Soli Sorabjee: An obituary

There are great lawyers. There are great lawyers who are great men. There is a still rarer species: men like Sorabjee who have freely given to the world as much as they have received from it.
Soli Sorabjee: An obituary
Soli Sorabjee

Soli Sorabjee’s legal career spanned the course of our Constitution. He was not amongst the founders who met in Parliament’s Constitution Hall to write this great document. But when the Constitution was carried to the judicial foundries to be cast into shape, he was there from the beginning.

He rose meteorically through the ranks of the Bombay Bar, and was soon addressing the Supreme Court in important cases concerning the liberties of citizens.

Today, we take for granted that the basic protections of procedural fairness and natural justice are shibboleths of our jurisprudence (or that they ought to be). But it is wrong to assume that this was a natural process. In the initial years, when there was little precedent for how to interpret our fundamental rights, there was always a chance that the Supreme Court could give narrow meanings to the notions of equality, liberty, and fairness. It took a group of dedicated lawyers to constantly impress broad and stringent protections against the caprices of the State.

Sorabjee was a leading member of that group. He became one of the generals on the side of liberty in the daily battles fought on its behalf in our courts. He is undoubtedly one of the founding fathers of Indian Constitutional law. His expertise was not limited to Constitutional law, though. He was a solicitor’s first choice in all causes. This was because he was simply one of the finest advocates at the Bar. In a gentle tone, fortified with gleaming intelligence and a profound understanding of the world and of the law, he would guide judges to his point of view, which would inevitably be the most reasonable one. Sometimes, there was practiced indignation, but never a flash of temper. Even at the height of his powers, there was unfailing courtesy: not just for judges but even for the most junior lawyer on either side of a case. You could not help but be charmed, and most judges were.

Yet, behind the charm, there was sincerity and there was a sense of responsibility. Though he was usually successful in his cases, victory at all costs was not his tenet. He took seriously the role of a Senior Advocate in the development of the law. Even in cases where a judge took a position favourable to him, he would attempt to moderate that position if he felt that it could have an undesirable effect as precedent.

Belying the ease with which he conducted a case was immeasurable hard work in the background. In important cases, late evening conferences would spell long nights for juniors. He would rise at 4 am to start reading what was left on his desk only a few hours before. At about 6:30 am, a junior could expect the home phone to ring with Sorabjee on the other end asking a series of questions that were probably too pointed for a bleary-eyed young lawyer. At the end of a long day in court, he would caution against rest, warning that there was no room for complacence until a case ended.

For all this, there was no drudgery in his chambers. His study, where early morning conferences were often held, was lined only with books of poetry. His love for music, and particularly jazz, was infectious. There was a lot more to learn from him than just the law: there was kindness, a sense of honour, and of proportion, and the value of humour. Soli loved a good joke, and even in the midst of a most serious discussion, he would say something laced with mischief that would lighten the mood. He poked gentle fun at the idiosyncrasies of those who took themselves too seriously. His favourite anecdotes of his young days at the Bar were not of war stories in which he featured the hero, but of jokes played on lawyers, judges, and friends.

Soli Sorabjee held all the great offices that a practicing lawyer can aspire to. He was Solicitor General, and then Attorney General twice. It says something about a man that these achievements which can define the lives of many, can stand easily as a mere footnote to all that Sorabjee was. In these roles, his counsel was sought by Presidents and Prime Ministers. But through it all, he was always an officer of the court, and always his own man.

There are great lawyers. There are great lawyers who are great men. There is a still rarer species: men like Sorabjee who have freely given to the world as much as they have received from it. He benefitted in his career from being admitted to one of the most prestigious chambers in Bombay, that of Sir Jamshedjee Kanga. In turn, Sorabjee promoted and supported his juniors unabashedly, with calibre being the only criteria. Often, in open court, at the end of a long argument, he would credit a junior for his or her assistance. Many of the most successful senior advocates practicing at the Bar today trace their vintage to his chamber or otherwise to his generosity.

His professional generosity was a manifestation of his essential magnanimity and compassion. He would get attached easily to people and never let them go. His feelings were real. His eyes would moisten at hearing sad news and he would show a childlike joy on happy occasions. His manners were impeccable and spoke of an age gone by - an age in which he honed his memory by memorizing the entire Western Railways timetable (he could recite it decades later). He would feel the bereavement of others deeply, and a handwritten note from him would quickly follow.

He remained untouched by the crassness that sometimes afflicts the successful, and there was in him an unsullied grace. He was loved by all those who came to know him, and any news of illness or trouble befalling him would lead a loyal band to congregate in his vicinity to ensure he was not alone. COVID-19 cheated many of the chance to be near him till the end and amplified the tragedy for those devoted to him.

Soli Sorabjee has passed on to a better world, and has joined a pantheon of giants whose legacy will endure amongst all those who value our Republic and its constitutional mores. Every lawyer will feel his loss, for none of us have known of the Bar without Soli Sorabjee as its grandee, or for that matter, of a world without him. For the many who loved him, and who will miss him, he has left behind a lifetime's worth of memories to warm us so that we say to him in our hearts:

“Still are thy pleasant voices, thy nightingales, awake. For Death, he taketh all away, but them he cannot take.”

Ashim Sood is an advocate and was a member of Mr. Sorabjee's chambers

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