Anton Chekhov, banker, books, capital punishment, death penalty, distress, enlightenment, lawyer, life, life imprisonment, misery, pain, peace of mind, punishment, solitary confinement, solitude, The bet
A lawyer had thrown the most extravagant party of the town and people from far and wide had come to attend it. There were people from all spheres of life to add color to the party. The lawyer had invited not only his friends and relatives, but also people who were just acquaintances to him. No stone was left unturned while making arrangements for the party and that’s why it had been the talk of the down for days.
The guests in the party included several government officials, businessmen, politicians, lawyers and bankers. The host was with his friends who seemed to be having a serious debate with a banker. The issue being discussed was the punishment that should be awarded to convicts who commit heinous crimes. Both the debating parties agreed that such people should be punished severely, but the topic of debate was the most severe punishment. While one group was in favor of capital punishment for the offender, the other group wanted solitary imprisonment as the punishment.
The banker was leading the group in favor of solitary imprisonment. The lawyer jumped into the debate and stood for capital punishment. Soon, the debate between the two groups turned into a one-on-one argument between the banker and the lawyer. Eventually, the banker challenged the lawyer saying that if solitary confinement wasn’t the most severe punishment then he should prove it by being in solitary confinement for a period of ten years. The lawyer said that he was ready to do it but he had a condition. He told the banker that during those ten years, he should be provided all the books that he asked for. The banker accepted the condition and said that if the lawyer was able to survive those ten years, he would offer the lawyer a million dollars, but if the lawyer tried to communicate with anybody outside his room or tried to run away, then the lawyer was eligible for nothing.
It was ten years after that night. The banker had spent his fortune carelessly and his financial situation was not very good. The lawyer was about to complete his term of ten years and this was making the banker nervous. It was just a question of one night. If the lawyer survived that night, which was highly probable, the lawyer would win the bet and the banker would go bankrupt. The banker grew restless and planned to kill the lawyer. He thought that was the only alternative that would save his life from being ruined.
The banker entered the room of the lawyer with the intention of killing him. When he saw the lawyer, he noticed that the lawyer was very skinny and pale. He had almost become a ghost of himself. He was surrounded by piles of books on the table and he had fallen asleep in his chair. When the banker was about to kill the lawyer, he noticed a small piece of parchment folded in his palm. He carefully took the piece out of his palm. It was a note addressed to the banker. It said, “I know that I will finish ten years of solitary confinement tomorrow. You will lose the bet and I will be the owner of a million dollars, but I don’t plan to complete this term. I don’t want a million dollars. During these ten years of solitary confinement, I was not alone. The books that you gave me were my companions. In the pages of those books, I saw the world’s most beautiful architectural wonders. I tasted the most exotic dishes of the world and drank the finest wines ever made by man. I danced with Michael Jackson and sang with the Beatles. I read many theological books and gained spiritual knowledge. I no longer yearn for money or any worldly pleasures. So, don’t worry. I will escape from this room before the sunrise tomorrow and you won’t have to part with your money.” On reading the note, the banker’s eyes were full of tears and he immediately left the room. As per his promise, the lawyer escaped from his room before sunrise and the gatekeeper told everyone that he had seen the lawyer jump over the fence.
I am not going to enter the debate of the most severe punishment and I am not an advocate of either capital punishment or solitary imprisonment. As fate had it, I was given an opportunity to live a solitary life for a few months. I decided to test the lawyer’s words. Although I was not confined to a single room and nothing prevented me from communicating with others and there was no bet to be won, it was the closest I could get to the lawyer’s confined life. I bought many books and started reading them voraciously. I made friends with a company of dwarves and accompanied them on their journey to reclaim their lost kingdom. I went to middle school with a wimpy kid. I grew up with a physicist and enjoyed his amusing ways of doing work and enjoying life. I met a teacher and his student, and learnt a few valuable lessons from the guru during the last few days of his life. I traveled the world with a professor of symbology and saw him put his life on the line to save the world. I lived the life of a poet living on the streets of Mumbai. After going through such books, I felt that the lawyer was correct – books can be a man’s best friends in solitude, but there were also times when I felt heartbroken because of my friends’ suffering in those books. There were times when I was down because of non-literary factors. In those times of distress, I could not even read a single page of the same books, and I had to talk to my real-life friends and relatives to feel better. It might be the case that I didn’t have the proper books for those situations or it might be the case that the lawyer is just a fictional character, and nothing can be truly worse than solitary life. If you don’t have the proper companions to support you in tough times, believe me, solitary life is worse than capital punishment because you can die only once physically, but you can die multiple times mentally, and anybody would suffer the most if he/she had to die multiple times. In any case, I’m not going to drop my habit of reading and I’m hoping that I would find the companions who supported the lawyer during his misery. I have no doubt regarding the fact that books can be a man’s best friends. Let us see if we can prove that the lawyer was correct. Keep reading, keep enjoying life. :)
The story of the banker and the lawyer is a short story written by Anton Chekhov that I had read in my English textbook when I was in school. I don’t take any credits for it.