Fali as I knew Him: A Personal Tribute

Senior Advocate Navroz H Seervai gives a personal tribute to the Late Fali S Nariman.
fali nariman
fali nariman

In his pen sketch of WG Grace, the great cricketer, his biographer AA Thomson wrote:

“Time passes and many legends pass with it. The legend of WG Grace does not pass and the reason is that the man was greater than the legend.”

Well, could Thomson have been writing about Fali, for he was greater than the legend that had already grown around him, even before his passing in the early hours of February 21, 2024.

Encomiums will be heaped on Fali as a colossus of the legal profession, and he justly deserves these, at the end of a glittering 70 year career at the bar - a career in which he unquestionably dominated the bar for decades, as no other lawyer has.

But I would rather reflect on the man, and not the lawyer, great as he was. I first met Fali as a 6-year-old, having met Rohinton, then 7, at the PVM Gymkhana, where we played some badminton and a great deal of the fool.

Fali, then a rising star of the Bombay Bar was, even to a six-year-old, so approachable, so friendly, so unassuming, that I didn’t think twice when he willingly allowed me to sit on his lap, in a crowded Ambassador car, going to a movie at New Empire. One of my lasting memories is of Fali being up at 5 am waiting for Rohinton and me to go to the station to catch the Taj Express for Agra. The driver didn’t come as planned, and so Fali bundled us into the car and drove us to the station, so that we didn’t miss the train.

Years later as a young junior, assisting him in cases both in Bombay and Delhi, he’d sidle up to me and say:

“I say Seervai, after the conference just hang on, and have a drink with Bapsy and me.”

I would readily agree and there would follow the most delightful evening with Fali in full flow, regaling me with stories of yesteryear and reminiscing of days gone by.

Or he’d plunge into the latest book he was reading, and hold forth on the subject, as always, wearing his learning ever so lightly on his shoulder.

I have learnt more from my appearances with Fali, than any other senior, and I’m eternally grateful to him for being such an amazing teacher. He taught me that there is no easy way to success at the Bar, and that the only sure road to success was hard work and a relentless pursuit to achieve the best.

He was a hard task master with one and all; but he was hardest on himself, and so I never minded when he was hard on me. He was also the most generous of seniors, quick to acknowledge work well done or a relevant point made or a significant judgment brought to his attention.

His achievements at the Bar are the stuff of legend; and his triumphs and near - miraculous performances are too numerous to enumerate.

I venture to suggest that there is hardly a branch of the law which did not bear his indelible mark. In the evening of his career the judgment that stands out is his successful challenge to the NJAC Act. It exemplified his prowess at the bar even at the age of eighty six, and his unwavering commitment to an independent judiciary, for which he had fought for much of his life.

Fali must have been saddened and deeply disillusioned by the events of the last few years, when the courts, including the Supreme Court, have shown a singular disinclination to stand up to an overbearing, authoritarian and majoritarian government.

What marks him out and makes him stand apart? What is it that he possessed, which no other lawyer of his generation did?

Having seen Fali at close quarters for over forty years, I think it was his striving for the best, if not for perfection; and his never being satisfied with what he’d done, but always wanting to do better.  

Fali leaves an indelible mark on the profession he graced and adorned for over seventy years, and all of us who are deeply attached to the law owe him a debt of gratitude.

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