"Ashok Harilal Desai was an exemplar of a dying breed of gentleman lawyer, who may have won or lost a case, but never lost a friend".
My first memory of Ashok Bhai is from my time as a law student of KC Law College. I remember him as a distinguished looking lawyer walking from the Bombay High Court, crossing the Cross Maidan and passing by KC Law College, to his house in Churchgate. I knew him by reputation as a fierce defender of Freedom of Speech. He was the Senior Counsel for playwright Vijay Tendulkar, whose play Ghashiram Kotwal had been opposed as defamatory to Nana Phadnavis. The play was allowed to be staged with the usual historical disclaimer in the beginning. Destiny took us both to Delhi. Ashok Bhai moved in 1989 as the Solicitor-General under the VP Singh government. In 1991, I followed to assist Attorney-General G. Ramaswamy during the Narasimha Rao government. GR and Ashok Bhai did not really like each other, but that did not stop Ashok Bhai from recognizing even GR's juniors as individuals in their own rights. When he became Attorney-General in 1996, he saw to it that I was put on the government panel and even sent me off for an international arbitration in London. Ashok Bhai was a man of many tastes. He liked his music, including Hindustani classical. He was a connoisseur of good food and wine. I have spent many a happy meal talking about many things and our conversations were something of an Alice in Wonderland type; "Of shoes – and ships – and sealing-wax – Of cabbages – and kings". He was an old school lawyer, a barrister, and first and foremost, a gentleman. He could refer to English Literature, and draw legal analogies with great ease. In Court, he was a scrappy fighter who would try out a variety of ideas before the Judges, before zeroing in on the one idea that would be most appealing to that particular Judge or Bench. Even after stepping down as Attorney-General, he had a vast and varied practice, and he was invariably consulted on Constitutional matters, and his views were ascertained even when it came to judicial appointments. In later life, he reduced his practice as age caught up and he would often appear either in the morning or the afternoon session, but never the whole day. He explained to me that he could work the whole day, however, "the extra aggravation was not worth it". Till almost the very end, Ashok Bhai kept coming to Court to meet friends, and like his enlightened soul, he passed away at 5.30 AM peacefully in bed, surrounded by his family. Ashok Bhai leaves behind many admirers and disciples in the profession. He would have approved the Shakespearean quote: "His life was gentle: and the elements So mixed in him, that Nature might stand up And say to all the world, This Was A Man".
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