I remember quite vividly the first time I saw Rajani Iyer. I was about a month in at the Bar. I was shadowing my senior, Navroz Seervai, and Rajani was arguing a matter against him in the courtroom traditionally occupied by the Chief Justice - courtroom 52. It was a heated skirmish, an ad-interim of some sort, and was over quickly, but not before I noticed that this lady had a square lapel on her back. We all then filtered towards and out the door. Rajani followed, and as we lingered in the corridor, all that heat turned to warmth. Navroz and Rajani shared a laugh and a hug and talked easily about the things that friends talk about.
This was my introduction to Rajani, and also my introduction to what was possible - that bitter skirmishes in court could be left behind in court; that colleagues and even rivals could be close friends; that a woman could have a senior gown. Years later, I was briefed as the second chair to Rajani in a final hearing. I didn’t register that we were in an all-woman team (all the way to the senior and junior attorneys) until a male colleague watching from the side lines sent me a text to say he thought it was “cool as hell.”
The expanse of a heavy final hearing brings with it long hours of conferences and the painstaking (and sometimes painful) poring over of pleadings and documents. But if you’re lucky, it also brings with it the joy of getting to know your colleagues at the Bar, seniors and juniors alike. And getting to know Rajani was a pleasure.
Rajani was generous with her time, her patience, and her courtesy - a rare trifecta in our profession. She was exacting with the record, but forgiving of errors. She was unyielding in court and tough in conferences, but always fair. She was a fine lawyer and a fine human being; this, too, is a rare thing. To measure her life through the tired device of recounting professional milestones and courtroom anecdotes that we litigators seem to love is to do Rajani a disservice.
Through the months that we spent working together, I watched Rajani closely. She treated everyone with respect, irrespective of their position; she offered those she encountered a patient ear and a kindly voice; she engaged in meaningful conversation with not only her colleagues at the Bar, but also with non-legal staff at the High Court, beyond the humdrum of immediate tasks at hand. If on one occasion someone told her their child had just taken a tough exam, the next time they met she would remember and make it a point to ask how it went.
Simply put, Rajani cared. Even when it meant that she would have to forgo her own dues, Rajani cared enough to not just offer, but insist that a portion of her fees remain outstanding so that mine would be paid. When I tried to thank her, she didn’t even let me finish before she said,
“A junior’s fees are always the last to come and it’s just not fair, so don’t say thank you—it is your due.”
For all her politeness, Rajani didn’t pull her punches or mince her words. I saw this first-hand at a couple of stormy meetings of the Bombay Bar Association. At one meeting, a resolution of some significance against a then-judge of the Bombay High Court was being considered; she fought against any dilution of its language and insisted that they “call a spade a shovel!” She was also full of surprises. I learnt, for instance, that she was an excellent heckler. At another such meeting, a member spoke against the resolution; Rajani frowned and shouted “Go home!”
At the time of her passing, Rajani was one of only three women seniors at the Bombay High Court. With the historical number of women seniors topping out at single digits for a variety of reasons, this is no mean feat. And yet still, Rajani leaves with a legacy that travels far beyond the gown and collocation of citations. A legacy without embarrassments that require finessing or papering over. With her passing, we mourn not only her loss, but the loss of a better world.
Ironically enough, Rajani Iyer was the perfect gentleman in all the ways that really mattered.
She will be missed.
Gulnar Mistry is a civil litigator practicing at the Bombay High Court.