Noted jurist Fali Nariman and Soli Sorabjee were contemporaries, rivals and friends. They both worked in the chambers of Jamshedji Kanga also known as the “grand old man of the Bombay bar”. In a phone conversation, Nariman recounted their times together from that period, Sorabjee’s success and their enduring friendship.
You are both legal legends of our time, contemporaries and also maybe in some ways competitors?
We have been friends for many years now and he was a remarkable chap. He was very successful right from the start and his greatest success was the passport case (Maneka Gandhi case, 1978) when he was a very young man in the Supreme Court. That passport case has become a legend now on fundamental rights and so on.
After that, he never looked back. He had one success after another—when he became Solicitor General for a while (1977-80) and then he was Attorney General on two separate occasions, one in 1989 and in 1998 for five years.
We appeared against each other quite often in the Supreme Court, but that’s all part of the game.
We were in the same chamber—the Jamshedji Kanga Chamber in Bombay for many years and we hardly had a chair to ourselves, because it was a very successful chamber. Jamshedji Kanga was a classic figure, he was a giant of a man, with a giant of a mind and a giant of a heart, too. He was the person who really moulded all of us by his example, he was a charming person. He was an amazing human being and actually we owe everything to him. All of us, Nani Palkhivala, myself, Soli Sorabjee—all of us because if we are what we are, we are because of him.
What was the profession like when you and Mr. Sorabjee were young lawyers?
It was very different but we were very fortunate. He was two years my junior but roughly speaking, we were there at the same time. The judges were exceedingly good to young people. For young people who prepared well, the judges were absolutely outstanding. All of them. I mean there was not a single judge about whom we complained. Of course judges have their weaknesses and have their habits but we have to somehow know those habits of the mind. But they were all very good to people who prepared their cases and of course we always prepared our cases extraordinarily well as young people and because we had that urge to get on in the profession and we had a star studded senior lead list of professionals who outshone us. We had judges who used to look upon us as people who’d be the next generation of lawyers and so encouraged us
Were you and Mr. Sorabjee friends at the time you’ll were working together?
Yes, we were rivals as well as friends. We were all friends at the bar and the fact that you appear against each other doesn’t mean you’re enemies. But of course we argued against each other, we tried to excel against one another and so on and so forth. That was all part of the game, a part of the progression as in all professions.
What do you remember most about Mr. Sorabjee?
He was an outstandingly convivial man, full of fun, full of laughter. Of course we all inherited it from Jamshedji, to laugh at ourselves and laugh at others and so on. We had that great backing of the old man behind us.
He was very astute, he had a command over the case law, he knew a lot of case law, he was adroit and knew when to shift his focus a bit. He was an outstanding lawyer, there’s no question about it otherwise he wouldn’t have been t the top of the bar that he was for many years.
On a lighter note, did he win more cases or did you?
A lawyer, when he gets on in life loses more cases than he wins because you see, nobody needs a senior lawyer if he has a good case. Only the funny, bad and the difficult cases come to us but that is always so. You go to a very famous doctor only if you are extraordinarily ill or something has gone very wrong with you. It’s the same sort of thing in every profession.
Your thoughts on Mr. Sorabjee as we reminisce today.
Passing and going at this stage and in this manner was a very sad business for me. We used to have a lot of talk and fun together, and my wife and his wife were also very close to each other when my wife was alive. Now, it’s quite a problem for all of us but then that’s how life is.