The multi-faceted genius of a lawyer.
The book (Nani A.Palkhivala, a life by M.V. Kamath, Nani A.Palkhivala Memorial Trust, Hay House India, 2007, pp 524, Rs.595) is a rare one. A beautifully written book on a beautifully-lived life. The subject of the biography is a distinguished lawyer whose types are not born every time in these days of fast changing society and values. The writer of the biography is also equally a distinguished journalist. One reason why I bought the book in the first instance and decided to review it is, among other reasons, a purely personal one. I happened to know both the late Palkhivala and also Mr. Kamath.
I had always been a great admirer of Palkhivala, his oratory impressed me, I had listed to his speeches in Mumbai and also I once spoke to him over the phone in his office at the Bombay House, the Tata headquarters. I had read his other books and also carefully followed many of his famous court cases, many of them are milestones in our Constitutional evolution. So, I was curious to know more about him and also since he is no more I felt I must really to get to know him more fully. This time when I was in Mumbai after a long gap, I was walking past the busy D.N.Road and the book was on display and then and there purchased it. What a joy to read it! It is not the life of one individual. It is like the life of a nation, the life and times when we all lived and when Palkhivala was very much part of our public education. That was my initial reaction as I glanced through the pages.
The author, Mr. Kamath is equally a very distinguished journalist I had the pleasure of meeting one day in his office when he was editor of The Illustrated Weekly of India. He was very suave and sophisticated and what made me almost a role model of a journalist were his convictions. It was just then he had taken over the editor’s job that was vacated by the garrulous Kushwant Singh.Singh senior is also my favorite writer and journalist. I also know the Singh family members. The son is a friend and the daughter is married to my other friend, an Oxford companion, who is alas no more.Yet,I always felt that the famed Weekly under Singh acquired some bad reputation for bawdy writing, though Singh is a very clever journalist, he knows how to make the readers read his weekly. So, he put in lot of undesirable reading material.So,when I turned up at Kamath’s cubicle, the talk was on how he wanted to change the image of the weekly and what all he had tried to do to change the journal into once again a whole family magazine. Since then for long there was some correspondence with Kamath and I think I tried to influence this great journalist to write for my journal. At that point of time I was already in friendship with great writers and journalists and poets like Mulk Raj Anand, K.A.Abbas and Dom Moraes.Kamath’s his unfailing courtesies endeared him to me, a great individual only can have this touch of modesty and friendliness.
This time in Mumbai, I felt orphaned, all my great friends had gone and I had no one to look to, all remained were the old memories and nostalgia only. How sad life is, I wondered. There was a time when I counted upon a number of personalities as my heroes and friends. In politics there were quite a few.Morarji Desai I came into personal contact when I worked at the AICC in New Delhi in the late Sixties. The man looked so simple and even naive in many ways. Yet he was always seen as a man of steel, steely character and principles. After he ceased to be Prime Minister he returned to Mumbai and it was there I one day walked into his Marine Drive flat. What a rare leader and an individual! He was so unassuming and so natural. When I finished my conversation in a few minutes, I wanted to take leave of him, as I knew his strictness even in small matters.
As I rose to leave him the great man asked to sit down again and continue his conversation! I was surprised and moved. Here was a leader who was much admired and much misunderstood for various wrong reasons. I admired reading his autobiography also, so much of practical wisdom.So,I was impressed by what Nani wrote an open-letter( reproduced in some detail in the book) to Morarjibai soon after he became the Prime Minister in 1977. Nani was at his best with such literary effusiveness.
I remember reading it in the pages of the Illustrated Weekly of India where it appeared first. I thought then; also think now, that Nani, like Morajibai was a dyed- in- the- wool Conservative in many respects. If I can take the liberty to say so, both seem to me even now, rather very naive when it comes to understanding the dynamics of economics and politics.So,their understanding of the changing political and economic realities was, at best, rather simplistic.Anyway,Nani’s letter to Morarjibai ,in a way, paid rich dividends. The Janata government nominated him as India’s Ambassador to the USA, a great honor.
In Mumbai I knew many other leaders, the late Vasantdada Patil, A.R.Antulay and of course Sharad Pawar are a few of them. Among the fine individuals I would count the late Rajni Patel, the barrister-turned politician, as one of the greats.He was my type of a hero. He was such a charismatic personality, he welcomed me and my family, my young son included, with such warmth and graciousness and spent time and showed so much involvement with even utter strangers. He was a champion of so many public causes, a committed person and anyone in need of anything gravitated towards his doors. He entertained us and took the phone and spoke to the Nehru Centre and saw to it that we visited his great monument to modern science and to the memory of Nehru. So, I was so pleased this time when I drove past his memorial, his statue standing so prominently, past Worli and I am deeply moved by the sight.
Also as I drove past the Tata House I remembered the days when I used to visit the many acquaintances there. I once even wrote a letter to J.R.D.Tata and the great man was courtesy personified. He took time to write back!Also,Nani ,once I wanted to meet and went to his ofifce,his secretary,(now I find her picture in the book,Thrity Dolikuka,I was pleased) said to me:” Please talk at 6.30 sharp ,Nani will take your phone call” Exactly at the time when I called Nani said from the other end:” I am Nani and what can I do for you”! Such was his unfailing courtesy. Here now, in this book his unique personality bears witness to such qualities.
Now for the book, first the man himself. Born not in riches, but rather poor, this remarkable personality evolved very soon into one of a rare breed. Steady in his studies and modest in his ambitions, he was born to be a lawyer. He qualified himself so carefully, he cultivated his many talents so well, that when he evolved into a lawyer, here was a man, given to precise arguments, few words but conveyed in such crisp English language and with such beautiful way that any judge who listed to him, almost fell for his arguments. Such skills only helped him to win some of the memorable cases like the fundamental rights case and many other cases that turned down the many attempts by politicians in their hurry to grab unaccountable powers, luckily not dictatorial powers and even Indira Gandhi in her famous or infamous Emergency days relied upon Palkhivala to remain in power.
So, I rushed through first the pages, The Indira Gandhi Case and the Emergency, Chapter 10(pages 227 to245) is the highlight of the book, though others equally, notably the chapter on Mandal Commission and the backward classes’ case is also timely. For the first time, I learn all about the history of the backward classes commissions, two in number and the Supreme Court had stayed the cases in a uniform manner and even now in the present time, the top court is inclined to retrace its original view that caste cant be perpetuated under our Constitution.So,I thought that the present set of politicians are more power greedy and they would further damage the polity by sticking to their narrow agenda and it looks the fight for social justice is not easy, given the current very much changed socio-economic and educational and cultural conditions when the Knowledge Commission and the various new insights into elevating all talented individuals into the new economy industries like IT which has changed the very attitudes towards educational skills and high pay.
The creamy layer is another contentious issue that also seems not to go away soon. In effect, the search and fight for social justice is not the route now put forward by highly unqualified politicians and who are exerting pressures on the coalition partners who have to bear the cross. Anyway, here in the book, another chapter that is very instructive is: Chapter 8, The Golaknath and Kesavanada Bharati Cases, chapter 9, Other Constitutional cases.
The book moves so smoothly and without any boredom whatever, given the length of the book, each chapter is a gem. I am amazed how patient and devoted the author is to his subject. Chapter 18 is: A complete human being. It traces Nani’s well-known beliefs and convictions. No man is complete with his own thoughts; he has to share his thoughts with those of the vaster humanity. Chapter 19 is “as others saw him”, deeply moving and his unfailing courtesies and modest amazes one. He was so methodical to his last days, there was a time for everyone, and he had taken time for everyone to offer some condolence or give some help. He seems to have been a lucky person indeed, he had several friends and everyone here speaks about his unique gifts to please friends and help them out.
In the end I have to leave one or two personal comments.
I once asked him about his views on how the Legal Aid to the Poor works. He confessed he never heard of such an agency. I said:” You have just to walk over to the other side of the High Court in the premises of which is located the agency. I want your comments so that there are so many poor people, who don’t get any legal aid at all, it is all so costly, I myself come from a farming family from a village, all my life had been preoccupied by litigation etc.That is the plight of the villagers in the country…I went on and on.Yet, Palkhivala was not moved. He said and repeated what he had already said: I didn’t know any such legal aid to the poor”. I felt let down. I thought:” Here is a highly dedicated great lawyer and advocate of great many causes, yet he had no time to think of the plight of the poor (clients), those who can’t get any free legal aid. So the government had constituted such an authority. How was it functioning? No, Palkhivala didn’t show any interest. So, I wondered what was his understanding of personal liberty, only for the rich and the already privileged. His conception of liberty had no use for the concept of equality whatever, it seemed.
Anyway, here is another instance. He was heading an education trust. One Youngman applied for a scholarship. Always a post card was the reply, signed by Mrs.Palkhivala.When the admitting university asks for proof of offer of scholarship; the Palkhivalas were replying the same lines: Get the admission and then come to us! So, ultimately the Youngman has to give up! All this doesn’t make any difference to the memory of a great man who soared to such rarified heights.
The book can be read leisurely, every chapter would give lot of food for thought and deep reflections. The book would serve as a useful guide to the evolution of our Constitution and also as to the evolution of our polity from dangerous precipice to the height of a more powerful democratic structure. In this Palkhivala’s arguments for the basic structure of the Constitution remaining outside the purview of political aberrations would stand out as a lighthouse of hopes for the millions of Indian citizens. A great book.