On 16th Jan, 2020, Nanabhoy (Nani) Ardeshir Palkhivala, would have scored a century, were he alive that day. It would possibly have been one of the most remarkable hundreds that any Indian may have scored in this century. After Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, Sardar Vallabhai Patel, Babasaheb Ambedkar, he possibly can aspire to be in the league of most influential Indians of the era. Tomes have been written on him, by the dozens. The man himself, for whatever reason, chose not to write his memoir.
It is a pity that such men of eminence, in our midst, do not consider it worthwhile to leave their authentic autobiography. It would have been like the Art of Cricket, a Bhagwad Gita, to emulate, in the Art of Life of an ordinary mortal, a stammering student who made good as an oratorical genius of unmatched dimensions. A public intellectual par excellence, a lawyer with unsurpassed credentials and track record in India’s judicial history forever. A tax expert of unequalled expertise and a critique of the Union Budget, more famous than any finance minister and his annual account statement. And above all else, a silent patriotic philanthropist, a deeply religious, spiritual not ritualistic gentleman, proud and devoted to India’s rich cultural legacy and heritage. A rare human being who was a simple, honest, moral and ethical citizen, whose heart, mind and soul beat for India like none others’.
Where to begin! Where to go! What a life! What a man! It would be too easy google Nani and quote he, she, they and them. There is so much that has been written, by so many, about this one and yet not one or many can capture him, in full, as he was, lived and breathed a constitutional life of inimitable reverence. Born with a stammer, he became a debater, by skilling himself with marbles in the mouth. Marbles in the mouth, in semantics would suggest ‘garbled expositions’. But the God almighty knows what marbles those were that caressed that divine mouth. When he exercised those vocal chords, it was a fusillade, a Niagra fall in extreme spate, a torrential downpour of rare gems and jewels, not at random or in disarray, but firmly joint together by the divine gum, he was bestowed with. The eloquence, the short, pithy sentences were strung together to communicate to the heart, mind and soul of Bharat and Bharatiyas.
Oh My God, what was he made of? To be so simple, nice, human, yet so rare, elevated and with divine faculties, not given to any. He was not a man of his generation. He was a man of many generations. An avatar of sorts. The tapestry he weaved and painted were enduring and enchanting. They continue to.
He became a lawyer on the rebound. He wanted to become an English professor. Just read his speeches at Annual General Meetings of Tata group of his companies. He was a litterateur. He was a great who quoted greats greatly. The AGMs were thronged for his peroration and not for the takeaways and giveaways, which culture was spawned much later. They were lyrical expositions of business, commerce, economics, obtuse subjects, packed in musical timbre. He was a wordsmith. But he chose the words that touched us, appealed to us, exposed us. Even the annual letters of Warren Buffets and Bill/Melinda Gates’ are no patch and match to Nani’s exertions.
It was divine providence that he missed out on becoming an English professor when a lady competitor beat him by a whisker. India shall eternally be grateful to that lady and Nani was nobility itself when he hosted her for a dinner, every year in faithful remembrance. Even the debt that you and I owed that lady, he repaid. That was he.
Lawyers are in practice. They are not merely addressed as learned counsel. They need to learn, learn, learn and learn more. (But do they now even learn, as he ruthlessly called the legal fraternity as comprising “legal, ethical illiterates. How so cruelly true). Malcolm Gladwell talked of 10,000 of practice for a genius to be born and bred. Nani’s 10,000 hour marathon was complete the day he made his appearance in this world, that day of his birth. How else, one could explain his Kanga &Palkhivala: The Law and Practice of Law, even as a fledgling attorney. Nature played its part in goading one Sampath Iyengar to accuse Nani of plagiarism and be exposed ruthlessly in court, when Justice A S Panchapakesa Aiyar soundly threw out the challenge as ‘rubbish’. Nani’s fame then grew, grew, grew and grew and has not stopped growing to this day. That is the beauty of these men of gold.
He always loved his Bombay House. He lived with his loving wife Nergish, childless. Entire India ‘were his children and he had the competence, capacity and skill to earn the livelihood for all of us’, as my father always said. Alas, we children went astray and continue to. It was not his loss. It is ours to mourn. Was he born in the right or wrong generation? Would India have been better off if he were alive today? With the technological marvels and tools on offer, would he have performed better? God knows whether even as a Gnani (all knowing) he was, would have been mauled and trolled online, from both sides of the aisle, say, for his following quotes. “India is like a donkey carrying a sack of gold – the donkey does not know what it is carrying but is content to go along with the load on its back. The India of the future will find her identity only by going back to the India of the past.” That is the India we are now living in, far from Nani’s dreams.
Truth to tell, he was actually born in the right generation. It was god’s will more than gift to India as C Rajagopachari @ Rajaji put it, that he was perfectly poised to take off at 30 years, when India became a Republic and Supreme Court came into being. It was not destined to be different or could have been. He had to play his part. He was not a one man band. He was an ever growing orchestra of his own. He set the music, sang and accompanied himself. Rest-in, around, above, below, inside, outside, wherever, were all part of his enthralled audience in a trance.
The heights he scaled as a lawyer can only be in dreams. Even dreams would have struggled to keep pace with the breezy man with not a minute to stand, stare and spare, if you will. India lived in his dreams. He lived in India’s dreams. But, alas, we Indians did not live his dreams. We have steadfast refused to join him. We have stood back, gaped hard and entertained ourselves in his dreams, as if in real life. He yelled, yelled, yelled and yelled, with synchronised oratory, not discordance, at us, that this was not the India he and I were meant to live in. We did not listen to him then. We never listened. No one listened. Yet, he did not give up. He kept telling us and reminded us, what was our heritage and legacy and cultural moorings and diversity. And when he died in 2002, he died a disappointed Indian, yet not despondent, as he believed in the richness our civilisational heritage, 5000 years and more old. He was a scientist at law in the calibre of Albert Einstein. An artist too, in the league of a Picasso. He was our renaissance man, we failed to emulate.
It may be utterly hypocritical of us to praise him to the sky as is this effort. That would de riguer on the centenary of a noble son, the noblest every from the judicial firmament. A shining, lodestar. Celebrations galore may take place. Platitudes from platforms would be spoken from papers. No words will be uttered from the heart, mind and soul of India or Indians. But he would not care, that we were not listening. For, he never lost hope in India, even if he felt at times, it did not deserve us. But, celebrate, we must hoping against hope that his spirit may be lingering to rub off on us.
India, to him was too rich to fail. Not too big. His greed for India’s primacy was good. He would not be pleased that we were singing Happy Birthday on his century. Rather, we took up one cause dear to him and took it up as ours. It was befitting that he missed the century. We did not deserve it. Falling short of a century is always far more romantic and remembered than a ton. That is the beauty of the game of cricket. So, it is in the game of life. As Nani himself said we are a donkey walking not knowing the valuables on our back, including those that Nani Palkhivala added too, in his illustrious life.
(Narasimhan Vijayaraghavan-Author is practising advocate in the Madras High Court)