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Shakespeare High: Portia bends the rules

Portia's a young law student who would rather be anywhere than the back of beyond where she's been assigned her latest case—protecting a rural Indian community from a ruthless money lender. In her take on Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice, young-adult author Mahtab Narsimhan brings us a modern-day Portia who finds that true justice sometimes means bending the rules.

“Merciful Rain” by Mahtab Narsimhan

The air, swollen with humidity, shimmered in the afternoon heat. On the dais around the banyan tree sat the Panchayat—five middle-aged men, glaring at Portia.  

Portia glared back. Bite me! An exchange student from Britain, this was her last pro-bono case assigned by Messrs. D&H, Mumbai, before she legged it home. 

“Will the Defendant and Plaintiff step forward,” said Portia. 

All eyes turned to her. She resisted the temptation to cover her bare belly with the hangy bit of saree. Shorts and a tank would have been perfect but her boss had warned her not to wear anything too sexy. Moot point. 

“Ramu here,” said a ragged farmer, stepping forward. 

This wretched mug had to be the defendant.  

“And the Plaintiff?” said Portia, looking around. If he wasn’t here, she’d throw the case out before anyone could say samosa and head back to civilization for a hot shower, mani and pedi. 

A breathless Sethji arrived, a huge ledger tucked under a sweaty armpit. He greeted the Panchayat warmly and ignored Portia. He was obviously pissed off because she was sticking her nose in his business, but given the unusual terms of the contract the Municipal Court had insisted on an outside mediator. 

Sethji opened the ledger. “Ramu borrowed 3,000 rupees from me. He was to repay it by May 31. If he can’t he must take three thousand lashings from me.”

“Mate, you’re sadistic!” said Portia. “Can’t Ramu pay up?”

A woman threw herself at Portia’s feet, clutching them so tight, Portia almost toppled over. “We can pay three times over!”

“Stand up, love, your petticoat’s showing,” hissed Portia, dragging the woman to her feet. “Who’re you?” 

“Munni, Ramu’s wife. My brother sent money to repay the debt but Sethji refuses!”

This psycho could be best mates with Hannibal Lector. 

“Please save my husband,” sobbed Munni. 

Portia turned to Sethji. “Don’t be stingy with mercy. Let it flow freely, like rain falling from the sky. Brownie points in God’s ledger for you and for that poor sod—”

“Stop!” said Sethji, cutting her off. “If I want the weather report, I’ll watch TV. Don’t waste time and make a decision. Once I make an example of Ramu, no villager will dare forfeit on a loan again.”

Anger rippled through the crowd. 

“Do you have proof of this agreement?” asked Portia.

Sethji slammed the ledger into her arms. “There,” he said, jabbing the page. “It’s all in order, and there’s nothing you can do about it!”

Portia stared at Ramu’s name scrawled in India ink, a smudged thumbprint beside the amount and the penalty. Think, girl, think!

A shadow darkened the page. Portia looked up. Grey clouds galloped across the sky. A fat drop of rain landed on her cheek. The villagers whooped gleefully as they raced for shelter. 

“Quick, give me the ledger,” said Sethji, trying to snatch it from her hands. “It mustn’t get wet!’

Portia glanced at Ramu—a pathetic loser. She looked at Sethji—a bloodsucker who’d put a vampire to shame. She made up her mind and screw the consequences. Holding the ledger open, she gathered up her saree with her free hand and sprinted away from Sethji. 

“Oi! Come back here,” he bellowed. “Someone, catch that cow!”

No one moved. 

The rain came thick and fast. In a minute the ledger was soaked and streaked with ink. The downpour stopped as suddenly as it had started. 

Portia strolled back and dumped the ledger at Sethji’s feet. “I don’t see Ramu’s thumbprint anywhere. In fact, the book’s blank. Case closed, for Ramu and every other villager!” 

Sethji’s curses were drowned by the joyful shouts of the villagers as they converged on him to see for themselves. 

Portia strode away humming Lily Allen’s "Smile." 

Merciful rain indeed!


Mahtab Narsimhan was born in Mumbai and immigrated to Canada in 1997. Her debut novel in the Tara Trilogy, The Third Eye, won the Silver Birch Fiction Award in 2009. Published in 2011, The Tiffin is a gritty, middle-grade novel based in the Bombay of her childhood. It has received critical acclaim, was shortlisted for many awards, and named one of the five best books for Young People in 2011 by Quill & QuireMahtab lives in Toronto with her husband, son, and golden retriever. She continues to write, inspired by life, love and the desire to make sense of the world through stories. Follow her on Twitter @MahtabNarsimhan.

Click on each character in the image below to go to his/her story.

Original illustrations: Graham Roumieu


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