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Crime drama, of the likes of John Grisham’s The Whistler and The Runaway Jury, works because the narrative exposes the byways and the backwaters of the judicial system, whilst dramatising its abuse in a gripping manner. It barely settles into for an insipid, predictable sense of place by needlessly loitering into hypothetical territories. It takes a hard look at injustice and corruption, telling us about things we do not know. It’s no coincidence that Vish Dhamija, considered as the Grisham of India, strives to do the same in his sixth novel, Unlawful Justice. Only the story seldom squawks for attention, and the relatively fast pacing of this legal thriller doesn’t do much to pull it out of the realms of the ordinary.
Unlawful Justice begins by introducing the readers to what could be called a byproduct of too much money and too little parenting—an 18-year-old spoilt kid of Mahinder Singh, a proclaimed businessman with unaccounted wealth, accumulated sporadically through corrupt practices. Maheep Singh is the kind of a kid who makes no bones about the privileges he believes come with being powerful—a deep disregard for everything that he thinks could be bought with money, including an easy acquittal for brutally raping the 16-year-old daughter of a housemaid inside criminal lawyer Vansh Diwan’s home. But Maninder Singh is Vansh Diwan’s most influential client; he cannot put Maheep under the bus without sabotaging his and his family’s life. The dilemma of choosing the wrong over right comes to rest when the Diwans rope in a family friend, another renowned criminal advocate, Akash Hingorani, to fight the case.
“Unlawful Justice begins by introducing the readers to what could be called a byproduct of too much money and too little parenting—an 18-year-old spoilt kid of Mahinder Singh.”
However, a quick turn of events turn the rape case into a murder investigation, throwing the rape victim’s mother into the frame. The story is more an act of self-preservation—righting a botched set of events because people who were not expected to do wrong, did. In some perverse way, the events that do not fall under the ambit of law are shown to be tantamount to justice. But as Dhamija writes, “If not for justice, human beings would be no better than millions of other animals; the mightier, like Maninder Singh, would always win.” The justice here is about taking the task of bringing Maheep to book on own shoulders, lest he ruined somebody else’s life. “Unlawful justice”, in this case, is meted out not by the law, but humans who are more capable of exploiting it for their own good.
The treatment of the novel is pretty fast-paced, and it is here you would thank the author for not making it an unnecessary drag littered with formal lessons in moral policing and gender sensitisation. You will find yourself turning pages after pages without stopping for a breath. There are events and subtle revelations that keep the plot going, yet all of them narrow down to one run-off-the mill culmination. It is the rabid character of Maheep Singh comes to life on page, and you know it when you find yourself squirming with disgust at his vile intentions. Maheep’s character begets an ugly reminder of why sexual crimes exist, so much, you would feel better off not confronting it in the first place.
Yet, in times when true crime and gender-based fiction is witnessing traces of maturation in the writing of Indian authors, Unlawful Justice comes out as an honest attempt at weaving a tight, if not a riveting suspense with a wealth of realistic characters. Unlawful Justice brings forth the point that not all crimes are sins, and what we think to be the final judgment may not be the justice we deserve. In all the glory and adversity of the notion, we could still use a little of that these days.