Saturday, December 22, 2012

End of the World

I watched the end of the world tonight.

They came in full force; the women with babies in their arms, the men with their tattoos and the smell of hangover, together with the pot-bellied children with mucus on their faces. They all came.

And I made them wait for two and a half hours. Their impatience and collective frustration showed. The children were already lying on the floor, barefoot and disheveled, the women talking in the manner they would haggle over fish at the wet market while some of the men have already started smoking and all decorum the courtroom commands was quickly forgotten.

My arrival was greeted by an impatient hush. I knew that every eye in that courtroom became immediately transfixed into me, watching my every step as I moved through the aisle, crowded with wayward limbs and bodies, and parting it the way Moses did the Red Sea. And as I took my seat before the bench, I cringed at the thought of tomorrow’s tabloid headlines: Lady Judge Lynched by Angry Mob.

Take a hundred hungry and angry people and keep them waiting in a cramped spaced that could only accommodate at best a fraction of that number and you might as well be doing a home-made bomb experiment. The atmosphere was volatile and frightening even for a judge.

“Your Honor” the young lawyer was addressing me with the calculated expression of one already at the edge of his temper yet trying desperately to maintain his composure. Lawyers are good at pretending that everything would turn out fine especially when they address judges even after a two-hour wait. “The folks at Sitio Maligaya have reached a consensus that they would accept a compromise if the lots are sold to them at a price they can afford. They realize the folly of litigating over the long haul and frankly, I told them we are looking at a ten year trial at least, if we cannot agree on a settlement. Hopefully, this honorable court would assist the parties to reach a reasonable agreement.”

The opposing counsel, an old balding veteran lawyer chimed in. “With all due respect your Honor these people should not dictate what terms are acceptable. The land was occupied by them for more than twenty years without paying a cent so as the true and rightful owners, my clients have every right to evict.”

I knew right away, with lawyers like these, it was going to be a long night. I rattled off worst case scenarios and conversely, the possible win-win solutions. Scaring them back to their senses if they don’t settle and why, for everybody’s peace of mind, both must be willing to accept sacrifices “because one can’t have his way all the time” and “sometimes it is better to take a little and give a little than lose everything”.

I wanted to be equally sensitive and open minded to the sentiments of both sides but the hard realities of this world makes it even harder to keep that neutral stand at some point. These people wanted a piece of the earth; their whole lives, they felt the pain of deprivation and social inequity. Poverty drove them into the slums, the dark and slimy and crime-infested section of the city where they try to fit in, to try to survive and live a semblance of life in the midst of dirt, poverty and decay, to make sense of what fate had given them, where fate had pushed them until fate they accepted. Yet now, despite the acceptance and surrender to fate, they are about to be driven away.

The old man had taken to the floor now, arguing fiercely about “social justice not being a solace to the scoundrels, and for rich and poor young and old alike to have their fair shake”. In between jabs at empty air, he would throw glimpses at the crowd, contemptuously and with an air of utter disdain. He would reserve the fiercest glare at the other counsel, the younger lawyer who is himself keeping a brave front, and a swagger only lawyers feel the need to show, as if arrogance would translate into something brilliant and produce legal miracles and indeed I would sometimes find myself craving for the same miracle, even as a judge myself.

They were worlds apart, these party litigants and it didn’t help that lawyers have this flair to disagree on the most mundane and trifling. We spent hours fighting over price per square meter, the manner and duration of payment and which side will advance the cost of survey and documentation. The longer we spoke the wider the division seemed to grow. I lost track of the many times I pounded the gavel and the instances I wish it’s the lawyers’ heads that were taking the pounding. A drunken man made a scene quoting excerpts from the bible and pontificating that society must stop this injustice now or the end of the world will rid us of our petty quarrels. I threatened to walk out if his companions would not make this crazy man leave. Gladly they listened and kicked him out.         

Three hours into the stalemate, I was beginning to accept the futility of our situation. It was already past dinnertime and ours were the only lighted room in the whole five story building, in the whole compound of the city hall for that matter. Courts adjourn at five, at times earlier and when sessions are held well after dusk it’s either because a military coup or a hostage taking is keeping the judge up.

And then it happened.

It occurred to me that most of these people are uneducated and uninformed, relying on gossip, if not the exaggerated explanations of those similarly uninformed and uneducated to form their own personal opinion of the world. I absent-mindedly reached for the calculator icon on my i-phone and tried this simple mathematical equation: price per square meter (or P3,500.00) multiplied by the number of square meters in a lot divided by sixty, which is the number of monthly installments over five years, equals the monthly amortization. I turned to the fat woman on the front row, the most vocal of the group and asked the measurement of her lot. Per my calculation, her ten square meter lot would cost P35,000.00; divide that by 60 and you get roughly P585.00 which would be her monthly amortization over five years.

The woman regarded me with misty eyes in a manner I have only seen just once before in my whole life when the priest touched a cancer patient on the forehead to administer miracle healing. She self-consciously asked if she can borrow my phone and showed it to the rest, like it was the holy grail. Just like that, a long line of people immediately formed in front of me, inquiring about the formula and if “please your honor, madam judge can you help me find out how much I should pay monthly for my lot?” By all means, I obliged to their pleas, my hands in fact were trembling in the rush to get it done. By all means.

I wouldn’t mind breaking protocol and I would much rather have this moment last for as long as I can help it, for as long as there is peace, seeing them smiling, relieved at last, their lawyers shaking hands and exchanging high fives. Even the drunken fellow had returned, sober now and self-consciously and politely standing in line.

The significance of this moment will make it to become one of the high points of my life as a judge. This people for whom society seems to frown forever, to whose hands, the blessings of the earth are hard to come by, these people who fall prey to politicians' promises and government's neglect, will finally get their due, not in the manner of dole outs or of alms thrown at them out of pity, but something they would have to pay for, something that they would earn, something that they would accept with their heads held high because they will pay for it no matter how modest and trifling their means. From now on they will no longer be called and treated by society as some unwanted, illegal, some unfortunate outcasts among men because by the sacrifice they make these people are going to earn back their pride and their dignity. Sometimes, where law or religion fails, a simple mathematical solution may just provide the answer to the greatest problems of man. Yes. I watched the end of the world tonight. The world that these people used to know has ended. Thank God, it was a happy ending...

1 comment:

iancochrane said...

Enjoyed the read, although I hope that's not where we're headed.

Well presented.