Ashok Desai
Ashok Desai
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Of enormous preparation and perfect timing: Iqbal Chagla's tribute to Ashok Desai

Senior Advocate Iqbal Chagla writes about the enormous preparation that went into every appearance of Ashok Desai.

Iqbal Chagla

My dear, dear friend,

“After life’s fitful fever, he sleeps well”.

The first sentiment in Shakespeare’s words never applied to you. Life was never a fever, much less, fitful.

You revelled in life and communicated your verve and enthusiasm to all around you. How you spent those ten days of vipassana at Iggatpuri year after year was beyond me. No books, no paper or pencil, absolute silence.

But then I realised that it was precisely the discipline you needed to keep talking incessantly for the rest of the year!

So many have spoken of your great successes and achievements, and I will not dwell upon them.

But this only I shall say: that your articulate, eloquent and effortless advocacy in court concealed the enormous preparation that went into every appearance.

I remember attending a couple of conferences in the Cement Case that unseated the sitting chief minister, AR Antulay. This was one of your most shining moments and one that catapulted you to instant and deserved fame. And I bear testimony to the long conferences that preceded the hearings when every detail was thrashed out.

It was a pleasure appearing with you in the Backbay Reclamation case, a PIL that challenged the irregular allotment of plots. Our clients, the petitioners - Piloo Mody, Mrinal Gore and others - were incarcerated even before the hearing commenced.

You remember on the first day of the hearing (we were under the dark shadow of the Emergency), we discovered the presence in court of policemen in mufti. They were taking down the names of the counsel appearing for the petitioners.

You led us, in the lunch hour, to the chambers of Justice Jayanti Gandhi, that bold and fearless judge, and complained to him. When the court resumed, Justice Gandhi declared that if any policeman, unconnected with the hearing, was present in court, he must leave immediately. Almost half a dozen menacing looking men sheepishly walked out. You had made your point.

When I appeared against you in the Supreme Court in an SLP before a bench presided over by Justice BN Kirpal, you winked at me and wished me luck. The reason: an SLP before Justice Kirpal lasted no more than two minutes and his dismissal average was about 99%. When my SLP was dismissed, you congratulated me. And when I asked for what, you replied,

“You’ve broken a new record. You engaged the attention of the judge for a good five minutes!"

But, Ashok, you were never just a lawyer. Your interests were far-ranging - in music, Western and Indian classical; in reading, literature, history and politics; in yoga, which you practised assiduously. You were always well-informed and interesting in just about every subject under the sun.

Dinner at your home was always a delight. Nandenben’s table of Gujarati vegetarian food was exceptional. She was the most elegant and gracious hostess I’ve known. And the company was always sparkling and vivacious. There would be artists, writers, journalists and the odd politician. Nandenben’s mantle as a hostess fell upon Suvarna, a mantle she wore with distinction.

I was delighted and deeply touched when last year you agreed to come from Delhi to Mumbai to attend the party my daughter planned for my eightieth birthday. I told my daughter she must have a bottle of Campari, amidst all the champagne and whiskies and the rest. When she asked, “Who drinks Campari in the evening?”, I answered, “My dear friend Ashok Desai does and I cannot disappoint him”.

Was it with some premonition, Ashok, that you presented me with a copy of Professor Harari’s 21 Lessons for the 21st Century?

The timing, you always said, is everything. And your timing could never be faulted, whether to interject and make a point in court or to interrupt an opponent’s argument. The timing of your leaving was also perfect. With your friends and colleagues and admirers all in isolation you decided now to turn to another audience: to regale the gods with all the stories and foibles of us poor humans.

Sleep well, my friend.

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