AUTOBIOGRAPHIES can be self-serving, they could be entertaining, they could be too personal and therefore occasionally embarrassing. They could be candid, to the point of being overtly self-revelatory. They could even be a record of contemporary history as viewed by an active participant. An example of the last is the autobiography of Dr Rajendra Prasad, India’s first President and a Congressman of long standing. Fali Nariman’s book is described on the inside front cover flap as “revelatory, comprehensive and perceptive” which it unquestionably is. Lawyer who has served at the Bar for over six decades, even like his mentor Sir Jamshedji Kanga in whose chambers he first learnt his trade and for whom, he asserts, he has “the highest reverence and affection” next only to his father Nariman born in January 1929 in Rangoon, brought up there but had, along with his parents, to make the long journey from Burma to India during the second World War. This, his story of success, recounted with beguiling candour marks him for what he is: a man completely devoted to his profession. He started his career in Mumbai, worked with or was professionally close to some of the most distinguished lawyers and judges of his time, like Nani Palkhivala and MC Chagla. He practiced in Bombay for nearly twenty two years, declined an offer of High Court Judgeship when he was barely 38, but accepted later the post of Additional Solicitor General in Delhi in May 1972, only to resign three years later on June 27, 1975, the only public official in the country to register protest against the suppression of civil liberties by retiring if only for that reason, he deserves the highest honour in the land. Nariman is quite aware of what he did. He writes that he received national and international awards, but adds: “These are the hidden rewards for spot decisions taken, such as resignations from high offices as a mark of protest. They are courageous, but only in hindsight. You don’t know whether such decisions are right or wrong at the time of taking them.
But sometimes, providentially, when they turn out to be the right ones, you become a hero”. He didn’t quite become a hero when he decided to be the lead advocate for Union Carbide Corporation in the matter of the Bhopal Case and was to become target for sharp criticism from some eminent lawyers and Human Rights protagonists. Nariman understandably devotes an entire chapter to the Bhopal Case, putting forth his own point of view but more courageously the point of view of his opponents on the simple theory that what has happened has happened. And practising lawyers will surely enjoy Nariman’s comments on some Supreme Court judges like JC Shah, KD Hegde, SM Sikri, JM Dhelat, Krishna Iyer, BN Kirpal and HR Khanna. That would be an education in itself. But Nariman sounds a little hesitant when talking about Nani Palkhivala. Remember the Golaknath and Kesavananda Bharati Cases that Nani argued with so much passion and commitment? It has been said that if Nani had won only the latter case (true, he won it by a narrow megin) and none other in his long and shining career, he would still be remembered as one who did the greatest service in upholding of the Indian Constitution.
But Nariman does not at all sound enthusiastic even in one of the seventeen references to him. Indeed, at one point he even sounds peeved. But Nariman has an excellent memory and his book Before Memory Fades should be prescribed text book for law students. But at one instance his memory does indeed fade. Even if slightly. He quotes a line from Robert Burns’ poem ‘To a Mouse’ wrongly. According to Nariman, the line is: “The best laid plans of mice and men go oft awry”. Wrong. The line reads: “The best laid schemes o’ mice and men gang aft-agley” followed by “and leave us nought but grief and pain for promised joy”. Never mind. At 81, a man is entitled to forget a line or two, or what is old age about? In his last chapter ‘The Finishing Canter’, Nariman quotes kanga as having written that “the riders in a race do not stop short when they reach the goal. There is a little finishing canter….” Nariman quotes Kanga as having written it in a foreword to a book. That he might have, but Kanga probably picked up the thought from a beautiful statement made by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr on retirement. He could look for it in Holmes’ biography written by Catherine Drinker Bowen entitled Yankee From Olympus. A pity that Nariman never read it. By and large Nariman is not negative, but he has his apprehensions. He says: “My greatest regret is a long, happy and interesting life is the intolerance that has crept into our society. Hinduism is the most tolerant of all religions… but it is under immense strain” and adds: “Is Hinduism changing its face? I hope not. But I fear it is. It is as well to express this fear openly”. Let us hope that his fear can only be of short duration. And thank him for being fearless. That is what one expects of judges – and lawyers.