A Question Of Guilt
A Question Of Guilt18 mins 134 18 mins 134
Prince Jainil tried to not show his excitement. He was no stranger to special court sessions but a session at night was a rare one. This would be his first-ever nightly session and he was thrilled to the bits. His current helper, Hema, had whispered in his ears about the possibility of execution right after the hearing and it had made him more curious about the affair to be judged. It never crossed his mind that if judges were already discussing an execution, the hearing was going to be a sham one. Jainil was, at his heart, a simpleton. He was a cripple, a hunchback, who needed assistance for basically everything. The helpers assigned to him had to be changed regularly by the orders of the king himself. Jainil's father knew first hand of the irritation that his son managed to evoke in people around him and he also knew how short-tempered his son was. Some ten years back, when his son was eight years old, the king had found out about the mistreatment of his son at the hands of the assigned helper. The king was left infuriated and got the helper thrashed to an inch of his life. He also taught his son to retaliate at the helper for any perceived ill-intent. One thing led to another and his son became a hard taskmaster who mistreated his helpers. The king had no problem with his son hitting and hurting his helpers although he did put in measures to keep changing the helpers of the prince on a regular basis.
The inner court was abuzz with activity. No one from the general public was ever allowed in the inner court. The servants and the guards stood far away so that they could not eavesdrop on the discussions. King Pranjaldeva was seated on his throne. Jainil was to sit next to him on his right. The seats on the left were for the queen and the two princesses but they were empty. Jainil was helped to his seat by his helper cum advisor Hema who was allowed to stand near the seat of the prince. The moment Jainil was seated, a door to the far right opened and the queen and the two princesses made their way to their seats. The queen did not like to see her son struggle walking or climbing steps leading to his seat and would always wait behind the closed door for her son to be seated before coming out. The eldest princess Sriveli never shied from expressing contempt for her brother. The youngest princess Vina was too young to understand the animosity between her siblings. Sriveli wanted to inherit the throne but she knew that her father would never assent to that.
Once all the royal personages were seated comfortably, the council of ministers made their way to their seats. They were the ones who held the true power in the kingdom but they needed Pranjaldeva as their titular head for the citizens loved their king and the council of ministers did not want to upset their carefully managed apple cart. Finally, two junior ministers walked in and took their seats. At long last, the guards dragged the accused inside the room.
Jainil noticed that there were two accused, a kid and a young man. Hema whispered to her that the young kid walking ahead of the guards was the main accused. The kid's name was Afia and she was only 12 years old. She walked with a stoop and stopped every ten steps to regain her breath. Jainil learned that Afia suffered from a terrible disease that was going to claim her life within six months. The man between the two guards was Afia's father who walked with a determined gait. He looked haggard and unkempt. His eyes were red as if he had wept bitterly sometime before he was dragged to be tried.
The guard tied Afia's father's hands to the two pillars in the middle of the court. Afia was left untied. She sank to the floor and sat with her head bowed down.
"State your name," one of the junior ministers ordered the man tied to the pillars.
"Sandesh", the man replied feebly. The court was built in such a manner that even a whisper spoken near the pillars could be heard by the ministers and the royals.
"Tell us why are you here," the junior minister addressing the accused asked again. His partner, who was seated next to him, looked at the paper in his hand.
"I have been accused of plotting the murder of a child," Sandesh spoke with some difficulty.
"And you plead guilty or innocent?"
"What about your daughter?"
Sandesh looked at Afia once who did not look up to meet her father's gaze.
"Tell us!" roared the junior minister.
"It is all a mistake," Sandesh managed to whisper.
"I poisoned Malti," Afia spoke suddenly. Her father gasped.
The junior minister nudged his partner and sat down. His partner sprang to his feet and addressed the presiding court to present the case details. His job was to present the matter succinctly and then yield the floor to the ministers to question the accused.
Malti's mother and Afia's mother were cousins. They got married and settled in the same city, choosing to keep their houses nearby so that they could stay connected through the years. They were both blessed with a daughter as their first child. Afia and Malti were born some months apart and their mothers raised the two kids together. It was safe to state that Afia and Malti were not only childhood friends but treated each other as sisters. Afia could never get to have her own brother but she always treated Malti's brother as her own and the young kid loved both his sisters. Afia began falling sick regularly from the age of eight years. After about two years of her sickness, her parents consulted a healer in the city and learnt about the terrible disease that was eating their daughter from inside. There was no treatment for the disease and the parents were told to try to lessen Afia's suffering. During this time period, a noticeable change was seen in the behavior of Malti's parents. They took to visiting Afia's home almost on a daily basis. The purpose of their visits was not to help Afia's parents in dealing with their grief but to add to their misery by passing comments or taunting them. Malti's mother would often speak of bad 'karma' from past lives that resulted in making the child suffer. Malti's father would share his unsolicited judgment over the questionable parenting decisions that Afia's parents made. They would also take away Afia's toys for she was not going to be around for long and the toys were for the living and not the dead. Afia's father, Sandesh, had a terrible run-in with Malti's parents over their stealing of toys from his sick child. Sandesh pushed Malti's parents out of the house and they sat down right in front of Afia's house and cursed Afia for bringing a rift between her mother and her aunt. The neighbors intervened and sent the warring families home. For some days Malti's parents did not visit but then one week back they returned. They brought along two of their friends with them and sat around Afia's bed and talked about her impending death and how frightfully slow it all was and how the little child was tormenting her parents by not dying quickly. Afia's mother had a nervous breakdown during that session and her bitter screaming forced her guests to leave hurriedly. The incident alarmed the neighbors and they too rebuked Afia's parents to tone down their display of grief. Two days back, Malti's mother forced her way into Afia's house once again. While she chatted with Afia's mother, Afia shared her drink with Malti. The drink was poisoned. Malti breathed her last sometime later. The healer did everything but the poison was potent and the amount that Malti drank was enough to kill her.
"We understand that the kid is responsible for the crime," Jagdish, the minister of internal affairs spoke, "but why is her father here?"
The junior ministers exchanged a glance but chose to not respond. The question was meant for Avani, the minister of justice. She sat next to Jagdish. On her right sat Rakhal, the minister of external affairs.
"It comes to our notice," Avani spoke slowly, "that it was Afia's father who plotted the murder."
"Is it true?" Jagdish asked the condemned man who shook his head to deny the charge. Afia managed to raise her head.
"Baba is innocent," she panted. "Let him go. It is I who decided to poison Malti."
"Clearly the child lies," Avani sighed. "She tries to protect her father. Think of how she would have obtained the poison. It is not available commercially. You can't simply walk up to someone and make a deal for it."
"So where, then, did he obtain it?" Prince Jainil could no longer stay silent. His father's frown got deeper for he did not like his son's enthusiasm for macabre stuff.
"My prince," Avani looked up at the prince and tried hard to not smile at the sight of the hunchback seated precariously on his seat, "Sandesh stole it from Manishi's workshop. He worked there in the capacity of experimenters and somehow found out about the chemical. He stole it and used it to prepare a drink that he placed next to Afia's bed. It was the same drink that Afia gave to Malti."
"Could it have been that the drink was made to kill his own daughter?" Jainil asked Avani who was taken aback. She blinked twice to quieten her mind. She had not expected such a sharp question for she believed Jainil to be a dim wit.
"That possibility did cross our mind," Avani replied, "so we questioned Sandesh about it. He confessed to us that he prepared the drink to kill Malti's mother but then Afia intervened."
"So he wanted to kill Malti's mother," Jagdish said, "but his daughter used the same drink to kill her friend. Does this imply that Afia was aware of the poisoned drink?"
Before Avani could reply, Afia nodded and whispered a meek 'yes.
"Why are we assembled here tonight?" Rakhal asked suddenly. He was a very busy man and he wanted to go back to his desk as soon as possible. His curt manner always managed to rile up his subordinates. He was well aware of it and he pretended to not care.
"We are here to judge the father-daughter duo," Avani was exasperated.
"But for what?" Rakhal kept goading her. "She confesses to the crime."
"But he does not," Avani pointed out.
"No," Rakhal countered her. "He confessed that he wanted to kill Malti's mother. That is good enough. An intention to kill is given the same weight as actual murder."
"Since when?" Avani lost her cool.
"Since forever," Rakhal was not backing out.
Before Avani could retort, Jagdish bellowed 'enough' and it made both the warring ministers shut up.
"Do not forget where you bicker," Jagdish hissed at his colleagues who glanced once at the king. Pranjaldeva loved to see his ministers fight among themselves. It made him believe that there were fault lines that he could utilize to drive a wedge in the council of ministers. It was his long-cherished dream to destroy the council but he held himself back for he did not want to start a civil war.
"But do tell us why we are here," Jagdish asked Avani who shook her head once in frustration. The moot question of law always escaped her colleagues. She wanted someone to understand her point and to have a fruitful discussion on the nitty-gritties of a law. There were only two people who had met her expectations. One of them was Manishi, the genius inventor and the other was Dhruv who used to be a lowly worker in her ministry before she ran into him once and realized that she had found an uncut gem. It took some time but she was able to mold Dhruv into an ideal colleague. He should have been here to counter the oafs seated next to her. He would have understood her point of view.
"There are discrepancies in their accounts," Avani said, "that merit a discussion. Merely accepting their assertions would not help us in delivering justice. One little girl is dead. Another little girl is accused of the crime. Her father tells us that he planned to kill someone else. Their statements seem to tally superficially but some new evidence has come up and they merit a look into."
"So where are we going with this?" Sriveli spoke for the first time. She was bored now.
"I will come straight to the point," Avani replied. "Sandesh has two thought trappers implanted in his head."
The announcement made Jagdish and Rakhal gasp but the import of the statement was missed entirely by the royal family.
"What is that?" Jainil asked. Pranjaldeva was disgusted by his son's eagerness. He wondered why Jainil could not wait for a moment. It was clear that Avani was going to describe the nature of the implant any moment now.
"Manishi's teacher, Prasad guru developed these implants," Avani nodded once at Jainil. "These thought trappers work on extreme emotion like anger or grief or disgust or mortification. The job of these trappers is to hold on to the thought that caused the extreme emotion to the surface. For a normal person, if a thought comes to his mind that causes him anger or disgust, he merely shakes his head and ignores the thought. For people with obsessive traits, these thoughts can arise, again and again, feeding on the emotion to strengthen itself. The sick person tries his hardest to actively drive the thought out of his mind but his deliberate action causes the thought to arise again and again. In a bid to understand the phenomenon, Prasad guru developed these thought trappers and implanted them in some chosen subjects. Sandesh is one of those subjects."
"How did you get that information?" Rakhal was surprised.
"Some time back we had applied for that information from Jagdish's ministry," Avani replied glancing slyly at Jagdish to check if her explanation would satisfy him. Jagdish did not reply back though he made a mental note to check on it. He should have been aware of all the information that was being shared by his ministry.
"So what kind of thoughts were trapped in Sandesh's mind?" Sriveli asked. It made Pranjaldeva nod in approval.
"Sandesh is a genial guy," Avani replied. "He does not believe in violence. Prasad guru and his team tested it thoroughly. Then and only then they selected Sandesh as one of their subjects. The thought of killing someone must have mortified Sandesh terribly. The thought trappers must have got activated and held on to that thought. The more Sandesh would try to suppress that thought, the more the thought would arise under the guidance of the thought trappers. At some point in time, Sandesh stopped getting upset by the thought of killing Malti's mother. The thought trappers now amplified the intensity of the murderous intention. We believe that he would have begun to work on his plan then. The poison was stolen and the drink was spiked. He was now ready to serve it to his target. At that point in time, he had fully committed to the crime that he was about to commit."
"So then he was not responsible for his actions," the queen spoke suddenly. Her assertion made Pranjaldeva aghast.
"Why not?" Sriveli immediately questioned her mother. She had noticed her father's reaction to her mother's statement and wanted to drive the maximum advantage out of it.
"Because it was the thought trappers who made him do it," Jainil came to his mother's rescue.
"So you think that it is Prasad guru who is at fault here?" Sriveli asked her brother and then made a wry face. She could see that her father was happy with her line of reasoning.
"The thought trappers," Avani spoke, "do not create new thoughts of their own. They merely hold on to a thought."
"A thought," Jainil countered her, "that made the subject extremely uncomfortable. Sandesh is not a violent man so the mere thought of harming someone must have made him very upset. The thought trappers forced him to face the repugnant thought again and again till the time his will power broke."
"And that is why he is at fault," Jagdish spoke. "His willpower broke down. He faltered. He messed up. He planned for a crime."
"He faltered under the onslaught of the violent thought," Jainil got angry. "The thought trappers wore him down."
"Prasad guru made those thought trappers relive a sensation again and again," Avani countered him politely. "All his subjects have been warned about it. They have been advised to immediately approach the Prasad guru's team for help if an unwanted thought takes hold of them. He failed them. He knew that he was about to commit a crime but he never sought help."
Jainil was about to retort when Hema reached out to him and pressed his right shoulder gently. It was her signal to warn the prince to hold back. Jainil choked on his words. Hema proferred a glass of juice to the prince who snatched the glass out of her hand spilling some juice on his seat.
"Tell us the charges on the accused," Pranjaldeva finally spoke.
"Plotting a murder. Failing to seek help for his murderous thoughts. Stealing poison. Spiking a drink that was used to kill a child."
Sandesh began sobbing. His daughter Afia looked at him gently. Avani stared at the pitiable duo for a moment. "The child is accused of killing her friend with the poisoned juice."
"Was she aware that the juice was poisoned?" The queen was surprised.
"Yes," Avani nodded her head.
"How?" Sriveli too couldn't control herself. "Who told her? Was she an accomplice in the plan to kill her friend's mother?"
"No," Afia spoke suddenly. "I was under the impression that the drink was meant for me."
Afia's father, Sandesh, had a major emotional breakdown. Through sobs, he protested to his daughter about the unfairness of the accusation. "Why would I kill you?" was his constant refrain.
"Who told you that the drink was meant for you?" Rakhal felt a surge of pity for the pathetic, frail child.
"I overheard my parents," Afia spoke calmly. "They were talking about poison."
"So your mother knew about it?" Avani was suddenly interested.
"Yes," the child replied without understanding that she was pushing her mother to her death.
"What were they talking about?"
"I could only hear about the poison," Afia said. "I wanted to drink it to end my misery. I have not been able to sleep for so many days now. I am always sleepy now. And the pain never goes away. I am unable to even walk. I was able to run very fast before but now I can't even take two steps before collapsing on the floor. Malti was doing so much better. Even in school, she was able to learn her lessons and the teachers were happy about her performance. And I was forgotten by all of them. I just thought that if I made Malti drink the poison she would go to heaven and then soon I would also go there and then I will be able to play with her again. She used to be my best friend but these days she was not even talking properly to me. I just wanted my old friend back. Ma told me that in the beautiful garden of heaven, I would meet many friends with whom I will be able to play and there I will laugh and run as hard as I can and eat whatever I wanted to and there won't be any pain in my body. I want to go there as soon as possible but I wanted my dear friend to be with me always. So when I saw the drink for me that I was supposed to drink, I got this idea and I gave it to Malti. Now she is already there in the garden of heaven and soon I will join her."
The queen wept openly. The king was both ashamed and proud of his wife, ashamed to see a queen weep openly and proud to be the husband of such a caring wife. Sriveli and Jainil were stunned into silence. The little princess, Vina, was busy with her toys but she listened to Afia's account and saw her mother's tears and was sufficiently confused to stop playing for some time. The three ministers sat abashed on their seats. The two junior ministers were overwhelmed. The prospect of death frightened grown-up adults but the sight of a little girl waiting for death to end her misery made them uncomfortable at a deep emotional level.
"So your mother knew of the poisoned drink," Avani finally spoke. "She too wanted Malti's mother to die. She is equally guilty of the crime."
"Let us leave her out of this," Pranjaldeva spoke. Avani wanted to argue about it but Jagdish put his hand on her arm to desist.
"The little kid would need her mother for some more days," the king continued. "She is to be released to her mother's care. As for her father, it is clear that he had planned for a murder. The intended target did not die but that does not take anything from his guilt. A life for a life! That is what we have followed in this kingdom. That is an unwritten law in our society and we will abide by it. Hang Sandesh tomorrow afternoon publicly."
He did not get up after pronouncing the judgment. "The conduct of Malti's parents has been reprehensible, to say the least. Give them an official warning to stop bothering Afia and her mother. Tell them that I would get really angry if I learn that they went against my words. Also, tell Afia's mother that her life need not end after her daughter's death. We will find a suitable engagement for her. Make it very clear to her that the king is personally interested in her life and that she should not go the coward's way."
Jagdish could not help but smile. It was quite clear why Pranjaldeva was loved by his subjects. The court was adjourned. The king left followed by the prince. The queen suddenly got busy with Vina's toys so that she did not have to look at Jainil's painful gait. Soon after the prince's exit, the queen and the two princesses left. The junior ministers completed the formalities rapidly and got the order approved by the council of the ministers. The two accused were left to their own devices. Their pitiable cries were ignored by the ministers.
Sandesh promised Afia that he would be waiting for her in the beautiful garden of heaven. He assured her that the gods would not judge him guilty and that they would not deny admission to him. When the council of ministers got up, Sandesh was taken to prison but he was happy that his daughter was not judged guilty by the king. He knew that the king kept his word so he was glad that his wife would find a new purpose in her life. He was no longer scared of his death. The king's kind words took away the sting of injustice that was tormenting him ever since he was arrested. Before sleeping for the last time in this world, he thanked the gods for making Pranjaldeva their king. The thought trappers in his mind stayed silent the entire night. Their subject had found peace.
-- Author's note- this story is set in the same world as the stories Homecoming, Queen's tragedy, Monsters, Life or Death, Night of chameleon, prisoner's secret, and elite problem. The story can be enjoyed on its own too.