Archived: Identity by Lalitha Rachapudi

Wearing his white cotton dhoti, a white cotton shirt, a black coat and a white topi , Subba Rao a  vakil at the New Municipal Court in the city of  Rajahmundry set out of his tile roofed house. Drawing water from the well in the backyard his wife called out, “Get home before dark. The bandits are on the prowl.” Subba Rao replied, “Yes, I will be back. Lock the doors from inside.”

Subba Rao and his family lived in a little village close to the city of Rajahmundry. It is the  cultural hub for the Telugu speaking people and now in 1897, the district headquarters of East Godavari for the British Empire. Being a vakil, Subba Rao looked forward to his weekly rounds to the Rajahmundry Police Station where he looked out for potential clients.   

Subba Rao and his work were respected everywhere. Consequently, his opinion mattered both inside and outside court. His close association with the other Indian lawyers, the British Judges, the Police Inspectors and the constables from the Police Station made him a celebrity of sorts in his village.  One of the villagers, Surya, said to his friend Ramiah, “Staying in Subba Rao’s good books is very important for the villagers, his opinion in criminal cases is considered important.”

  Everyday Subba Rao walked towards the Municipal Court situated in his own village a few acres away. The sun had started to display his wrath very early this summer. The lush green paddy crops in the fields swayed to the gentle breeze and Subba Rao wiped the beads of sweat with his kanduva. Subba Rao learnt to tread carefully through the furrows and dreaded the wet mud splattering on his white dhoti.

 He quickened his pace once he made his way into the mango groves. The floral smell in the groves was enchanting. The ripe and juicy mangoes hanging down made his hand reach out to pluck one. He withheld his desire and now swiftly walked towards the mud road where on the other side was the smiling new Municipal Court Building.

 As he approached his desk, his junior lawyers, Raja Rao and Krishna Rao, mentioned the bandit attack. Ordering their first chai of the day, the friends delved into the details of the case.

 Krishna Rao said, “Two days ago a marriage party from our village was attacked as they were going to Rajahmundry. Covered in black oil paint, the bandits looted every paisa from the terrified little group of people. The bride had to peel off every piece of her ornaments including her nose ring and hand them over in exchange for her and her husband’s lives. The police launched a search party but they found nothing.”

 Subba Rao replied, “I also saw these men a few times. They are Giri and Sathya. They look like wrestlers in a ring. Something about Satya’s eyes, one of his eyelids twitch. I cannot forget those eyes. It is hard to say if they really are the bandits.”

  Collecting his coat and topi from the nail heads on the wall of his office, Subba Rao began his walk to the Rajahmundry Police Station on his weekly rounds. The scalding heat of the sun was more worrisome than the bandits at this moment.  A sense of foreboding crept upon him as he set foot into the Police Station.

 Sergeant John Wilkes came up to to Subba Rao and said. “The police are eager to get an identification on two men we have arrested on suspicious behavior. They have been spotted at various jewellery shops, talking to the shopkeepers about some gold ornaments. The shopkeepers thought that it must be some stolen goods. We are unable to find out who they are. They won’t talk to us. If they are identified by anyone, we can charge the men with criminal intent.”

 Subba Rao was curious to see what the men looked like. He peered over the shoulder of a constable and saw that the men behind the bars. It was hard to recognise their faces. The men were muscular and wore a checkered lungi and sleeveless baniyaan. Something about them seemed vaguely familiar to Subba Rao.

 One of the men looked up and stared at Subba Rao. In a flash Subba Rao knew who he was. His eyes popped out of their sockets. Subba Rao said, “Is that you Sathya?” An identity was made. The constables informed sergeant John Wilkes who then started their interrogation. Sathya looked at Subba Rao and said, “You killed us Saar, you killed us.” Once the British caught an Indian, it was impossible for them to prove their innocence.

 The sudden turn of events caught Subba Rao off guard. Subba Rao felt an intense pain in his heart. He knew his identification alone caused the arrests of Sathya and Giri. There was a conflict in his mind; did he do right or did he do wrong? He walked back home feeling more miserable and partly guilty. Subba Rao passed the fields and the furrows, on his way back home, but did not notice the mud splattered on his dhoti.

It was never known if the two men were bandits or innocent people.


Indian Terms used in the text and their meaning: Oxford Dictionary

Dhoti  is defined in the dictionary as a garment worn by male Hindus, consisting of a piece of material tied around the waist and extending to cover most of the legs.

Topi  is a hat

Vakil is a lawyer or solicitor or a representative

Kanduva is a scarf of sorts that is hung upon one’s left shoulder

Chai means tea

Lungi  a cloth wrapped around the waist that covers until the ankles, worn mostly by men in India and some other countries of Asia

Baniyaan is a sleeveless vest

Paisa a monetary unit of the Indian currency, equal to a hundreth of a rupee

Saar is Sir colloquially