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Ashok Desai, who passed away on Monday, April 13, had a storied career as a Senior Advocate in the Bombay High Court, and later in the Supreme Court. Mr. Desai served as Solicitor General in VP Singh's government, and as Attorney General under HD Deve Gowda. He played a leading role in several seminal cases on civil liberties, constitutional questions, and economic issues of nationwide significance.
Economists, legal theorists and other academics will no doubt consider his contributions in far greater detail. My own acquaintance with Mr. Desai stems only from a single short summer internship in his chambers when I was 22 years old. In the space of a few weeks, I had the privilege of observing not only his erudition, his court-craft, and his prodigious memory, but also his sparkling wit, his courtesy and his generosity with high and low alike.
There are many things, great and small, that have remained in my mind from that brief encounter. I remember very clearly the warmth with which he was regarded by his peers and juniors; his enjoyment of classical music, both Indian and Western; his preference for memos printed on yellow legal paper; the uninterrupted attention with which he read his briefs; and the relaxed atmosphere in the evening in his chambers, after a hard day's work.
Mr. Desai's bookshelves were something like the man - full of pleasant surprises. You could find all the law reports there, of course, along with treatises and commentaries both Indian and English. But you might also find a good spy thriller tucked away in a corner - I certainly did.
It is now many years since I interned with Mr. Desai. I'm ashamed to say I didn't really make an effort to stay in touch. Yet he remains an exemplar in my mind - a combination of great forensic skill, a wide range of interests, good humour and kindness. In his own way, within law's empire, he was as great as the emperor whose name he shared.