Palkhivala and we, the people

Full many a gem of the purest ray serene
The dark unfathomed caves of the ocean bear,
Full many a flower is born to blush unseen
And waste its sweetness in the desert air.

“A journalist quoting Elegy! That is quite unusual,” he laughed as he poured more tea. I was a bit confused. Here was a person whose views on many issues were not to my liking. I had to find out why he always represented the richer classes and admired the US so much. I was no armchair Marxist, but his unstinted support to the US policies the world over had annoyed me. So was his defence of the former Indian princes.

We had a freewheeling talk. I knew of his middleclass background, which valued a good education more than anything else did. Law was a natural avocation, and he rose by sheer merit and hard work. Literature, English language and the use of the right word for the right occasion were his passions. Palkhivala cherished democratic ideals but I did not agree with him that the western concept of democracy would solve all the problems in the world.

Quite clearly, Palkhivala was the greatest ‘gentleman lawyer’ of his time. Well briefed, he had an intuitive feeling for the law’s hidden interpretations, which others missed. His arguments were exact, packed with learned quotations as well as humorous quips from writers like Will Rogers.

A student of literature myself, I was amazed at the variety and depth of his reading. Besides poetry, Palkhivala adored the great essayists Lamb, Chesterton, Hazlitt, A G Gardiner and F L Lucas. In good humour, we argued about the merits of Dr Johnson who is seldom read these days. “Read his Lives of the Poets,” he suggested. “It is the ultimate in literary criticism.” I agreed, but found his novel Rassellas disappointing. “Oh, he wrote it only to make some money,” laughed Palkhivala. “Dr Johnson is no novelist.”

From fiction to fact
For Palkhivala, individual freedom, freedom of speech and fundamental rights counted more than anything else. That was why he was attracted to the American system of politics, practised by presidents like Roosevelt and Jimmy Carter.