When you filed a case in the civil court, it would take just a day for the file to be numbered

When Mani Chettiar came to the Madras High Court as a clerk in December 1954, Justice E.E. Mack was one the judges.

“Those days, when the sessions court judge arrived (preceded by the mace bearer), the Police Commissioner, the Sheriff of Madras and the chief dafedar were in attendance. The judge used to wear a white wig, and a black and red silk gown,” he reminisces. “There used to be one session court — courtroom 4 — which had an underground lock-up for the prisoner,” continues the 77-year-old. “When the judge sat down, the prisoner would come up with the police. Now, that court is closed.”

Mani was 19 years old when he came into this line of work. “My mother worked in S.K. Iyengar’s house; he was an advocate’s clerk; later, I registered and became a clerk, under A. Subramani Iyer, high court advocate. I got married after I started working for him,” he says.

Mani’s wife, now 70, has always been a home-maker; and although he’s officially retired, Mani visits the high court everyday, and sits in his usual place, outside chamber no. 9, that belongs to Subramani Iyer. “He is 94-years old now. Only his juniors come here, but I go and see him now and then at his home,” Mani tells me, seated in another advocate’s chamber. As we speak, lawyers drift in and out, eat their lunch, and grab black coats that hang on the wood-panelled walls.

With fountain pens in his shirt pockets, and sacred ash on his forehead, Mani tells me about George Town, where he always lived. “It’s very crowded now, and yet houses cost Rs. 3 crore. I remember when it was just Rs.10,000!” What is now the city court, he says, was, until the 1960s, just a playground. “Even advocates used to play cricket there,” he smiles. “When you filed a case in the civil court, it would take just a day for the file to be numbered.” Contrast this, he says, with the fifteen days it takes now to just finish formalities of filing and bringing it before court! Then, if the dispute was for an amount over Rs.1 lakh, it could go to the high court; now, that limit is around Rs. 25 lakhs. Election results, he says, used to be announced in the city court buildings.

A great many cases that Mani had seen when he was younger were money lending ones. “I have not witnessed any sensational or criminal cases. There used to be plenty of cases filed to retrieve bad debts; Kabul Pathans lent money, at Rs. 10 for every Rs. 100; many of the debtors used to work in the harbour, and their salaries were attached and paid in the courts.”

Over the years, as Mani gained experience, he wrote injunctions by himself. “Of course, the advocates verified and signed it.” Today, his son, an advocate, is employed as the legal manager of Apollo Hospitals. “My grandson is also a lawyer, B.A.B.L. Honours,” he says, with quiet pride.

“I need to go have lunch. Are you done?” Mani softly asks me, as I photograph him seated by an antique wooden partition. And as I walk out into the busy high court corridor, I spot Mani seated outside chamber no. 9, with a slokam book in his hand.

(A weekly column on men and women who make Chennai what it is)

This article has been edited to correct a factual error.