When I became a lawyer forty years ago, I joined an unusual chamber. There were two senior counsel heading and sharing it. And they were committed to each other in a relationship which didn’t need a legal cloak; they were open, honest and courageous about it. They were the late M.K.Ramamurthi and the now late Shyamala Pappu. Though I joined as Ramamurthi’s junior, it was Shyamala who gave me my first gown. Between all of us juniors, it was understood that whoever you joined, you were the adopted junior of the other.
Shyamala started her legal career in Bangalore, working successively with two leading figures of the then Mysore High Court Bar: T. Krishna Rao and S. K. Venkataranga Iyengar. In the course of time, she came into contact with leading left wing lawyers from Delhi like V. K. Krishna Menon, R. K. Garg and Ramamurthi, and shifted to Delhi in 1966 to start her practice in the Supreme Court and the newly created Delhi High Court. Other greats of the left who influenced her were Mohan Kumaramangalam and A. S. R. Chari. She instantly made her mark in Delhi, and in 1971, when she was all of 38, she was made senior counsel by the Delhi High Court. We in the chamber believe that she was the first woman senior counsel in the Commonwealth. I remember the International Law Conference in Delhi in December 1973, where I was a student volunteer. Lord Denning, who came for the conference, was so excited at meeting her. The fact that he kept calling her “My dear QC” (Queen’s Counsel, called Senior Advocate by us) made it obvious that he hadn’t met a woman senior counsel before that.
In their styles of advocacy, Shyamala and Ramamurthi were very different. The latter was strident, and often abrasive. Shyamala, on the other hand, was pleasantly persuasive, almost conversational. “You must smile at the judge”, she had told us. And I’ve been trying to do that for the last four decades, with varying degrees of reciprocation, of course!
But it was not mere advocacy skills that marked her out. She was a thorough and meticulous lawyer, with a good knowledge of case-law and a great memory. She richly deserved to be Additional Solicitor General when she wanted that position in 1975 or 1976. As Indira Jaising points out in The Indian Express (September 10), if she had got her due, she would have been India’s first woman Attorney General. It is unfortunate that the first woman law officer came to be appointed nearly four decades later (Indira, 2009) and after that, there has been only one more woman law officer (Pinky Anand, 2014).
Her formidable achievements and her eminence were one part of her. In this little reminiscence, a formal catalogue of her accomplishments would be out of place; that will doubtless be done in the Full Court Reference. The other part was a person who lived and experienced life to the full. She was the life of any party. She sang beautifully. She was an excellent raconteur, and a wonderful mimic. A fun person, as today’s generation might say.
It is not every lawyer who remains “evergreen” into the eighth and ninth decades of life. For so many, there is a slowdown. And so it was with Shyamala, in her later years. But it was heart-warming to hear, just a couple of years back ,a young senior advocate tell me how much he had come to admire her after he had opposed her in a case. “Such a fine, old world lawyer”, he said. And very proudly, I said, “I hope you know that I was part of her chamber.”
Raju Ramachandran is a Senior Advocate and Former Additional Solicitor General of India.