To live with the loss of someone you have turned to for guidance is hard. As time passes, the stillness of loss tends to make memory restless. Recollections flash in your mind, and you cling to them as an anchor. In the hours and days following the devastating news of untimely passing of Shamnad Basheer, the world around me is mourning the loss of a man who wore many hats effortlessly. A guiding light, a mentor, an ideal, a genius, a brilliant scholar, a gifted legal mind, a social entrepreneur, a beloved friend. How does one even begin to describe what he meant to so many people? Almost everyone who knew him was instantly drawn to his intellect, wit, and an unmissable quality to connect on a personal level. Being a mentor had become second nature to him; it was a role he took seriously, giving love and honesty in equal measure.
I first met him some eighteen years ago, he was a close friend and colleague of my batch-mate in law school (now my husband). I had recently returned from LSE post an LL.M and wasn't entirely sure if I had done the right thing by coming back home. In a confused state, I reached out to him to pick his brains on what to do next. I sent an email and he turned up the very next day in a café in South Extension (New Delhi) with the warmest of smiles waiting to counsel someone he had never met before! Clearly, he had made time from his busy schedule in the law firm he worked in, to hear me out. In a few hours, he completely changed my opinion about NLS alumni being a tad arrogant about their success stories in the legal profession. I had never met a more modest person with an enviable streak of humor. He talked about all the exciting opportunities ahead of me as long as I had an open mind. Yes, he made everything sound that simple.
In the months that followed, as a junior associate in a law firm I would hurriedly text him to help me unearth some judgment or circular I couldn't find, and voila it would appear in my inbox. In the subsequent years, he moved on to pursue his calling of studying and teaching law, earning multiple degrees at Oxford and later taking up the prestigious (Frank H. Marks) Visiting Associate Professor of Intellectual Property Law at George Washington University School of Law. I vividly remember receiving his call from US right after my nuptials. Dressed in our fineries, my husband and I took turns to listen to and laugh at his hilarious advice to us. How ironical that he went on to be my sounding board in those initial years with his characteristic patience.
Later, in what now seems an uncanny coincidence, as an editor in a legal publishing house, I was assigned the task of commissioning him for a book on an IPR related subject. He had a knack of making an editor's most mundane of tasks- that of hounding authors for manuscripts- sound poetic by calling my repeated nagging reminders "the very picture of efficiency". When I started to work as a freelance legal writer/editor, avenues for which were few and far between, without much ado he connected me with a budding legal journalist and one of his protégés. It practically marked the beginning of many freelance writing assignments for me with a leading legal website. There was a brief lull in our communication when I moved overseas with my family. Within a year of the move, I was a part of a new and exciting venture in the Indian legal journalism landscape. If not for his magical ability to connect the right people at the right time, I would not have been a part of Live Law's founding journey. Despite the teething troubles and limitations of long-distance working, the venture kicked off and how. Live Law went on to witness remarkable growth, much to Shamnad's delight.
A few years later, during his work visit to Singapore where I lived at the time, he sensed my restlessness. My inability to start afresh after a hiatus was not lost on him. Never one to mince his words, he told me to get back to my writing desk, which I promptly did after his departure. A tweet from him approving my work was a validation of my writing pursuits.
Upon returning to India last year, I started work on a book, vaguely telling him on the phone that it would be on the art of legal writing. "Bryan Garner style?", he quipped in a heartbeat. Who else but Shamnad to get the drift without an explanation, I thought. In a phone call early this year while on a visit to New Delhi when we couldn't meet, he changed the course of my work in progress in one succinct statement. "If you can give an Indian context, wherever possible, it will be a big help for law students in India", he said. A subject which has a dearth of quality literature in the country, it was a challenging suggestion to say the least. But if not for that quick insight, I would have failed to do justice to the subject. A message sometime later to refer to an important decision on incorrect use of punctuation and its disastrous consequences, secretly assured me that I was doing it right. How could he remember the minutest of details?
His physical trials and tribulations were a mere blip on the radar. His spirit undiminished, his mind sharper. An avid Rumi reader, his spiritual quest in the last few years is perhaps best summed up in a Rumi-ism "Don't you know yet? It's your light that lights the world."
I met him last month in Bangalore. Over our last meal together, which will remain etched in my memory, he was curious about and amazed at how my son was coping with the move to India. He had brought along a copy of "To Kill a Mocking Bird", hoping to convert his eleven- year old godson to the law. Quintessentially Shamnad! These recollections don't tell the whole story. There are a million other memories, like how I ribbed my husband with him, much to his amusement; or the happiness in my husband's voice each time he called, his "Bugs Bunny", a code word of sorts for me; or his thoughtful note in which he asked me to never lose touch with my writing. "That is your soul, your very essence, and you must continue to keep it alive! Besides, we need more writers, poets and artists amongst our non-creative legal lot!", he wrote in his inimitable style.
Shamnad approached everything in his life as a way to ask himself the most apt questions, even though he already seemed to have the answers. Sigrid Nunez, an acclaimed American writer, explains this ability: "…there is also the extraordinary sense that you have become omniscient, that nothing we do or think or feel can be kept from you. The extraordinary sense that you are reading these words, that you know what they'll say even before I write them." To me, he seemed omniscient in life, and I can't imagine him any less even in his afterlife. What he has said to me in the past will continue to imprint my present and future. And yet this is something he always underplayed: his ability to make you feel that you have a gift meant to be nurtured. It was this generosity within him that created enduring bonds and helped many lost causes fructify.
Almost everything I have in my writing life now—my community, my very work itself—I owe a large part to him. Keep writing, his words ring in my head. And so, I do. Writing a remembrance is also an exercise in grieving. It never ends as you hoped it would. You can't seem to capture its essence: the one that it deserves. But you try, which is what writers like to say as if it, in itself, holds profound meaning. As I write this, the things that cannot be undone is the most apt definition of grief I can think of. And so, I am writing to grieve. I am writing to remember. The journey of writing—of grieving—has no final destination. But I will let my readers see me try. My grief has also spilled out in other ways, all formless. Don't you know? I want to call out to anyone who crosses my way. Don't you know we lost him?"
He was gone before I had a chance to send him a copy of my debut book with his glowing Foreword. His last message to me on 3rd August regarding my prospective book cover sits on my phone. I can't stop reading it. It has, for now, become a talisman. "I like it Richa. Though too much of black for my taste. I realise it's the colour of the profession. Missed seeing the others. Will see and let you know soon."
With time my loss might feel less constant. And yet long after, I might find myself caught unawares by a moment of profound loss. Its acceptance and the rush of memories might gradually become a part of how I see myself as a person. But when my grief subsides, I will celebrate a life lived meaningfully and the reservoir of memories it created.
Till we meet again, Shamnad.
[Richa is a former Managing Editor of LiveLaw and A Senior Legal Editor of LexisNexis]
Picture Courtesy:Hindu Business Line