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Angad Mehta and Aditya Swarup write a fitting tribute to late Prof. Vepa P. Sarathi. Both of them graduated from NALSAR in 2010 and had the privilege of studying under Prof. Vepa Sarathi.
By Angad Mehta and Aditya Swarup
“There once was an old man of Lyme, Who married three wives at a time, When asked, ‘Why a third?’, He replied, ‘One’s absurd! And bigamy, sir, is a crime”.
Anybody from NALSAR who has studied under Prof. Vepa P. Sarathi would recount this limerick as one of the many with which he would commence his lectures. The man himself was a person extraordinaire and he remains one of those rare breed of people who never cease to inspire. At not more than 5ft. 5 inches, Prof. Sarathi carried with him an aura of knowledge, charm, wit and sophistication. As students at NALSAR, we would all eagerly await his lectures, for they were always brimming with humour and wit, while at the same time they served as a source of knowledge. In between his lectures, one could often see the nonagenarian in his office with his feet above the table, either reading English literature or a Khushwant Singh joke book or taking a nap. And when he had to address the students, he would rise from that somnolent position and make his way- often climbing flights of stairs- to the class. The students themselves, who were more often than not bored of and drowsy with the previous lectures, would fend off their boredom in eager anticipation to hear what their revered Professor had to say on the subject.
If anything, Prof. Sarathi’s lectures were far from boring. Though attendance was optional, over 80 percent of the students would attend, merely to hear him speak. When we entered NALSAR, Prof. Sarathi, even at 90, could be seen walking around the corridors, interacting with the other professors. Even at that age, his voice never faltered and his memory was never muddled.
Perhaps the most endearing memory of our times at NALSAR was Dr. Sarathi’s birthday. The class he was teaching would buy him a cake and the entire college would celebrate the nonagenarian’s birthday. After cutting the cake he would take the stage and entertain the students with his jokes and stories. The question still remained unanswered as to how old he actually was. We all though thought, considering the manner in which he walked about the campus and climbed the stairs, that he probably was immortal. And while one cannot vouch for the authenticity of the rumour, it was once believed that he never took a holiday for a whole term despite his age.
If anything, then the great man’s professional qualifications buttress the statements about his unquestionable intellect. He was designated as Senior Advocate by the Supreme Court of India in 1976 and was a member of the Law Commission under Justice K. K. Mathew (retd.) between 1983-85 where “he richly contributed for the development of law especially in Consumer Law, Promissory Estoppel and Contract ‘d’adhesion (Adhesive Contracts)”. Prof.Sarathi was also the Advocate General for Sikkim twice (from January 1990 to October 1994 and from October 1994 to 31st December 1994), Chairman of the Sikkim Law Commission and Assistant Editor of Supreme Court reports from 1964 to 1976.
When each one of us studied Torts in our first semester, we were overwhelmed with the thought that “the Senior Advocate who argued the Bhopal Gas Tragedy will be addressing us on the subject.” True, Prof. Sarathi was appointed as counsel on behalf of the Government of India in the Bhopal Gas Leak tragedy. As the Attorney General’s representative in the District Court at Bhopal and the High Court at Jabalpur, he played an instrumental role in negotiating the settlement and arguing the sanctity of the Government standing-in as ‘parens partiae’ to the victims. In class then, what we expected was a stern, sombre, and elderly gentleman. What we got however, thankfully, was an elderly intelligent gentleman with a humour and wit that would put most of us to shame!
On a serious note however, Prof. Sarathi would still rue over the fact that justice had not been done in the case-that Anderson was still breathing easy and adequate compensation hadn’t been disbursed to the victims. His views on the issue were extremely illuminating to say the least.
His lectures at NALSAR were always interesting, to say the least. What enthralled us the most was that he always supplemented his teachings with snippets of his experiences at the Bar. While his lectures did not address radically complex issues, his explanation of the basics of any subject always left us clear headed.
Prof. Sarathi also authored books on Evidence, Transfer of Property, and Interpretation of Statutes. The space for theoretical understanding of legal issues however, occupies a small corner in India. In this corner, Vepa Sarathi’s works stood out. Not many have managed to explain basics and theory in as coherent a manner as he did in his books.
Lionel Horwitz, a former judge of the Madras High Court, in his review of Prof. Sarathi’s “Law of Evidence” stated, “You have succeeded in making the rules appear reasonable, ingenious, and stimulating. You have avoided the dullness of so many text books on the subject by enlivening your commentary by a bright and colourful style. I am sure that students and others will find your book of the greatest help in their studies.” Nothing could be better said about the book.
There was this one time that a friend was asked a question about the law of confessions. Without taking time to recollect his teachings, he explained the entire law on the subject right from the cases of ‘Pakala Narayanswamy’ and ‘Aghnoo Nagesia’ to the breaking down of the relevant sections of the Indian Evidence Act, 1872. That friend paid tribute to Prof. Sarathi’s class and his book for his understanding of the subject. Cognate, has been the experience of most of his other students.
Similar accolades can be given for his book on ‘Transfer of Property’. Simple concepts like leases, mortgages, licenses and sale were broken down and explained in as coherent a manner possible. A notable judge once told one of the authors of this obituary that if he ever wanted to learn transfer of property, he should first read Vepa Sarathi’s Book and then move to ‘Mulla on Transfer of Property’, he would then not only get a good idea of the basic concepts, but also be able to use them for a more critical understanding.
On his latest edition to “Interpretation of Statutes”, Lawasia, Australia commented that “Quite apart from its undoubted value to the practitioner in India, it [the book] is a useful source of material for lawyers overseas indicating the way in which Indian Courts apply the traditional common law principles of statutory interpretation.”
Few, however, know that Lord Denning himself credited the Professor for his critical understanding of the subject. In a letter written to Dr. Sarathi on the subject, Lord Denning congratulated Dr. Sarathi on his article “Interpretation of Statutes: Some Thoughts” and noted that the issue of looking at the ‘traveaux preparatories’ of statues when interpreting them was ‘topical’.
Such was the eminence of Dr. Sarathi that when noted dignitaries visited NALSAR, they would inevitably visit Prof. Sarathi to him their respects. At times, they would even skip meeting the Vice Chancellor.
It is perhaps gods will that Prof. Sarathi died peacefully. His death is not only a loss to the community at NALSAR, but also to legal academia. For all his dirty jokes, legal acumen and irreprehensible wit, “Vepa Sir” was amongst India’s finest.
In 1895, Oscar Wilde, poet and essayist, was charged with and convicted of committed indecent (homosexual) acts. In the ensuing trial, Mr. Edward Carson conducted the cross-examination of Wilde who claimed ignorantly that he “can’t be beat”. There is no ignorance in our case and our ‘Vepa Sir’ simply “cannot be beat!”
Angad Mehta is a practicing lawyer in the Delhi High Court. Aditya Swarup is currently pursuing his Mphil from the University of Oxford. Both of them graduated from NALSAR in 2010 and had the privilege of studying under Prof. Vepa P. Sarathi.
Photo Credit: Nirajan Man Singh