Phiroza Anklesaria: In Conversation

I wanted to be the Attorney General”, Anuj A in conversation with Phiroza Anklesaria

She does not look like it. She simply does not. You would be forgiven for mistaking Phiroza Dhanjishaw Anklesaria as a gentle old lady, demure and happy to trundle along the path of the orthodox.

You would be completely wrong.

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Designated in 1999, Phiroza is one of a handful of women senior advocates practicing in the Bombay High Court. But that is not the only interesting thing about her. For her life’s story is a tale that begs to be told. There are ups and there are downs, and there are fights, scraps if you will.

Plenty of scraps.

And it all began in 1946, when she was five years old.

She was just five years old when she knew she wanted to be a lawyer; her father had wanted to be one. When he could not (“he was extremely naughty”), his daughter took up the career path. With great enthusiasm.

“I would put on my father’s bush shirt. Stand on a chair, and insist on speaking on anything and everything without even understanding a thing. Sometimes I found it difficult to even complete sentences but I always thought I was making sense. And my parents encouraged me by sitting across and nodding their heads with great delight. And exchanging glances.”

As a student, she excelled at debates and college competitions (“anything that required leadership through talking”), she was head girl of her school, and the best student of her college. After a degree in Arts, it was time to study law. She headed to Pune Law College.

“I owe a good deal to the professors of the law college. One of the finest human beings I can remember is GV Pandit, the Principal. Then there was Prof. Ranade for contracts. Exquisite teaching, absolute devotion to the study of law.”

She may have graduated decades ago, but her professors clearly made quite an impact.

“You may forget the substance in the law but what is inculcated and developed in you is the power of reasoning. ‘This is so. Why? That is so. Why?’ If that “Why” is understood by you in the most irrelevant of situations, you will do well in the legal profession.”

Years later, Phiroza too would end up as a teacher, taking up posts in Government Law College and giving tuitions. But these were not out of choice.

With a law degree in hand, it was time to join the profession. And, even back then, she knew that Pune was too small a city for her.

“Pune had a small legal fraternity and the big legal names were perhaps not ready for a woman who wanted to stand up and argue. Anyway, these lawyers were not in my vision. I wanted to be the Attorney General.”

She was twenty-five years old.

Armed with a letter of recommendation written by a family friend to Porus Mehta, she ended up in meeting up Mehta in his chambers. When she told him about her plan to become Attorney General, Mehta laughed.

“That made me more angry. What is there to laugh about? He told me that it was a very hard road, but now that I have an aim I should try and reach it. ‘Even if you fall short, you will still be a success.’”

Mehta in turn wrote a letter and asked Phiroza to go to one of the best solicitors firms in the city at that time: Little & Co. It was a firm where she would spend close to a decade of her life.

“Little & Co had government work, and a lot of this work was available for juniors like me. If you were ambitious, you could do quite well for yourself. I did a lot of government work; I was briefing people like HM Seervai – a man of impeccable standards. I learnt a lot from his discipline, his way of approaching matters. His outstanding junior Atul Setalvad was also quite inspiring.”

Some of the lessons she learnt had very little to do with the law.

“I used to think everything the government does had to be defended, whether it was right or wrong. I remember there was this one matter where a civil judge’s PA was regularly asked to work overtime and was not paid for it. He had filed a writ in the High Court.

Now his service conditions did not mention payment for overtime, which is what I told Seervai. He told me, ‘Forget about the conditions of service, what do you think about it?  Do you think that is fair?’

That stumped me; that there were ways of looking at things differently. Not everything that is right is not wrong, and not everything that is right is not wrong. A good lawyer learns to discern, to read between the lines.

That petition was ultimately settled by Seervai by sending the government a letter saying that if the PA is regularly made to work over time, then he should be paid.”

Other lessons were also learnt during her time as a junior at Little & Co. Soon enough, she realised that “desk work” and briefing barristers was not where her heart lay. Far from it.

“I told [Little & Co Partner] Mr. Vakharia that I happened to be [at the firm] because I have no other alternative. My heart lies in arguing cases, I am a frontline lawyer. I would like to argue cases.

He was very kind to me. He kept on giving me briefs. A lot of city civil matters were argued by me. A lot of labour court matters were argued by me.”

She may have been getting time in court, but was still being paid a salary of two hundred and fifty rupees a month (“barely enough to keep my head out of water”). And other problems too began to crop up.

“A lot of the Partners at Little & Co were very kind to me but there were some who were not so nice. There are a lot of people who rise up by climbing on other people’s shoulders. 

One of them would not let any ambitious, young junior to come up. Instead he would use you, take credit for your work. The increments were nominal. But you had to stick to them because you had nowhere to go.”

It is an issue that she feels strongly about, and always has been. In fact, it was an article she wrote in 1982 that would prove to cause a lot of problems. But more on that later. She was thirty-two years old when she decided to leave the country.

“I had a very good friend called Mr. Patrawalla who used to be a Minister of State at one point of time. The Almighty sends these people if you do right. Patrawalla helped me get a scholarship; I took a loan from the Parsi Panchayat that I eventually paid back.

I joined Queen Mary College for a LL.M. in income tax and company law. It used to be one of the toughest combinations there. I passed in the first attempt. I worked as shop keeper, at a bar, a teller at the horse races.

And then I came back to India, to Little & Co., only to be told that if I wanted to become a Partner, I would have to work for another ten years.”

It was not something she was willing to do. It was not an easy decision for her, but one she did eventually make. Of course, with a little help from her friends.

“I had a very strong friend who I call Mehru Aunty. She was a woman of very strong character. She told me that if I don’t show guts now, I would never reach anywhere. If I cant stand on my own two feet why did I go abroad and spend so much money?

She came with me to Little & Company. This particular Partner tried to browbeat me. I told him,

‘Look here, if I don’t stand up today, then I am not fit to be a part of the legal profession. I am trying to prove a point to me not to you.’”

She left.

In the second part of the interview senior counsel Phiroza Anklesaria talks about what happened to her after she left Little & Co, a foreign degree in hand but with no job at hand.

A foreign LLM in her hand, no job and “seventy rupees in my bank account”.

Although Meru Aunty offered her house to stay, Phiroza declined. Instead, she ended up as a paying guest to one Mrs. Clarke.

“She was a wonderful woman, and used to run a canteen at Liberty cinema. A first rate human person who knew how to deal with people. She and her hookah!”

Those were some trying times; even though she does not say as much, it is clear that it was one of the tougher periods of her life. But it would not last forever. Phiroza had a habit of sitting in the High Court’s library, and it was here that she found her next source of employment.

“There was a lawyer sitting next to me in the library. A small-time lawyer with political inclinations. He told me, ‘I am looking for assistant government pleaders. Will you come on the panel?’ I agreed. He gave me a place to sit in the office and I joined as Assistant Government Pleader.”

It proved to be a fortuitous change of circumstances; over the next ten years she would rise to become the Chief Government Pleader. Just a year before she was made Chief GP, there was a proposal to appoint her as judge of the Bombay High Court.

“I was around 42 years old. But destiny takes its own course. The proposal went far but was eventually shot down on an excuse that I feel embarrassed to tell you about.”

There is a brief moment of silence, and for once, it looks like the senior counsel is at a loss for words. She continues, it was an article she wrote on the legal profession that may have cost her dearly, an article titled “Profession thy name is trade”.

Published in the All India Reporter in 1982, the article is a no-holds barred look at the legal profession.

“I brought out the difficulties of a rank junior without connections and without money.

Who assesses your merit? Nobody does.

Who assesses your lack of money, your lack of connections? Everyone does.

You are subjected to virtually slave labour. Who is going to remedy this situation? Must you be connected? Must you join a big chambers so that [the senior] makes you carry his books and his gowns? And apply for adjournments when he argues before other courts?

So I wrote this article, disclosing the manner in which I was treated. I disclosed the common practices of that time. For instance, I disclosed various practices of groupism.”

Expectedly, the article was not taken too kindly.

“In fact, that was the article on which one of the then Chief Justices apparently said, “My god, she can’t be made High Court judge. She will upset the whole system.” Because his sons and sons-in-law were virtually doing this. The solicitors were virtually a dalal industry And I suffered a great deal.”

With no chance of becoming a High Court judge, Phiroza went back to government work. By October of 1986, when she was appointed Chief GP, Phiroza was leading a team of nearly fifty lawyers.

“I was never put under any kind of pressure. I enjoyed working with government officers. I enjoyed working in extremely heavy matters. I did the basic work of arguing, and distributed the smaller briefs to the have-nots. I knew how hard it was.”

As Chief GP, Phiroza also had to master the art of team-work, an art that lawyers often find it difficult to learn.

“A former Advocate General once told me that he always tried to treat his office subordinates with humaneness and with kindness because that is the basic quality. When you work ahead in administration or anywhere, you need to take people along with you. You cannot travel alone.

That is when I learnt the lesson – to cross the finishing line, you don’t have to come first. Cross it. And the more people with you, the more your ability.”

She spent twelve years at the top post, appearing in a number of high-stakes matters. And then, with a change in government (“we shared ideological differences”), she resigned from the post.

A fighter for most of her life, Phiroza now had to fight for timely payment of her legal fees; fees that were being withheld by an officer in the new government.

“I filed a writ petition in the High Court, “Give my fees. I am entitled to it as a matter of right.”

The petition came up before Justice Ajit Shah, who had argued government cases against me. He said, “She has done crores of work for the government. Her integrity is impeccable. You don’t pay her fees? I want to know why.”

Someone tried to frighten me, tell me that they would make allegation of corruption against me. Let them make I said. I have never been corrupt. I don’t get scared like that.

How do I deal with bullies? I face them. It is the people who are scared and run away who will be bullied.”

She did get her fees, but once again, she was left with no private practice to speak of. She may have been a government counsel for two decades, but clients were hard to come by.

“So I just sat through, gave tuitions and lectureships on any subject I could cover. I wrote articles. There is nothing I could do beta. I am not the sort who visits solicitor firms and ask for matters. I am not that type.”

Some of her articles are as relevant today, as they were when she wrote them. Perhaps more so. Sample this from a 1982 article on Legal Education,

“A major flaw of the commercialised approach to education lies in ignoring the basic purpose of all instruction. This purpose is the cultivation of a right thinking and socially responsible person.

The legal world….spare little or no time for disinterested and constructive research, whether jointly or singly….Original thought is a casualty and dispassionate appraisals are unknown.”

There are a host of others, churned out with regularity and all marked by an incisive look at prevailing practices.

In 1999 Phiroza was designated by the Bombay High Court, joining an extremely small club of women senior advocates which now includes the likes of Rajani Iyer, and Gayatri Singh.

“I would not have applied but there was a very dear friend who was a senior counsel in Delhi. He told me to apply. Here I was struggling for work, so far away from becoming Attorney General, and here was somebody suggesting I became a senior!

He said that he had been asked by some senior person to ask me to apply. Now I being suspicious by nature, I thought they wanted me to be out of the way. Because to be a senior counsel, you have to have a junior. So I said what little work I have, that also I will lose.

Anyway this friend insisted and I applied. Ajit Shah happened to be a judge at that time. He took it to BN Srikrishna who knew me because I used to argue cases in his court. They said, “Of course, she should have done this a long time ago.”

In the end though, it was her performance as government counsel that eventually secured her some work.

“Satish Gavai who was the CEO of MHADA, he started giving me briefs. I was being briefed on huge matters at a very enhanced fee. At least, it seemed very enhanced to me.”

As MHADA counsel, naturally the stakes were high and Phiroza managed to get a number of judgments in their favour. Once again, she says that it is the “Almighty above” who helped her out in times of need.

“Just remember that there is someone above. You  will face annihilation, and go through a deep depression but you know that you will still come out of it. Do not succumb to injustice, fight back. But not by denigrating people, but fight back for yourself and try and reach a higher pedestal. And remember always that there is someone above who helps you.”

She means it.

It is not empty talk. Coupled with her deep belief in the “someone above” is a strong work ethic and dedication.

“I make extensive notes. I begin by reading the title and the addresses. I try and find out if the petitioners and the respondents are connected. Who is made a party? Does it sound like there is some sort of agreement between the parties? Does it seem honest?

What kind of stand do these people take against each other. For whom am I and how do I score my goal. I read extensively. I even go to the extent of finding out the subject matter, is the subject matter wrongly stated? What is the relief sought and are you entitled to that relief? Is the cause of action made out?

I read very thoroughly. I find cogency, I find the cause of action. I make sure that without saying something against the law, I try to make a defence. And I aim to win.

I aim to win.”

There may be a slight quiver in her voice but her determination is amply clear. As is her sharpness; this is a lawyer who will fight, and fight hard. And, bit by bit, she shares some of the skills learned along the way.

“One thing you have to keep in mind beta is to watch the judge. He is also a human being like you. Watch the judge. His reactions in other matters. These are far more relevant than his reactions in your matter because you can predict him.

What you really need is sharpness of the mind, awareness of the situation. And law is really a very basic common sense.”

It is very important for a lawyer to look presentable, receptive to the other side’s point of view, a sense of humour. A consideration of what is going on. Not the “I am right I am right” you are only right when the judge says right. There is nothing right that is wrong and nothing wrong that is right. Learn to discern.

And that receptiveness of the other person’s point of view – that is important.

A good lawyer is a humane person.”

But what is the judge is not inclined to see your point of view?

“Persuade. You are not entitled to relief all the time. Of course not. That is why I told you that a good lawyer should know how far to go. If you know that something is wrongly done, try and repair it. Put your submissions in a measured manner. Put your submissions in an acceptable manner. Don’t hurt the other side, don’t insult or humiliate. And in turn, do not get brow beaten. If necessary raise your voice.”

This is advice born out of experience, out of being one of the few women in a profession that rarely has space, or acceptance, for women.

“You see there is something about this profession which does not create equal confidence in the competence of a woman as against a man. And where does that come from? From the stone age.

That tendency ultimately trickles down to the mind. “What does she understand? What does she know?”

But they don’t realise that a woman in the field of law is equally good. Because that is something to do with the mind, not the physical qualities.

I remember one lawyer started arguing on my behalf. I was quite amused. The judge, I think it was justice Gandhi, said, “You are arguing on her behalf?” he says “Yes, poor woman. She may not be able to argue so I am arguing for her’

I thought it was a very kind gesture, he was just trying to help me. So I got up and said, “I am deeply grateful for your arguments but believe me I will argue for myself and for you.”

There is that sharpness once again, that refusal to accept nonsense of any kind. It has been a long fight though.

“It is a very hard, a very cruel profession. At this age, if you get everything, it is too late. At 74, what can I do? Look at the struggle that one has to go through.

But that suffering has to be part of you. You cannot abandon the race and run away because somebody is ahead of you. As I said before, you don’t have to come first to cross the line.

If you are interested, prepare to suffer.

A single person must not have the audacity or the arrogance to believe that they can change everything. But that does not mean that I will not try to bring some change. I will try till my last day.”

  • Aspy

    Respect is all I have for you Ms. Phiroza Anklesaria. Wow! what a lady?