THE WAY WE ARE
India Abroad August 7, 2015
M7 THE MAGAZINE
got a chance to finish the deal. The advent of the mugger
was pure coincidence. The struggle during the flight was, he
said, no more than a screaming match to get the lunatic
pusher to stop and let him out. He denied ever touching the
handbag or the steering wheel.
We spent the better part of two days hearing the evidence
around these conflicting tales. Or, to be more precise, the
lack of it. The police had handled this case in a style which
would have made the Pink Panther proud.
They had not lifted fingerprints. Available eyewitnesses
had not been sought out. Neither the scene nor the vehicle
had been searched in any meaningful way. They had not
found the shell casing, and there were no ballistic reports
on the bullet. Most incredibly, nobody had ever looked in
the handbag to see if there was any Percocet.
The accuser’s tale was riddled with contradictions and
gaps. She claimed to have got lost near the alley in an
attempted U-turn; when asked what she was doing in this
unfamiliar neighborhood so far from home with her little
boy, she said she was visiting relatives nearby. But none of
the supposed relatives had ever been interviewed.
Late in the proceedings, we learned that Tyson had
already spent several months in juvenile detention since his
arrest, completing his 11th grade behind bars. I could only
come to one conclusion. The system was teaching him a
stern lesson to stay off the street and off drugs, knowing
that he would go free. The horrifying possibility that he
might end up serving five years for a crime that he did not
commit was no more than the price of social justice.
We convened into the jury room to deliberate. The foreman asked each of us to speak individually. It
was a token gesture. In 15 minutes, we
all agreed that we had no choice: we
had to command the state of New
York to let Tyson go.
The two secretaries at the corner of the table were already talking about getting together for a
movie — it was Friday night, and
making new friends was a welcome diversion from duty. I raced
to the finish line of a train of
thought that had been steaming
for hours. It was my last chance; I
would never see any of these people again.
I drew a breath and said,
Everyone froze, hands
pushing on the table, knees
half bent to rise. I said:
“We’re letting him go
because we believe he’s
on drugs, right?”
I went on to suggest that just turning Tyson loose was not
good enough. The lure of Percocet might crack the door
open to nastier things. In a couple of years, this apparently
harmless teen might be the one to snatch my wallet or actually use a gun to take a secretary’s handbag.
But what if the dozen people who were offering him freedom were to also offer him something more? Like buying
him lunch once in a while to ask how his life was going? Or
handing him our cell phone numbers with an admonition
to call the next time he wanted to get high?
I looked at the young aerospace engineer to my right and
the aging preacher across the table. They were both kind
enough to shake their heads. Everyone else stared at me like
I was crazy.
As we shuffled back to take our jury box seats I searched
for Tyson’s accuser. She was in the back row of the hall, with
her son by her side. I caught her eye, but she instantly
turned away. I sat down with an odd sense of satisfaction.
The foreman was reading the verdict while my eyes roved
the front of the courtroom.
Something made me stray to the right at the final
moment. It was good timing. The public defender flushed
crimson, teared up and buried her face in her hands. I was
utterly taken aback. I thought: Hell, she really cares about
While we were walking out, I wondered how much I
myself truly cared about the kid. Had I meant to go through
with my preposterous suggestion? Could a soft-living desi
tract dweller really have the ping-pongs for an adventure in
street mentorship? Or was I merely puffing up my ego till
my heart sprang a liberal leak?
My fellow jurors had not called my bluff, but Fate
soon chuckled and did.
A week after the trial I found myself killing
time in the middle of town, waiting to pick my
daughter up after a public square perform-
ance. I suddenly realized that my aimless stroll
was taking me past the courthouse. A woman
was leaning on the steel-grey wall, talking
on a cell phone and smoking a ciga-
rette. It was Tyson’s defender.
I walked around on the sidewalk, trying to get her
attention. She ignored me completely and kept talking.
While doing so, she smiled and waved. I turned and saw
a man crossing the street with a sandwich bag in his
hand. It was the lead prosecutor.
I circled the block in a helpless orbit and kept coming
back for another try. She stayed on the phone. By the
time I gave up and walked away to look for my daughter,
I had completely forgotten the theme of her event. I was
brought back into focus by a lyrical laser. The group was
singing the track of Hairspray the Musical, an account
of racial and police confrontation in 1960s Baltimore.
It was a sign from above. When I went home that
night I e-mailed the defense and the prosecution. The
next day I left voice messages for both. A week later I
indulged in an act of Victorian desperation by putting
pen to paper, licking a stamp and writing to the judge.
All I asked of any of them was a way to get in touch
I got nothing. My voice mail remained silent, my inbox
stayed stuffed with spam and my snailbox served up nothing but junk. I had slid a moral stiletto between the ribs of
the system, and there wasn’t a drop of blood. I thought: It
was a rough week, she was crying because she won.
So, I finally did move on with my life, which led me to
a mortgage refinancing a few months later. After signing
the stack of papers on my attorney’s desk, I fell into conversation with him. I could not resist the temptation to
tell him about the Tyson episode and its aftermath. He
got up and walked around his office shaking his head for
a minute before he spoke.
“Ash, you’re taking your American citizenship pretty
seriously. You think you can dispense justice. But all we
can do is make a humane attempt to dispense law.” That
sounded like a line from a TV show. I should text it up
into the skies to Achacha with a smiley. Even if he doesn’t
find it funny, he might be able to explain the difference. n
Ashwath Nityanandan sits on the diversity council of a large cor- poration, where his job is in manufacturing infrastructure. His professional interest lies in studying the effect of human systems on technology, especially on the factory floor.
Duty free 3M6