Last year, I found a very interesting object on eBay, a website which is the cyber equivalent of the old and musty auction houses on Calcutta’s Park Street and Russel Street that I used to frequent in my early days in the Second City of the Empire.
I never had the money to buy any objects on display, but always marvelled at the thought that how each of the displayed objects, if they could speak, would have such an interesting tale to tell about their owner and their journey from greatness to a shelf at an auction house.
However, this object on virtual display was affordable. Perhaps the owner had failed to estimate its significance and hence its value. Perhaps he had, and correctly, concluded it to be worthless in our present times.
It was an inland letter, a rarity now in the age of emails, dated February 27, 1983. It read:
“Dear Mr Allen
I am close to 92. My memory has faded. I confuse things. My eyesight has practically gone and I am reduced to a wheel chair. I am afraid I won’t be of much use for future generations.”
The message was typed on a manual typewriter. The signature of the author was in bold capitals, as if of a child who was just learning to write. Records indicate that the author passed away on November 29, 1983, about nine months from the date he had signed that typed letter.
The recent “motorbike” episode which witnessed photographs of Chief Justice of India SA Bobde checking out a high-end bike make their way to the media and have tongues wagging, got me thinking. Is a Supreme Court Justice to be sentenced to only hearing lengthy and often boring arguments of lawyers all day long and writing judgments?
To answer this question, I went down memory lane to revisit the life of Supreme Court’s first rockstar Justice - the author of that inland letter and the proud grandson of Sir Bipin Krishna Bose, member of the Viceroy’s Executive Council and Founder of Nagpur University, the faithful and loving husband of Canadian American Mrs Irene Bose, the first Christian and, till date, only Eurasian Justice to grace India’s Supreme Court - Vivian Bose.
Vivian had himself coined the moniker “mongrel” to pass off as his name! After all, he too was a mixed breed with a Bengali father and an English mother.
One of the Apex Court’s ablest chroniclers, George Gadbois, in his celebrated book Judges of the Supreme Court, paints a picture of entitlement and pedigree for Vivian Bose. He was born on June 9, 1891, in Ahmedabad before the Boses shifted to the heart of India - Nagpur, coincidentally also home to India's bike aficionado Chief Justice Bobde.
His grandfather Sir Bipin Krishna Bose was the patriarch of the family and had quite an influence on young Bose. His sway is even testified to years later by Bose’s wife Irene. Grandfather Bose was a lawyer too, though father Lalit Mohan Bose had deviated to engineering. Sir Bose was a towering figure in the Central Provinces and Berar. Not only did he go on to found the Nagpur University, he also served as a member on the Viceroy’s Executive Council, roughly equivalent to today’s Central Cabinet Minister.
Like many affluent Bengalis in those days, Bose was packed off to “vilayat”, or “billate” in Bangla, at age fifteen, only to return with an LL.B. from Pembroke College, Cambridge in 1913. He was called to the Bar from Middle Temple.
Barrister Bose had obviously opted to follow the footsteps of his illustrious grandfather. In India, he practiced law in the Judicial Commissioner’s Court in Nagpur, which got her own High Court only in 1936. As was the custom with many lawyers in earlier times, Bose also dedicated his services to legal education, even serving as Principal of Nagpur University College of Law, another of his grandfather’s creations.
On January 9, 1936, when Bose took oath as one of the four original members of the Nagpur High Court, he was only forty-four. Thirteen years later, he was made Chief Justice on February 20, 1949.
On the eve of his retirement, Bose was pushing sixty when he was sounded out by India’s first Chief Justice to serve on the Supreme Court. On March 5, 1951, Bose became the final member of the Kania Court, the first set of justices who would sit on India’s Supreme Court. While Abhinav Chandrachud asserts that Bose found it difficult to connect with his South Indian brother judges, Bose’s friends like Justice Hidyayatullah insist that he was quite adept at striking friendships and loved to meet and interact with people. According to Justice Hidayatullah, in A Judge’s Miscellany, Bose had a “larger circle of friends than any man I know and this circle is all around the world.” This would also explain his popularity in the International Commission of Jurists, an organization he was once President of.
On his retirement, Bose was requested by Chief Justice Das to serve a second stint under Article 128 of the Constitution of India. Bose’s second stint was from September 9, 1957 till September 30, 1958.
Post retirement, Bose went on to serve on a number of important inquiry commissions. In fact, his probe into the Mundhra Scandal which had rocked the Nehru government angered Panditji so much that he said Bose was “lacking in intelligence”. Realizing the impropriety, Nehru made quick amends with gracious letters of apology and “deep regret”, and Bose was only to eager to forgive. The entire saga of the Nehru press conference, the Bar’s reaction and Nehru’s damage control is captivatingly captured by Abhinav Chandrachud in his book Republic of Rhetoric.
Bose forgave Nehru, writing,
Gadbois cites the exchange of letters and apology as an example of “vintage ethics” of days before “judges were punished for displeasing the government”.
In 1958, Bose headed the Dalmia-Jain Commission of Inquiry which was probing the alleged nefarious activities of Industrialists VH Dalmia and Shanti Prasad Jain.
What we are concerned with is not this bio, that can perhaps be matched by many distinguished justices. This is not about the legendary judgments, including that classic opinionin Anwar Ali Sarkar, that Bose handed down from the bench in his pithy style. According to Gadbois, Bose’s talent with his mother tongue, in fact, was frequently requisitioned by brother judges when stuck in finding appropriate words to express their judicial opinions. Justices AP Shah cites Bose as a judge who has used his knowledge of literature to enrich his judicial work.
This is about why was Bose Supreme Court’s first rockstar. How did that happen, specially when Gadbois describes him as “a soft-spoken and shy man”? According to the irrepressible Justice Katju, Bose was not only “very erudite”, but also polite and humble”
Bose was weighed down by over accomplishments, not only from his paternal side, but matrimony had brought its fair share too. After all Dr John R Mott, wife Irene’s father, was a Nobel laureate.
Bose did not let these accomplishments or the world of the law bog him down. Bose’s close friend Justice Hidayatullah described him as “a man of varied humours”. Bose was an avid trekker. Motoring was also his passion. Hidyatullah, who was driven to Agra on a three day trip by the Boses, claims Vivian had great motoring prowess and that he drove his Mercedes station wagon at the dangerous speed of twenty miles per hour.
In fact, in 1933, Vivian drove his wife and nineteen-month son all the way from Nagpur to London. In 1956, post-retirement, he did the trip in reverse. Irene, incidentally a Harvard graduate herself, until her demise in 1974, had set up a training programme for social workers in a group of villages around Nagpur and had dedicated her life towards this cause.
On every trip, claims close friend Justice Hidayatullah, veteran motorist Vivian was prepared with tinned provisions, gas cylinder, cooker, oven, home cooked bread, extra blankets and towels! His Siamese Cat “Marco” was always a fellow traveler.
While adventure, outdoor life and rugged existence excited Vivian Bose, he could be the ever charming dinner table entertainer on social occasions. In short, Bose was a rockstar all-rounder, be it in the wild or among social animals. In fact, Nadia Haridass, one of India’s finest horsewoman, has an interesting insight to share. She claims she was inspired by her grandfather Justice Vivian Bose, who, apparently, was such an animal lover that he used to dine with animals. In fact, the website beboldpeople.com which carries this report has a rare photograph of the justice at a dining table with a horse in the background.
Bose, it transpires, was also into wireless, photography and magic, in particular, stage illusions of the Houdini kind. He must have found the forests magical as it seems camping in forests was also a favorite pastime for this jurist. In fact, a water body in Panchmarhi where the Boses must have gone camping is named as “Irene Pool” in her memory.
Bose was also committed to the Scouts movement, having founded the Boy’s Scout for Central Provinces and Berar. He was also an active volunteer for the mounted infantry and Nagpur Rifles. Passion for firearms led him to be in the 1933 team that participated in the Calcutta Cup riflery competition, winning even a medal for the highest individual score in the British Empire.
Having lived such an eventful life, when Bose wrote that inland letter, he could well sense his time, howsoever fascinating, on this earth was almost over. He was in the care of his daughter Leila Powar in Bangalore.
The Mongrel had written in perhaps his last epistle “I am afraid I won’t be of much use for future generations.”
While sadly his death supposedly made to a one column bare reference in the local papers with the headline “EX-JUDGE DEAD”, Vivian Bose could not have been farthest from the truth.
Gopal Subramanium, as Solicitor General, had indicated that he had a photograph of Vivian Bose on the wall. “I look at it in the morning and I look at it in the evening. The day I cannot look at him in the eye, I will leave this job”, he said. So this is how wrong Bose was in his ultimate self-appraisal. In fact, delivering 11th edition of the Late NL Belekar Memorial Lecture Series’ at Vivian Bose’s parent High Court, Justice Rohinton Nariman opined that Bose was among the top five jurists of all time.
Long before that, Gobind Das in his memorable book ‘Supreme Court In Quest of Identity’ has described Bose as “a great dissenter..who spoke for the future”. Justice KK Mathew described him as a “man whose achievements lie in many fields” and that it was not possible to “do justice to the content of so manifold a nature and so full a life”.
Vivian Bose’s lived experience of balancing law and his passion for life is his greatest legacy that he has passed on to the future generations. He has taught us that you could be a jurist and magician, a lawyer and motorist, all at the same time.
I wish we all could live life as fully as did Vivian Bose and be as unapologetic about it!
The author is an advocate practicing at the Supreme Court of India and the Delhi High Court.