As I read Fali Nariman’s memoirs Before Memory Fades, an autobiography (Hay House), I kept thinking about Nani Palkiwala who I had the privilege of befriending during my years in Bombay. Both men were Parsis from the middle class families with modest means. Both rose to the top of the legal profession and were involved in many land-mark cases which had far-reaching effects.
Nani was a great orator. Every year he used to pronounce on the national budget the day after it was announced in Parliament. Thousands literally turned up to hear him. He was spell-binding. He spoke extempore for exactly one hour touching every aspect of the budget spiced with anecdotes and quotations. He never had a piece of paper in his hand. I also had the privilege of dining with him.
Bapsi Nariman has several cookery books to her credit. I learnt that there is a lot more to the Parsi cuisine than Dhansakh and patra-fish.
Fali Nariman spent his childhood in Rangoon where his father was then posted. The family fled to India when the Japanese overran large parts of Asia in the early years of the Second World War. They made their home in Delhi. Fali was sent to the Bishop Cotton School in Shimla. He was an average student. He went to college in Bombay and did his LL.B. coming out on the top. At the time, the Bombay Bar was dominated by Parsis. He had no difficulty getting admission to Chambers, being hired as a junior and then as the leading counsel. The climb to the top had begun.
Like Palkiwala he never compromised with his principals. When Mrs Gandhi imposed the Emergency, both men refused to comply.
Nariman who was standing counsel for Gujarat resigned when the state government failed to stop violence against Christians and Muslims. Both man and wife involved themselves in other good work. Bapsi worked for Mother Teresa. Both involved themselves in the cause of Tibetan autonomy and publicly supported the Dalai Lama. Fali was nominated to the Rajya Sabha by the BJP government. He had little time to spare and made no great contribution to the debates.
What makes his autobiography very readable is the all-pervading sense of modesty and touches of humour. Earlier, in his memoirs he writes: “I received my first lesson in life not to show off. If you do not have the courage of suppressing your ego when you are young, it will surely overtake you when you are older. After which it will become unavoidable. What is worse, you will also become a bit of a bore. Human beings are not born humble and the tendency to show off is congenital but it has to be repressed.” There was an incident of a murderous attack on the life of Chief Justice Hidayatullah by a disgruntled litigant.
Hidayatullah and his assistant overpowered the assailant but he managed to stab another judge in the head. Daphtary called on him in hospital but could not resist making fun of him at the same time. He said: “They are most dastardly than these assassins. They always attack you in your weakest point.”
Fali Nariman’s present worry is shared by many people including myself. At the end of his memoirs he concluded: “I must end with a note of apprehension. My greatest regret in a long, happy, interesting life is the intolerance that has crept in our society. For centuries, Hinduism has been the most tolerant of all religions. But over the past few years, I have seen a new phenomenon. The Hindu tradition of tolerance is under immense strain — the strain of religious tension fanned by fanaticism. The great orchestra of different languages and praying to different gods — that we proudly call India — is now seen and heard playing out of tune.”