Book Review: Abhinav Chandrachud’s biography of Soli Sorabjee

While we do get a glimpse of his personal life, the focus is primarily on Sorabjee the lawyer and not Sorabjee the person.
Soli Sorabjee
Soli Sorabjee

Last month, Penguin Random House India launched an authorized biography of former Attorney General for India Soli Sorabjee titled Soli Sorabjee: Life and Times written by Abhinav Chandrachud.

The launch was announced to coincide with Sorabjee’s 92nd birth anniversary.

Sorabjee needs little introduction. He was the Attorney General for India twice – both in very trying times. He had a stellar practice as a private practitioner and also served as the Solicitor General soon after the Emergency, arguably the hardest time to represent the Government of India before courts, especially for a man who radically transformed his practice during the Emergency to defend citizen’s rights. Globally well-renowned, he also served as a Special Rapporteur for the United Nations Human Rights Commission and at the Permanent Court of Arbitration at the Hague.

Abhinav too is known in legal circles. His pedigree as a lawyer aside, his books over the past have been great reads, to say the least. From examining the Indian Constitution and Free Speech in Republic of Rhetoric – Free Speech and the Constitution of India to discussing judicial appointments to the highest court in Supreme Whispers – Conversations with judges of the Supreme Court of India to exploring Indian secularism in Republic of Religion – The Rise and Fall of Colonial Secularism in India, he has been a prominent voice on constitutional issues. While his other books look at larger ideals and concepts, his latest work explores a single man, a man with a profound influence on the Indian legal system

In this book, Abhinav traces the career of Sorabjee. While we do get a glimpse of Sorabjee’s personal life, the focus is primarily on Sorabjee the lawyer and not Sorabjee the person. We do learn about Sorabjee’s ancestors – well to do business folks who had the means to engage legal luminaries like Chimanlal Setalvad for their commercial disputes.

We also glean interesting trivia from India’s past, like the Great Indian Peninsula Railway ferrying special fast trains between Poona and Bombay to facilitate the wealthy to relish in horse racing. Horse racing in India also gave birth to the totalizator, a mechanical device intrinsic to the system of betting in horse racing, where the payoff to winners would come from the pool of bets, permitting multiple winners and for the house to make a profit. While Bombay saw the totalizator in the early 1910’s, the Americas saw it only in 1933. There is also a wide variety of information on Parsi life in those days – how society operated, how schools were divided, and what it took for a community of immigrants to become custodians of Indian business.

Young Sorabjee unfortunately lost his father and had to liquidate his father’s assets to pay off debts. It was at this juncture that he decided to pursue a profession “in which he could be his own master”. Subsequently, while he was at the Government Law College in Bombay, he came across men who would later become some of India’s finest minds, including Nani Palkhivala, YV Chandrachud, Fali Nariman, and Ashok Desai. The relationships he nurtured there held him in good stead throughout his career. While he worked as a junior with Kharshedji Bhabha, he was frequently briefed alongside Palkhivala, including in the Kesavananda Bharti case. Kesavananda Bharti is a classic in Indian law and developed the basic structure doctrine – that the Constitution of India has an unamendable basic structure which the legislature could not tamper with. Sorabjee also argued multiple cases before his torts professor at the Government Law College, YV Chandrachud.

The subject matter of the book is gripping and the prose compelling, but the most interesting aspect of the book is tracing the career of Sorabjee through data basis reported judgments in which he featured. Data on Indian judgments is scant and this approach bypasses the insufficiency of information to a large extent. We learn how at different points Sorabjee’s focus in his private practice changed – from focusing on customs and excise initially to moving to fundamental rights later and shuttling between private practice and working with the government in the later stages of his career.

The most important question the book asks is: why did Sorabjee have a much higher win percentage as a lawyer while representing the government compared to his success as a private lawyer? Surely, Sorabjee worked the same and was of the same calibre in both circumstances. The book asks whether this could be attributed to (i) the Union government being a responsible litigator and fighting only those cases where it had a good chance of winning; (ii) Sorabjee having more discretion to settle cases for the Union government than for private clients; or (iii) courts in India being consistently deferential towards the government. This is definitely a question that merits a response – irrespective of which option one agrees with more.

This book is a good read for young lawyers and law students. Sorabjee is a great man to learn about and the book does a great job of succinctly explaining the cases that he was part of. It also makes it accessible to an enthusiastic lay reader. Irrespective of your professional background, if you enjoyed reading Indu Bhan’s Legal Eagles or Sorabjee and Arvind Datar’s Courtroom Genius, or if you are looking for a basic understanding of the landmark cases that Sorabjee was part of, you will enjoy this book.

Abhinav Hansaraman works for a law firm in Bombay. His views are personal and he tweets @hansaraman. He blogs and runs a newsletter on books.

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