Vahanvati was the counsel for government in what was probably the most difficult time for any government before the Supreme Court.
How do you write a reminiscence of a great lawyer friend upon his untimely death, when he was more lively than almost all of his contemporaries and larger-than-life in his grace, etiquette and court mannerisms? How do you remember a soul who meant ill of none, who was poised and calm in the most difficult of matters to defend, and who remained so throughout his life?
How do you not weep in your heart, but not help a smile, thinking of the man who lived the “If” of Rudyard Kipling, where it reads: If you can keep your head when all about you,/ Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,/ If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,/ But make allowance for their doubting too.
Goolam was the former attorney general, former solicitor general and former advocate general of Maharashtra, but ask me and I will unhesitatingly say, Goolam was more “general” than anything else. Ask the students of the National Law Institute University, Bhopal, who were charmed by what was probably his last public speech during the valedictory of a moot court earlier this year, or junior counsels who got to work with him, and they will readily tell you that Goolam was a man who never lost the common touch.
Goolam made his way up through ardent struggle and with the sheer dint of enterprise more than anything else. He was a hard-worker — sharing briefs with him as an additional solicitor general while he was attorney general, I could see how meticulous his notes were, and how well prepared he would appear. He was a man of fine detail and a lawyer of great industry. For example, in Chief Justice S.H. Kapadia’s court, even in “covered” income tax matters he would have the tax effect, the assessment year and the nature of exemption claimed or type of work done by the assessee on his fingertips; no matter if he had over 25 briefs a day.
While my association with Goolam was rather short, the deep loss from his untimely demise makes me feel as if I had known him my entire life. Curiously, we were advocate generals almost for a coinciding period and moved to the Supreme Court almost at the same time. I, however, had first met him at the Bombay High Court when, as the advocate general of Madhya Pradesh, I had to defend some very high-stake property disputes on behalf of the state of MP. In our search for a fine counsel, we probably chose one of the finest counsels ever produced by the Bombay Bar, the then advocate general, Goolam Essaji Vahanvati. He had the assets of sharpness and wit, and I was only ever awed by his grace and charm in court.
When I moved to Delhi, he had recently been appointed solicitor general and was appearing in all important matters. I remember vividly when we found each other on opposite sides in the celebrated case of Air Vice Marshal Harish Masand, who had been superseded. The matter came up several times before the SC and the defence ministry sought to put in all its might, but with Goolam as their counsel, all that might was channelled as emphatic and immensely polite arguments. It was a learning experience to see how he presented the view of the government. When realising that the court was not with him that day, he immediately switched to his capacity as the “counsel of the crown” and felt it necessary to render the “fair point of view” as an officer of the court. Even while disagreeing, he would make his immense respect for the opinion of the court clear, and it is this skill and fairness that made him counsel par excellence.
Goolam was the counsel for the government in what probably was the most difficult time for any government before the Supreme Court since Independence. He handled the most difficult of cases for the government and always tried to convey the point of view of one organ of the state to the other, and maintained a thorough, resolution-oriented approach. It was nothing less than statesmanship, which marked the tenure held by Goolam, however tumultuous the circumstances. I do not know of a single incident where anybody in the SC precincts, inside the courts or outside, found Goolam raising his voice.
He was otherwise a man of few words, but he would ensure that when he spoke, his audience carefully paid attention, be it judges of the apex court or students at a law school. How do I make up for the loss of this great counsel and dear senior friend at the Bar, the one who lived these words of Kipling: If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,/ Or walk with Kings — nor lose the common touch,/ If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,/ If all men count with you, but none too much;/ If you can fill the unforgiving minute/ With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,/ Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,/ And — which is more — you’ll be a Man, my son!
The writer, a former additional solicitor general of India, is a senior advocate at the Supreme Court