,
said she had no objection to me serving.
The prosecution consisted of two tall men
from the DA’s office, teamed up in tandem.
They conferred briefly and nodded to the
judge. I was in.
My fellow citizens had a bumpier ride.
Middle-aged white women came and went
in seconds, shot down by the defense’s
objections until there were no objections
left to use.
After she had been seated, an Oriental
confided to me in broken English that she
had no clue as to what was being said. I
took the liberty of telling the bailiff and
soon she, too was gone. The box filled out
with a motley crew of white and black as we
gradually built up to 12 and reserves. We
heard the judge’s instructions and the trial
The story went something like this. A
suburban Latina mother was driving down
an inner-city alley late one night, a long way
from home. Though Tyson did not know
her, he was inexplicably in the passenger
seat. While they were at a stop sign, a man
appeared out of the darkness, pointed a pistol at the driver and demanded her handbag. She panicked and pushed the gas pedal
to the floor.
As they fled a bullet shattered the rear
window, thankfully missing the small child
strapped in the back seat. The wild ride
lasted several blocks. During it, Tyson had a
vigorous struggle of some kind with the
driver. When a police cruiser finally pulled
them over, he got out and started walking
away. The officer arrested him as an accessory to the shooting.
The defense did not dispute any of the
above facts. Nor did the woman when she
took the stand for the prosecution.
Consistency began to unravel over the critical question of how Tyson came to be
beside her. The driver accused him of having forced his way into the vehicle moments
before the gunman’s appearance. Ergo, he
was part of the plan to rob her.
He had spent the escape ride struggling to
gain control of handbag and car while she
tried to drive to safety.
While on the stand and in his arrest
video, Tyson painted a very different picture. He was lounging outside his row
home a half mile from the incident, he said,
when the car pulled up at curbside. His
accuser rolled down her window and
offered him drugs. She said that there was
Percocet in her handbag, but the transaction could not be completed in such a public spot.
Tyson succumbed to temptation and got
in. They found a secluded alley but never
THE WAY WE ARE M6 THE MAGAZINE
India Abroad August 7, 2015
Powerfully impacted by jury duty,
Ashwath Nityanandan is told that while he
thinks he can dispense justice all he can do is
make a humane attempt to dispense law. He is
still trying to figure out the difference.
illustrations: Dominic Xavier