A Tribute to my Sat Guru, Ashok Desai

Senior Advocate Vikram Nankani pens a tribute in memory of former Attorney General Ashok Desai, who passed away on Monday morning.
A Tribute to my Sat Guru, Ashok Desai
Ashok Desai

Call me Ashok. That’s our Bombay convention. No sir, please."

That was my first memory of the most affable human being Ashok Haribhai Desai, speaking to one of his colleagues.

It was my first sighting of the legend, who was only the second lawyer to achieve the unique distinction of being both a Solicitor General and an Attorney General. Although my journey as his junior in Bombay was short, my association with him continued even after he moved to Delhi in December 1989 to assume the role of law officer.

Known for being a champion of civil liberty and personal rights, especially during the 1975 Emergency, and his contribution to the development of Constitutional law, (Antulay’s cement case; Shakharam Binder, a play banned; Piloo Mody on allotment of land in what is today known as Nariman Point; Ramana Shetty; Narashima Rao no confidence case and Vineet Narain on guidelines for criminal investigations etc. to name a few), I had the fortune of also seeing him as a remarkable commercial lawyer, who perhaps knew the clients' business better than the client. Such was his commercial instinct.

The first meeting in 1984 was during the preparation for the infamous beef tallow cases. I was an intern then, assisting my father, Shankar Nankani. While the case was in progress, I had also signed my articles with Wadia Ghandy & Co. working under the late Mr. Anand Bhatt (one of the three guiding angels in my life mentioned here).

I was asked to “take care” of Ashokbhai’s brief, a task which I later understood was extremely delicate, for he was a man known for successfully arguing a final hearing with a “missing brief” without the attorney knowing or the client missing a heart beat.

I was fortunate to soon get another opportunity to see Ashokbhai work from close quarters. This was in 1985 for a group of diamond exporters. I was still an intern. What mesmerised me was his reading of the Court. Almost like a soothsayer.

Both the cases obviously had extremely high commercial stakes in those days, but were equally sensitive, not only politically, but also on account of public sentiment. Issues of morality, hurting religious feelings, and avaricious profiteering had already hit the headlines.

I learnt my first lesson of advocacy. Ashokbhai knew the pulse of the court, knowing precisely where to pitch the arguments, like a captain reading the wicket before calling the toss. I could see the dexterity with which Ashokbhai struck the fine balance between constitutional right to do business, principles of administrative law, and the high level macro-scopic approach of the courts. I heard him say that in commercial matters, it is very difficult to manage client expectations as there is no absolute success. My second lesson.

After getting my sanad in July1986, I joined Ashokbhai’s chambers. I entered the library in Room No. 39 on the second floor of the High Court (popularly known as the Original Side Bar Room). Ashokbhai was sitting at the eastern side, on a Chesterfield-type arm chair at the end of the long wooden table.

Welcome young man, and see if you can find a chair. You should be good at playing musical chairs”, said Ashokbhai in his trademark humorous style. I did not know how to address him.

I remembered his dislike for salutary address amongst fellow members at the Bar. I heard chamber member Kumar Desai, sitting next to him, call him “Ashokbhai”. I got my answer. By then, senior chamber colleagues like Nitin Thakker, Rajani Iyer and Francis Mathews had become almost independent counsel in their own right.

The baptism happened over the course of the week. I kept collecting the gems Ashokbhai kept dropping. They have been etched forever. I must share some of these mul-mantras.

"Eat what you have and do not look into other’s plate."

"Do not worry who is doing what matter, because the matter you are briefed in, is the most important."

"No matter is too small or too big. Once someone trusts you with a matter, you have to live up to the trust, and do your best."

"Never celebrate when you win a case, and likewise, do not mourn when you lose. Move on with the next one."

"Learn to say “No”, something an insecure lawyer will never say."

He constantly reminded me that a lawyer is an officer of the court, for you may lose a case or a client, but never lose the Court. "Focus on facts, and law will fall in place".

I soon became familiar with the chamber rule, which was while one had the freedom to pick up any brief to work on a matter, it was without expectation of being briefed in the same. The “Senior” did not believe in imposing his juniors on the attorneys; that was the quiet message from the senior peers. You had to be noticed for your contribution.

Once while working on a brief from Raghu Kothare of Nanu Hormusjee, my efforts were evident. After the matter was over, Raghu Kothare insisted on sending me a docket. Ashokbhai appreciated his encouraging gesture but on the condition that he would, to that extent mark less, since the client was not be surprised with additional burden.

Raghu Kothare would not relent and the debate was inconclusive. All I know was that the next day, I had the cheque in my hands. I was recently married, and it was not the first time that Ashokbhai ensured I was paid before, if not at the same time as his fees were.

My day came. It was a brief from my other mentor Anand Bhatt. He candidly informed Ashokbhai that the client could not afford a senior. There was another counsel briefed, but on that day, he too was not available. A God-sent opportunity for any rookie.

The matter was kept at 2:45pm before Justice Daud. The issue was a challenge to cancellation of a permit by the RBI.

When I entered Court 6, I found Mr. TR Andhyarujina and Mr. Firdaus Talyarkhan for the other side. I was fortunate to have two of the nicest and finest gentlemen as opponents. To my joy and pleasant surprise, Ashokbhai entered the court room, and told both Andhyarujina and Firdaus about my maiden solo appearance. In the best tradition of the Bombay Bar, he in turn mentioned it to the Judge, and the pressure eased.

Many are a witness to Ashokbhai’s court craft. But his style of backend preparation was also bewildering to most. He never believed in a dress rehearsal, nor did he plan a sequence of arguments. It came naturally to him. It was not rare to find one Ashokbhai in conferences, and a totally different person on his feet in court. Ashokbhai had the flexibility to change gears to suit the complexity of the matter, the court, the judge, and sometimes, even the opponent.

In a matter before the Division Bench of Justice Sujata Manohar and Justice TD Sugla, an eminent Senior Counsel appearing for the Central government raised a preliminary point relying on a Supreme Court judgment which was announced a few days before the hearing. Briskly up on his feet, Ashokbhai said that he too was relying on the same judgment, and that he would not mind if the preliminary objection can be heard first, provided the other side was also going to read the two lines in the penultimate paragraph which supported our case.

Those two lines, read with the slant Ashokbhai provided, changed the context in which the judgment was read. The other side promptly dropped the idea of a preliminary objection.

Popular for his repartees and wit, Ashokbhai had this uncanny knack of making light of any heavy situation. Poetry and quotes invariably laced his legal submissions. Once, before Justice H Suresh, Ashokbhai reached 10 minutes late. I was asked to start. When Ashokbhai entered, seeing the nervous attorney breathing over my shoulders, Justice Suresh asked Ashokbhai if he could take over. Before Justice Suresh could respond, Ashokbhai declined and sat throughout next to me. I was blessed to have a ‘Sarthi’ like him, an observation made by Justice Suresh. His persuasive skills and confidence won many hearts and matters for him.

I would credit Ashokbhai for his brevity. He popularised one-point petitions. He was against verbose pleadings and long-winded repetitive arguments. He used to often say even ten authorities may be insufficient, if you cannot convince the court with the best one.

I vividly remember drafting a petition overnight. He gave me points and warned me to be terse. It was to be mentioned on the last day before summer vacation. It was a habeas corpus challenging a preventive detention order. The petition was affirmed and tendered across the Bar at 11am. Justice SW Puranik was convinced of the urgency. Ashokbhai promised that he would restrict the submissions to just one ground. The order was set aside post-lunch.

Thus began the trend of single-point petitions in that area of law, something which may not have been possible without robust and seasoned government pleaders like Mr. Shamrao Samant, who had the courage and conviction to take a stand without instructions.

The saga of 'missing briefs’ had become well known. Some of the judges also knew about it. Justice RA Jagirdar once offered Ashokbhai the court’s copy, to which he quickly refused, saying he was only parroting while the judge had to decide. Therefore, the judge needed the papers more.

In another matter, he grabbed Arshad Hidyatullah’s meticulously made hand-written colour coded notes, and Justice , tongue in cheek, commented how he was pleased to hear a “brief-less” lawyer perform so well.

There was a time I was getting typecast as an indirect tax lawyer. That was not the case when I spent three years with him in Mumbai. As always, I called Ashokbhai. His first advice was that there is nothing wrong in specialising, but in case I did not want to, then only I could help myself. He gave me his own example. There was a time Ashokbhai was most briefed before the old Competition Competition (MRTP Commission). He shared how he consciously made an effort to get out of that circle. It was prudent not to depend on one subject or one forum or one client, is what he suggested.

I do not remember Ashokbhai lose his cool. Whether it was Hariharan who did not accurately type the propositions, dictated in a way only Ashokbhai did, or Datta forgetting the files in the matter, or an inattentive Judge, nothing flustered him.

He was, however, extremely possessive about one thing. His red diary tucked in the left hand side inner pocket of his jacket. It was his most sacred book. It contained notings, alphabetically, of important judgments including where they were followed, distinguished and overruled. It remained, till the end, the most zealously guarded weapon in his armoury, which none in chambers could touch. Its value was immense even after online search engines came up.

The other trademark like feature of Ashokbhai was the ubiquitous sticker on all his books. It was a baby Ganesha (of which he was an avid collector) reading a book with ‘Ashok’ written on the cover thereof in Hindi. There was no religious connect to it. Ashokbhai followed no rituals and ceremonies. Religion for him was compassion for all living creatures. Ashokbhai was well versed with Sanskrit, which he learnt in school. Buddhism had a great influence on him, as he was drawn towards its simple principles.

Ashokbhai was a great friend to juniors when he travelled. He combined these trips with educational tours. In Goa, where I spent months with him on Colfax Group matters, we did excursions to admire Portuguese architecture and houses, besides gastronomic adventures.

When we were in Hyderabad before a Bench of Justice SM Quadri and Justice Sudarshan Reddy, both of whom later were elevated to the Supreme Court, the matter was over in less than an hour. Not knowing what to do until our flight late in the evening, he took the whole team to Salarjung Museum, next door to the High Court. It was his second visit. Sure enough, we did not need a guide. He knew his history impeccably well.

Difficult as it may be to summarise Ashokbhai’s life, it can be truly said that he was an extraordinary personality with ordinary outlook. From basic home-made meals to gourmet food (he was an unconventional Gujju), from exotic wines and malts to stopping by the roadside to have Chaas, he relished everything with the same measure.

Campari will never taste the same again without him. He made it to perfection, with just the right quantity of tonic and a dash of angostura, in proportions which will now remain a secret with him.

A voracious reader of books, Ashokbhai has an enviable collection on an innumerable variety of subjects. Multi-tasking was his forte. His craze for classical music - Indian and Western - was well known. It would be playing in the background during conferences, and bang in the middle of an intense discussion, he would digress to narrate nuances of the musical performance, and seamlessly get back into the matter without forgetting a single fact.

Apart from music, Ashokbhai was passionate about theatre and cinema. Married to Suvarnabhen, an internationally acclaimed Manipuri dance, it was but natural that he keenly followed dance as form of art.

Ashokbhai was instrumental in my applying for the gown. When he heard the news about my designation, he called to say that he had already arranged to send me the gown. That is undoubtedly is the most cherished gift I have ever received. In this gown, Ashokbhai continues to live with me, until I meet him again.

The author is a Senior Advocate at the Bombay High Court.

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