The Impossibility of Satire

The first impulse that one has after coming out of a court hearing is to create a satire that accurately captures the slightly bizarre and terrifying vision of judges that one has had a chance to experience. But can caricature really live up to its responsibility of laughing truth to power? John Beger has said that “Graphic caricature is dead because life has outstripped it. Or more accurately, because satire is only possible when a moral reserve still exists, and those reserves have been used up. We are too used to being appalled by ourselves to be able to react to the idea of caricature”. So instead of imposing an impossible goal for satire, let us allow the court speak for themselves.

I attended a hearing in the ongoing case of Kalyan Sanstha Social welfare Organization v. Union of India which deals with the question of encroachments on public land. As many of you are aware, the Delhi high court has in recent times, turned its zealous gaze on the massive ‘encroachments’ on public lands which are resulting in ‘massive losses to the exchequer’. Their answer has been to appoint a monitoring committee and a large number of court commissioners who report on encroachments in various parts of the city. The matter that I was interested involves the Sanjay Basti, near civil lines, which consists of almost 2000 dwelling units.

On 9th February 2006, the Monitoring Committee in its 8th Report referring to the “encroachment” at Sanjay Basti recommended that the High Court direct the CPWD to take action at once to remove these encroachments and ask them to give reasons for not taking any action so far and submit a compliance report on the next date of hearing.

Pursuant to this, the high court passed an order dated 14.02.07 directing all concerned authorities to file action taken reports, with particular reference to the observations made by the Monitoring Committee. On 1st March 2007, a notice was pasted on one of the shop-cum-jhuggis on Timarpur Road. However, when residents enquired as to why and on what basis such notice was issued they were not given any information by Police or CPWD officials. None of the mandatory statutory requirements of Public notice under Section 30 of the DDA Act, such as individual notice, statement of reasons were complied with and the shop-cum-jhuggi dwellers given opportunity to show cause.
On 6th March 2007, about 40 shops along the Timarpur Road, were demolished. Several residences, which were attached to the shops were also demolished in the process. Persons were not allowed to remove their belongings from the premises before the demolition and lost their belongings and means of livelihood. The Demolition team which comprised of members of the CPWD, MCD and NDPL was accompanied by two local political leaders and after the demolition another local political leader came to the site and made a public speech stating that the jhuggis would be brought down.
The Sanjay Basti matter has been impeded with the mammoth Kalyan Sanstha Social Welfare Organisation case which involves almost all the ongoing demolition matters.

The hearing began with an extended report by one of the court appointed commissioners on the status of illegal farm houses which violated building norms which stipulate that the maximum built up area for a farm house cannot exceed 1500 square feet, where as some of these farm houses had in fact exceeded this figure many times over. The commissioner produced  photographic evidence of the blatant violations that were taking place and demanded that the court direct the officials of the MCD to take immediate action. What was interesting to note was the majestic manner in which the objectivity of the law was being played out. Anatole France’s famous dictum that the law prohibits the rich and the poor equally from sleeping under bridges was being given flesh and blood by the almost farcical manner in which a case involving the demolition of luxury farm houses and bastis were clubbed together.

When faced with the accusation of being anti poor, the judiciary has in fact been quick to remind us that it is not just the houses and shops of the poor which are being targeted but encroachments by the rich as well. A similar line has been followed in Bangalore as well, where sealing drives have begun in the elite spaces of the city before moving into the poorer parts of the city. It is thus able to invisibilize the differential impact that law has on different classes,  and preserve the myth of its own objectivity.

Another thing that struck me was the immense cartographic authority that the court wields; as reports from various parts of the city are brought to their notice, the judge links them using his invisible measuring tape of legality ( This area is off by fifty degrees while this one by seventy). It constantly strikes me that the interpretative task of the judge, which also provides him with his sense of the social world and for the city must be such a depressing one. If all one has, to view life and urban experience, are legal lenses, the view can only be an impoverished one. While one feels anger and outrage at some of the outrageous orders, one cannot but feel a certain pity at the impoverished lives that judges lead. In our greatest moments of anger and frustration at the inequalities of class and the arrogance of power, it is perhaps worthwhile to remember that Howard Hughes, at one time the richest individual, died of starvation.

So to return to the case, the discussion on hospitals and farmhouses took up most of the afternoon and there wasn’t even a chance of Sanjay Basti matter to come up (never mind that the demolition had been slated for a few days later). The only respite from the overcrowded court room and the constant whining of the air conditioner and the court commissioners came towards the end of the day with two explosive exchanges that can only be termed in filmi language as paisa vasool.

A senior advocate who had started his arguments in a very soft spoken and tentative manner slowly built up into an appropriate operatic crescendo, thundering at the judges that their orders were converting Delhi into a police state. The judge’s calm response was to inform him that if he wasn’t happy with the orders of the court then he could go elsewhere. It was not clarified where this elsewhere was.  But it does seem clear that judge’s because of their vast cartographic experience do have a very good sense of an elsewhere which is better. Recall Ruma Pal’s query in the Nangla Manchi hearing “if they cannot afford it why do they come to the city”. The mysterious elsewhere resurrects itself again.

I was outside the ear shot of the lawyer otherwise I would certainly have suggested that he try his luck with the gatekeeper in Kafka’s parable about the law. But it is probably best that I could not offer this suggestion or else I would have run the risk of violating my own rule against satire, and in the current atmosphere, one does not want to risk being within the breathing space of any mode of illegality.

The second part of the Paisa Vasool saw a not so soft spoken lawyer having a duel with the judges on the merit of his voice, the quality of acoustics in the high court and the advantages of remaining standing.  This lawyer, particularly agitated by the fact that the judges seemed to listen only to the court commissioners and not anyone else demanded the attention of the judge’s ear by the tested and respected strategy of raising ones voice.  And we then learnt that it is not only violence which is the sole monopoly of the law, but also all sound exceeding a particular decibel. The lawyer who was ‘encroaching’ the acoustic space of the judiciary was asked to lower his voice. His defense that this was his natural voice, and that it could not be  changed, even at the dictate of a judge was not acceptable to the judges. Fearing a fatal heart attack, the judges, in a moment of concern they ordered him to sit down, but this offer was also declined and the lawyer instead chose to remain standing as he delivered his tirade against the judiciary over stepping its bounds.

For all of us deprived of a vicarious victory (with India’s early exit in the world cup), these two moments had to be the closest thing to the double century that none of us got to see. And yet at the same time, at the end of the two paisa vasool moments in a rather dreary and depressing afternoon, I also had this uncanny post-ejaculation feeling of emptiness…… such a short lived moment of pleasure for so much effort.

3 thoughts on “The Impossibility of Satire”

  1. Made for some excellent reading Lawrence. Yes, satire is dead because neither we have the moral reserve nor the ability to laugh at ourselves.

    Thanks and best regards,


  2. satire only has the power to obviate the guilt of committing a crime, if a smart pun does penetrate a skull..
    Yet, it can be used by the courts to – the least – vent out their rage.. cuz they know that ppl r never gonna change!

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