"I finished meeting with the local leaders," she says with a crooked smile. William tilts his head and looks at her. "They want me to sit judgement on their court cases." She ends the sentence with a rising tone like a question.
"I have heard of such cases," William nods as he speaks. "Scouts and investigator sometimes are called on by local people to serve as judges. I have not heard of it in a town this large."
"They say their circuit riding judge is overdue," Pratima says pensively. "The session starts at sundown today and could go on most of the night, they tell me."
"I am sure you will do a good job," William reassures her. "You are an expert at India history and law."
"Thanks, I hope you will come for moral support," she pleads.
"Yes, I will be there." William agrees.
The court room is a large community building that holds several hundred people. Community people serve as bailiffs and secretaries for the court. All the cases and pleads are well organized. Pratima sits on a raised chair behind a heavy table. William thinks the huge table in front of her would make it difficult for a disgruntled plaintiff to reach her.
Pratima is able to handle a case every few minutes. Some cases are more complex and require more explanation and thought by Pratima. After several hours, at about eight pm she has before her a difficult case.
"Our next case is Shreya Pandey versus the family of Bhat," the bailiff announces the case. A small girl walks up. she appears about 13 years old.
"State your name for the court," Pratima commands her.
"I am Shreya Pandey," the child declares. She is dressed in the old style as a young woman in a Banarasi sari with a parandi covering her neck with brightly colored tassels.
"Miss Pandey," Pratima addresses her. "What is your complaint."
"I have no complaint, your honor," the girl answers. "I simply refuse to obey my family. I will not marry that man." She points toward a white haired old man in the audience toward the front. Pratima looks to the secretary.
"Your honor, the case is brought by the family of the groom, Mr. Bhat." the court secretary stands and informs Pratima while consulting several papers in her hand.
"We should hear the complaint then," Pratima says with slow exhale. "You may take your seat Miss Pandey. Bailiff please call the representative of the Bhat family."
A middle age woman dressed in finery walks up to the dock. Shreya walks back and sits down. The older woman stands like royalty and commands the room.
"I am Arushi Bhat, your honor," she announces imperiously.
"Please let us hear your family's complaint, Miss Bhat." Pratima orders her.
"We are the wounded party here, your honor," Miss Bhat directs her words to the whole audience. "Shreya's parents agreed to the match. We have paid the wedding expenses. We have paid for the wedding dress and the wedding feast. Value has changed hands, your honor."
"Why is this marriage desired Miss Bhat," Pratima gives her an inquisitive look. "Are the couple in love?" A shocked look appears on the older woman's face. She takes a moment to compose herself and a moment later is back in control and commanding the room.
"This is an important alliance for both families, your honor. Shreya's family operates the most successful ferry across the Yamuna. My family imports the most food into the city. My uncle is of high caste. Shreya will be benefiting from this marriage, and both families benefit."
"Thank you Miss Bhat, you may be seated," Pratima commands her. "Miss Pandey, please take the stand again." Miss Pandey stands and walks back to the dock as Miss Bhat walks past her and throws an icy stare her way.
"Miss Pandey, explain to me your position on this proposed marriage," Pratima entreats her.
"I am unwilling to carry out this forced bonding," she states articulately. "I do not know this old man and I am not ready to become a servant and brood mare to any man." The courtroom audience gasps at her words. She looks directly at Pratima, ignoring the rest of the courtroom.
"My teachers have agreed to continue my education, and tell me I may become a nurse or perhaps even a doctor," Miss Pandey continues with a strong clear voice. "That is the path I choose for myself, not wifely duty to this stranger." She concludes to loud protests in the room.
"Pratima looks at the courtroom with a stern expression on her face. As the murmuring begins to quiet down, she speaks to the room.
"We will recess for fifteen minutes, so that I may consult the legal experts on this matter. The plaintiffs may remain seated, Miss Pandey you may return to your seat." Miss Pandey nods to Pratima and steps down from the dock.
Pratima tilts her head to William indicating he should join her behind the bench. William stands and moves to the doorway behind the judge's table.
The small room becomes packed, with Pratima, William, Abha, two townsmen and two townswomen and the court secretary. Chizuko stands outside the doorway ensuring privacy for the meeting.
"What is the legal standard for this type of case?" Pratima inquires of the local experts. Three of the locals look to one man to speak.
"There is no legal requirement for her to go through with the wedding," he addresses Pratima. "Weddings are called off every month. Usually though a family is unified in pulling out."
"I understand that in this case the girl's parents would prefer that she go through with the marriage," he nods. "But it seems like I have the authority to decide."
"Let's go back," she continues. "I am ready."
"Defendant and plaintiffs please rise," Pratima orders. Several people stand up. "I am ready to rule. My judgement is that the defendant, Miss Pandey may avoid this marriage." There is a gasp in the room. Miss Bhat looks angry.
"Because there has been expense to the groom's family, Miss Pandey's family will make arrangement to pay back those expenses. Miss Pandey's family is to be allowed to work out whatever payment schedule suits them. Please provide a copy of my judgement to the defendant and plaintiff." The room erupts in noisy shouting.
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