The Witness Tree

Giles Ryan

© Copyright 2023 by Giles Ryan

Photo by Joy Deb at Pexels.
Photo by Joy Deb at Pexels.

I visited all the major towns of Bangladesh in those years, and in my memory they were much alike in this land of river deltas, although here and there a particularly elegant mosque would stand out from the general sameness. Depending on the time of year, going to these places might take several hours on a river boat, or some hours drive, perhaps longer during the monsoon when the rivers were high, with a longer wait at the ferry ghat. 

Sometime in 1979, when I had been in the country about a year, my work required a visit to Mymensingh for an appearance in court. The details are now slightly dim in memory, something to do with an accounts clerk at our local office forging a check or absconding with the petty cash. There was little likelihood the amount would ever be recovered but I had to go through the motions of an official complaint so that the other employees would know I had done so. To borrow from Voltaire, my task was “to encourage the others.”

Like the other towns with a seat of local government, Mymensingh had the District Court where legal matters were adjudicated and where anyone who broke the law — miscreants in the local form of English — were brought before the Magistrate, and my presence was necessary for the formal complaint. Such matters came up from time to time, not that often really, but this sort of theft wasn’t so surprising in a time and place where most people struggled each day on the edge of life, month to month if not day to day. One might never learn all the details of a particular incident, but it was safe to assume that a terrible desperation drove an honest man, one who had never before troubled the world, to an act that might, he hoped, rescue his family from some dreadful and immediate crisis. Only money in hand might solve the problem and he knew only one way to get it. In such circumstances, I could never believe someone truly guilty of anything, except perhaps birth in the wrong time, in the wrong country.

In front of the courthouse I met our local attorney, Mr. Rahman, who would speak to the court on my behalf, for my presence was a formality, a physical representative of the wronged party and a witness if necessary. As the court was not yet in session, we chatted for some minutes — sorry to meet under unfortunate circumstances, today’s docket not very long so we may be done this morning, a restaurant nearby will give us an excellent curry for lunch — and so on. Mr. Rahman offered me a bidi while we waited, and I accepted. I still smoked in those years and sometimes enjoyed a bidi, a thin brown tube of tobacco or something like it. They were the most common thing, sold on every street corner, their aroma in every gathering. You never knew what might be in them, certainly tobacco but also perhaps some herb or other common plant that gave a pungent scent, and sometimes you might finish your smoke and feel oddly… elevated.

Like any public place in the country, the area around the court was crowded with people of every sort, some there for business and others for idle observation — perhaps something interesting may happen! — for in Bangladesh as elsewhere, the playing out of legal drama was a spectator sport. 

I happened to notice one particular group standing beneath a tree nearby. They gave an impression of alertness, as if looking expectantly for someone who might be looking for them. Most were men but a few were women, the men dressed in neat, clean kurtas and the women in saris with the long end pulled over their hair, giving a demure impression. They all had an aspect of formality different from the rest of the courtyard crowd. 

Mr. Rahman,” I asked, “who are those people?”

He hesitated, then replied, “Witnesses. They always stand under that tree waiting for a case.”

What? How do you mean?”

Well,” he was uncertain how to go on. “They are waiting for someone who may need a witness.”

Do you mean they’re for hire?” 

He sensed the surprise in my voice and was for a moment abashed, then shrugged slightly and went on, “Well, yes. If you have a suit before the court and need someone to support your position as a witness, then you may find one under the tree. Of course, you want someone plausible, presentable, someone who can take a quick grasp of the case.” 

Really? Do you mean this is a job people do, like a profession?”

Certainly not! It’s only a temporary sort of work. After all, the magistrate mustn’t see the same fellows appear again and again.”

I knew I shouldn’t press the matter but I was curious enough to ask, “Who might do this sort of work — temporarily, of course?”

Well, I can’t speak with any authority” — clearly he didn’t want to admit ever using this service — “but I understand they have different backgrounds, or may be waiting for true employment. And if there is a complex matter to argue before the court and a witness is called for, one may find someone who has actually studied the law. Perhaps a young fellow not yet called to the bar.”

I wanted to ask if Mr. Rahman had ever stood under this tree and played this role before his formal career began, and the thought almost formed the word, but I did not want to give offense and I stopped myself in time. Fortunately, I had only smoked one bidi.

Mr. Rahman was true to his word and our case was soon called and our morning’s work done, but I don’t recall if anything ever came of the matter. Indeed, I cannot state that I recall all of this exactly for it was long ago, and I am as guilty as Boswell, who admitted that some things may be “enlarged by memory.” More than forty years have passed and at my age I confess that I may not be a reliable, well, witness. And yet, while I have forgotten many things in life and perhaps many more things recently, the stranger experiences in life linger longer, and my mind keeps its recollection of the Witness Tree.

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