The last e-mail I received from Soli Sorabjee was on February 17, 2021 inviting me to his 91st birthday function at the India International Centre. The invitation also mentioned that his book “Down the Memory Lane” would be published. At that time, the Supreme Court was to resume physical hearings and a Constitution Bench had been constituted to hear the Maratha reservation case on March 8, 2021. I was looking forward to seeing him on his 91st birthday and the launch of a wonderful book.
No one expected the second wave of COVID-19 to devastate New Delhi and one of the victims was this remarkable lawyer. Although he was ailing for some time, it is still difficult to believe that whenever the Supreme Court reopens next for physical hearings, we will not see him again.
In 1982, I had the occasion to brief Soli Sorabjee in a matter relating to banking law. The other counsel with me were the late G.E. Vahanvati and Mohan Jayakar. After this brief SLP, I had the privilege of watching his arguments in the beef tallow controversy where he appeared for several licence holders from Bombay. I had briefed V.P. Raman, the former ASG, who was representing the importers from Madras (later Chennai). The case went on for several days and was reported as Liberty Oil Mills v. Union of India, AIR 1984 SC 1271.
In 1996, I did my first major tax case before a bench of Justices Sujata Manohar and D.P. Wadhwa. This was a complex income-tax case and I had argued for an hour. After I had finished, I felt a hand patting me on the back. It was Soli Sorabjee who came up and told me that I had done well and wished me good luck. This was indeed a remarkable, kind and generous gesture by one of the leaders of the Supreme Court Bar.
After N.A. Palkhivala died in December 2002, the Palkhivala Foundation at Chennai organized a memorial lecture. Soli Sorabjee spoke brilliantly to a packed audience. He came to the venue in a suit but with a tie that was out of place. He started his lecture by mentioning that he had been Palkhivala’s junior and when he joined the Bar, Palkhivala had given him a tie, which he decided to wear at this lecture. The Palkhivala Memorial Trust of Mumbai decided to commission two books in Palkhivala’s memory (one was his personal biography, which was assigned to M.V. Kamath and the other was about the cases that Palkhivala had argued in his 50-year career). Soli Sorabjee asked me to be his co-author for the second book and we began work in right earnest. Working with him at the initial stage was truly memorable. Soli Sorabjee had a prodigious memory and told me several anecdotes about the early years of Palkhivala as well as his stint as his junior in the chambers of Sir Jamshedji Kanga. The writing of this book was the gateway to meet several of Palkhivala’s contemporaries. I still remember several interviews with Behram Palkhivala, Justice Y.V. Chandrachud, Ravinder Narain and D.M. Popat, amongst others.
The book was released in 2012 by Chief Justice Kapadia at the NCPA auditorium at Mumbai. We expected the book to sell about two thousand copies but to our surprise, the book has now completed twenty reprints. Soli Sorabjee would chide me in jest for not insisting on royalty from the publisher.
Later, when the Palkhivala Foundation started the Nani Palkhivala Arbitration Centre (NPAC), he readily agreed to be a part of the Governing Council. To his credit, he attended every single seminar that NPAC held in New Delhi.
Indeed, the Palkhivala Foundation and the NPAC owe a substantial debt to his constant encouragement and support. At the birth centenary of Palkhivala, Soli Sorabjee rightly wrote a wonderful chapter for the Festschrift that was published on this occasion.
Despite his busy practice and his involvement with various organizations including the India International Centre, it was remarkable that he always found time to write articles regularly in newspapers. Equally remarkable are the number of outstanding juniors who “graduated” from his chamber and went on to become eminent lawyers and judges.
To those of us who had the privilege to know him and work with him, our memories of this great lawyer will never fade.