Fali Nariman-The Peerless

V. Sudhish Pai

24 Feb 2024 4:15 AM GMT

  • Fali Nariman-The Peerless

    “Lawyers in India never retire; they simply drop dead”, remarked Fali S. Nariman. He proved the truth of that remark. Agile and active for his 95 years till February 20, Fali, as he was affectionately known across the board, was finalisng his written submissions in a pending Constitution Bench case till late night and quietly passed away in the wee hours of February 21 bringing the...

    “Lawyers in India never retire; they simply drop dead”, remarked Fali S. Nariman. He proved the truth of that remark. Agile and active for his 95 years till February 20, Fali, as he was affectionately known across the board, was finalisng his written submissions in a pending Constitution Bench case till late night and quietly passed away in the wee hours of February 21 bringing the curtain down on a unique and illustrious life and career. His passing has removed from the scene perhaps the last of the great giants of the Indian Bar. In the sudden removal of this peak-Justice Krishna Iyer referred to him as the summit of the Indian Bar-we are unkindly reminded of the close proximity of death to life- a life so full, fulfilling and worthwhile. We get the bare glimpse of the towering pinnacle that has suddenly lost its base and realize the greatness of the man lost forever.

    Fali Sam Nariman was born on Thursday, January 10, 1929 at Rangoon in Burma as the only child of Sam and Banoo Nariman. They were in Burma because the father was the Manager of New India Assurance Co. Ltd branch which he established there. Fali's childhood was a cloudlessly happy one and he was, in a way, a spoilt child, as he himself notes in his memoirs. Things went on well till World War II when the Japanese invaded Burma and a large number of people including the Narimans fled to India. Fali then studied at Bishop Cotton School in Simla and completed his Senior Cambridge. He studied at St. Xavier's College, Bombay and graduated with History as his subject. He did his law at the famous Government Law College, Bombay where among his teachers were the illustrious Nani Palkhivala and Yeshwant Chandrachud, later Chief Justice of India. He passed out with flying colours –with distinction in the first class, securing the second rank in the University and winning the Kinloch Forbes Gold Medal in Roman Law and Jurisprudence. He also stood first in the Advocates examination conducted by the Bar Council.

    Nariman started the general practice of law in 1950 as a trainee in a leading solicitor's firm of Bombay- Payne & Co. He then joined the most prestigious chamber of the legendary Sir Jamshedji Kanga where his immediate senior was Rustom Kolah, to begin with. He was then attached to Khursedji Bhabha (also in Kanga's chamber) who 'chiselled the young juniors'. Soli Sorabjee too came under Bhabha's pupilage a little later. It is said that the senior, Bhabha would sit next to the juniors like Fali and Soli and guide them in their arguments. That was a great advantage that they had, even though they were extremely good in their own right and would have gone very far in any case.

    Kanga, of course, was the mentor and father figure. And Fali's departure from this world was only six days ahead of Sir Jamshedji's 150th birthday on February 27. Every evening Kanga regaled all the juniors in the chamber with stories of the past when all the events and the dramatis personae came before them like a film. Nariman in his delightful autobiography recalls what he calls the enviable and cherished distinction of his appearing in court with Kanga. It was in the late 1960s when Kanga was in his nineties, and it was his last appearance in court. One of the parties who was a very long standing client of Kanga in spite of being told that Kanga no longer appeared in court insisted that he should appear in the case because it would bring him luck. The matter was before Justice Tarkunde. It was argued for the plaintiff by Nariman with Sir Jamshedji sitting next to him. It was a suit for specific performance of a contract for purchase of land which the plaintiff won with the luck of Sir Jamshedji. It would appear that every evening before the case reached hearing, Kanga would remind Nariman and be assured of his presence in court because by that time Kanga could hardly read. Nariman says that after the arguments Kanga was like a jubilant school boy remembering his earlier days in court. And Nariman regards that appearance as his own stellar performance particularly because Sir Jamshedji appeared with Fali Nariman and not Nariman with Kanga.

    I have heard from Nariman about his first appearance as a raw junior before Chief Justice Chagla in a matter in which Palkhivala was briefed and how he was made to feel at home. In Palkhivala's absence, being held up elsewhere, Chagla asked Nariman to begin and guided him through the case and proceeded to judgment dismissing the appeal by the time Palkhivala was hurriedly brought there by the clients. Palkhivala interrupted to mention with his usual felicity the relevant interpretation of the law that he was canvassing for. Chagla who did not like interruptions in his dictation permitted it, listened to Palkhivala and gave an answer to the interpretation suggested and dismissed the case. He also complimented the young lawyer for his good performance whatever that be, said Nariman. “Mr. Nariman has ably put forward the same point and we have rejected it. I don't think you can add anything more to what Mr. Nariman has so well presented.”

    Soon Nariman built up a large and lucrative practice, particularly in commercial law and civil law. Indeed, he dominated the commercial court. He was briefed in different courts, apart from the High Court, and also in the moffusil. He assisted both Asoke Sen and Nani Palkhivala in Golak Nath case. Nariman was offered a High Court judgeship in 1966 though he was only 37-38 years old and as required in those days it had the express approval of the Chief Justice of India. He declined it for personal reasons, mainly financial. His chance appearance in an election case for H.R.Gokhale, later Union Law Minister facilitated his first independent appearance in the Supreme Court and his appointment as Additional Solicitor General later. He was designated Senior Advocate in 1971. In 1972 Nariman was appointed Additional Solicitor General of India and shifted practice to Delhi. Thereafter for over half a century he practised continuously in the Supreme Court. He was one of its leading lights and a conscience keeper. Niren De was the Attorney General then and L.N.Sinha was the Solicitor General. Nariman was the sole ASG.

    As ASG he appeared in many important cases in the Supreme Court and also in some High Courts. Fali demonstrated his courage and character when he resigned as ASG when the Emergency was imposed in June 1975. He was a young man of 46 then with a promising career but did not hesitate to do what was right and what he believed in. He had that lovely quality –the courage of conviction- to believe in something and stand up for it. This he did again many years later when he returned the brief of the Gujarat government following the communal riots there. He was unwavering in his commitment to the values he held dear- rule of law, secularism, independence of the judiciary and integrity and rectitude in public and private life. For about 48 years thereafter his private practice occupied a top notch.

    He was a legal colossus- a sound lawyer and a consummate advocate. He was perhaps the finest advocate of his time. His knowledge of law and the keenness of his intellect were matched by the persuasiveness of his manner and language, his superb advocacy which was skilled and charming. He could reduce a proposition to its first elements and put across a point with simplicity and finesse. He splendidly performed the supreme duty of an advocate which is to grapple with the judicial mind and try to bend it to the view that he is propounding. One may or may not have agreed with all that he said, be it a legal propositions or any other idea, but he was always heard with respect, whether it was in court or at a public gathering. 'When he spoke the air was still, the mute wonder lurked in men's ears to steal his sweet and honeyed sentences.' In one case where the High Court had made some order he told the Supreme Court, “My Lords, the High Court judges think that they are Your Lordships and have the same wide powers”. That was enough to get an order.

    Nariman's practice covered all branches of law. Numerous are the cases he argued in different fields in various courts. He won some of them, lost some. He also regretted to have taken up some cases or to have won them. But all that is in the game. What is important is one's attitude and demeanour. He was always very polite but firm. Gentle in manners and unfailingly courteous, he was grace personified. Great liberality of thought and catholicity of outlook were his traits. Hero of many a battle and celebrated causes, he was a noble warrior who bore his scars and honours with philosophic indifference. He was a strong and outstanding ethical pillar of the Bar. With his departure the tribe has further dwindled.

    He was also a gifted public speaker and an elegant writer. He had the gift of easy and felicitous expression, a flair for the appropriate turn of phrase-le mot juste, as the French call it. Over the years he was Vice-President and President of LAWASIA. He was nominated to the International Commission of Jurists and was also the Chairman of its Executive Committee. He was also the President of the Bar Association of India for a long time. His renown cut across borders and his was a name to reckon with. Many awards came his way including the Padma Vibhushan and 'the Living Legend of the Law'. He was also a nominated member of Rajya Sabha where too he did exemplary work.

    I have known him for more than four decades since my days as a law student. My association with him began on New Year day in 1982 when he had come to the High Court in Bangalore to argue a case on behalf of ITC-Windsor Manor. I took courage to talk to him as he was sitting on a stool outside the small crowded court room of Justice K.A. Swami before whom his case was listed. His advice to me at that first meeting was, “Read, read and read everything under the sun”. Thereafter we used to meet occasionally and also exchanged letters. He would talk of his days in Kanga's chamber- how the grand old doyen would be at his table regularly every day and if he had nothing else to do Sir Jamshedji would be reciting the Shahnameh of Ferdowsi consisting of a lakh of lines which he knew by rote. Kanga would even collect the mail for the juniors and remember to tell them about it in the evening. Nariman once recalled an advice which C.K.Daphtary had given him: “Fali, it is more important to spend time thinking about the case than merely reading the brief.” He said he took it to heart and was greatly benefitted.

    In later years, I sent him most of my writings to which he responded with appreciation. Without being egoistic, I reproduce something he wrote to me in 2012 which shows more of his personality- generosity of the heart and magnanimity of spirit:

    Let me read to you from the concluding portion of the General Introduction to the IPC by Whitley Stokes (Law Member in the Governor-General's Council and author of The Anglo-Indian Codes): “Decisions of Indian Judges not only throw light on the ideas and customs of the people of India but are as a rule admirable for their logicality and learning. Of these judgments none can be read with more pleasure and few with more profit then those of the Hindu Muthuswami Aiyyar and the Muhameden Sayyid Mahmud”. He ends his praise with the following eloquent words:-“for the subtle races that produce such lawyers no legal doctrine can be too refined, no legal machinery can be too elaborate”. That's praise for you too!!

    Nothing can be more gratifying.

    A meeting with him was always a rewarding and delightful experience. He would regale you with stories and anecdotes. I last met him at his residence about a year ago and we talked of so many things under the sun. It was, as always, enlightening and enjoyable. I spoke to him last on his last birthday in January, the last it will remain. As Soli said when Daphtary passed away, we will have to wait till we get to the other shore to meet and talk to Fali. When Soli departed in 2021, Fali remembered their meetings and the exchange of reminiscences, of old tales narrated in Kanga's chamber and bemoaned that with Soli gone there was no one left from that chamber to talk to and reminisce. Now he too is gone.

    Nani Palkhivala reminded us that fame is a vapour, popularity an accident, riches take wings, only one thing endures-character. Fali who had worked with Nani was quite conscious of it. To generations of men of law, Nairman was a beacon and an exemplar. He was a leader, a teacher and a builder: He was an undoubted leader of the Bar; he was looked up to by generations of lawyers and judges and he taught by precept and example; he helped magnificently in building the edifice of our law.

    In a tribute to Homi Seervai on his passing, Fali wrote, when they make great men, they break the mould. That equally applies to Nariman. It will be difficult to see another like him. His was a great life, well lived. He was a legend. His departure is truly the end of an era. Providence was gracious to add years to his life, he was sagacious to add life to his years. We have to record our gratitude for a life to which we owe so much. While the west is still lighted with his radiance it is good for us to pause and reflect and endeavour to imbibe lessons from his life, lessons which may be quite at variance with what we practise and profess. Good-bye Sir; may the flight of angels lead you to your eternal rest and may your legacy abide with us.

    Author is Senior Advocate, Supreme Court of India 

    Views Are Personal 

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