When Madhava Menon completed 50 years as a law teacher in September 2009, I had said that “old warhorses like Madhava Menon never retire”. But now the inevitable has happened. The man who never retired is also no more.
Old teachers — like old lawyers — keep going not because of the need (or the greed) for money, but simply because there is a strange but stimulating pleasure in arduous work — be it manual or mental — which for some rare individuals like Menon gives complete satisfaction.
More than two decades ago, if fate (and some then-sitting judges) had not intervened, he would have been the first and only member of that special category of appointees to the Supreme Court set out in Article 124 of our Constitution: “… a person who is in the opinion of the President of India a distinguished jurist”. But it was not to be.
The ultimate goal of education was defined by Will Durant, the celebrated historian of the 20th century. He had once said that “education is the technique of transmitting civilisation”. Menon was in the privileged position of partaking of this sacred rite of transmitting civilisation to generations of law students.
As to how a teacher would want to be remembered is illustrated by the story of that management guru, Peter Drucker, who died nearly 10 years ago at the age of 93. In life, he had once described his personal experiences that had taught him how to grow, how to change, and to how to age — without becoming a prisoner of the past.
In 1949, when Drucker first began to teach management courses at New York University, his father, then 73 years old, came to visit him from California and they both went to see an old friend of his father’s — the famous economist Joseph Schumpeter. Drucker’s father had already retired, but Schumpeter who was then 66 was world famous and was still teaching at Harvard. Peter Drucker recalls that the two old men had a wonderful time together reminiscing about the old days.
Suddenly Drucker’s father asked with a chuckle: “Joseph, do you still talk about what you want to be remembered for?”
And Schumpeter broke out into loud laughter. Schumpeter was notorious for having said, when he was just 30 years old and had published the first two of his great books on economics, that what he really wanted to be remembered for was (and I quote): “Having been Europe’s greatest lover of beautiful women and Europe’s greatest horseman — and perhaps also one of the world’s great economists”!
But at age 66, Schumpeter now said: “Yes, this question is still important to me. I want to be remembered as having been the teacher who converted half a dozen brilliant students into first-rate economists.”
That is how the indomitable, the selfless, the-for-ever-hard-working Madhava Menon would want to be remembered — having trained, not just half a dozen but more than half-a-hundred brilliant students — as a first-rate teacher of top-class practising lawyers.
When a great oak tree falls, the forest is never the same. India’s greatest educationist has passed away and the citadel of the law is in a state of temporary eclipse. Menon was not only a great teacher of the law, he was its inspiration.
Let us not mourn Madhava Menon, the innovator of modern legal education in India. Instead, let us all silently say a small prayer that his noble soul rests in eternal peace and that the memory of his life’s work is never forgotten.
This article first appeared in the print edition on May 9, 2019, under the title ‘The lawyers’ master’. The writer is a constitutional jurist and senior advocate, Supreme Court.