Parsis: The Zoroastrians of India Pakistan and The World

Remembering Behram Palkhivala (1926-2018)

Behram Palkhivala, the younger brother of Nani Palkhivala, passed away last Friday (27th July). Not many lawyers know of the enormous role he played in the writing of Kanga and Palkhivala’s “Law and Practice of Income-tax”.

Article by Arvind P Datar | Bar and Bench

After the death of Nani Palkhivala in 2002, the Palkhivala Memorial Trust in Mumbai decided to commission two books: one was a biography by MV Kamat and the other, a book that would chronicle his legal journey, by Soli Sorabjee and myself.

Little did I know that our book,“The Court-Room Genius” would be a truly life-changing experience for me.

Soli Sorabjee listed out all those who were in close contact with Nani Palkhivala and I had to interview all of them. At the head of the list was Behram Palkhivala. As a tax lawyer, I had heard about Behram and knew that he was the co-author of the book which was the Bible for all tax practitioners.  I was also told that he had extensive practice before the Income-tax Appellate Tribunal (ITAT) at Mumbai.

I took an appointment and first met him in the latter half of 2002. I was to meet him on several occasions and recorded several interviews with him. Over the years, I came to not only respect him but also developed enormous affection and admiration for him.  He was very generous with his time and could vividly recall numerous incidents and anecdotes that made “The Court-Room Genius” readable and inspirational.

Of the hundreds of people that I have met in the course of almost four decades of practice, Behram was one of the few persons who did not have a single harsh word to say about anyone. Even with those he did not agree with, he would only gently express his disagreement with what that person had said or done.

The other remarkable quality was never speaking about himself or praising himself. Behram had also preserved important news-cuttings on the important cases that had been argued by Nani Palkhivala particularly the Privy Purses case, the Kesavananda Bharati case and the Mandal case. Similarly, all of Nani’s articles were retained and meticulously archived. This research material was invaluable in the writing of “The Court-Room Genius”.

Apart from Behram, I had the unique opportunity of interviewing several eminent people who had worked closely with Nani Palkhivala. Among them were late Justice YV Chandrachud, former Chief Justice MN Venkatachaliah, Fali Nariman and his son Justice RF Nariman, Harish Salve, DM Popat and Ravinder Narain. There were numerous other chartered accountants and lawyers that I had the privilege of interviewing for this book.

After the interviews were complete, I began the arduous task of writing the book chapter by chapter. I had earlier discussed the format with Behram and would send him each chapter for his comments. The interesting thing was that the drafts had already been corrected twice at my chamber but, within a week, it would come back with several corrections of spelling mistakes and errors of syntax etc. which we had missed.

Each time, I would think to myself: how could I have missed these errors? It was a great learning experience to see him substitute a word by another that was more appropriate or suggest a rearrangement of the paragraphs.

Till this day, I have not met any other individual who corrected drafts so meticulously and painstakingly. The eminent Chartered Accountant, Dilip Choksi, who had prepared the Eighth Edition, told me that it was the proud claim of the Palkhivala brothers that there was not a single error in their book.

Finally, “The Court-Room Genius” was completed and was released by Chief Justice SH Kapadia in January 2012 at the National Centre for Performing Arts (NCPA) at Mumbai.  It was a glittering function attended by several prominent citizens of Bombay but for me, the most important people at that function were Behram Palkhivala and his family. Eventually, the book sold extremely well and a substantial part of the credit must go to Behram.

“The Book”

“The Law and Practice of Income-tax” was first published in 1950 and instantly became the authoritative commentary on the subject. Chief Justice Chagla affectionately referred to it as “The Book”.

Few people know that Nani Palkhivala began writing this book soon after he enrolled in 1946 and joined the chambers of Sir Jamshedji Kanga. Fewer people know that the entire manuscript of the first edition was typed out by Behram as, in his words, they could not afford to engage a stenographer at that time.

It was my good fortune to be requested to prepare the Tenth Edition of Kanga & Palkhivala. In the course of my interviews, Behram had told me about all the difficulties they had in preparing the first edition. In the Foreword to the Tenth Edition prepared by me, Behram set out the manner in which the various editions of this magnum opus were written. It is best to reproduce a few paragraphs from that Foreword:-

“Initially, a friend of Nani did the typing work. But when, after typing some pages, he was reluctant to continue, I took over. I had not learnt typing, and therefore typed mostly with the two forefingers. The entire commentary was typed in this laborious fashion on Nani’s portable Remington typewriter. I typed the commentary on foolscap, making an estimate of how much space would be needed at the bottom of each page for typing the footnotes and therefore how much of the upper space should be used for the text.”

As and when the commentary, or a convenient part of it, under each section was typed out, Nani went through the typescripts and then sent them to the press for preparing the proof.  Thus, the three processes of writing the commentary, typing it, and printing it, went on simultaneously.

……………

For the first four editions, the commentary was entirely prepared by Nani. For the fifth and sixth editions, I prepared notes from judicial decisions in the form of rough commentaries and Nani modified them wherever necessary. For the seventh and eighth editions, I prepared the commentary and Nani finalised it.  For every edition, Nani carefully studied the relevant judicial decisions and statutory amendments, preparing or finalising the commentary. I prepared Part II of the first three editions and volume II of the remaining five editions.

During his last years, Nani was in extremely poor health, and I had no wish to bring out further editions of the book on my own. So, in 1990, the eighth edition ended the work we had done together for more than forty years.

After “The Court-Room Genius”, I resumed working on the final drafts for the 10th edition of “The Book”.  A team of brilliant young lawyers had assisted me in the preparation of this edition and drafts of various sections had already been prepared.

I asked Behram if he could go through the final typescript of the most important sections in the commentary. He told me that he would be unable to do so because he founded it very strenuous to read the text.

After two years of intense work, the 10th edition was published in 2014. The book release function was held in January 2014 at Bombay. Former Chief Justice Bharucha graciously agreed to preside over the function and the doyen of the tax bar, Soli Dastur, also agreed to address the audience. Despite frail health, Behram agreed to briefly speak on the occasion that evening.

Meanwhile, I reached Bombay that morning and drove straight to Behram’s home and showed him the first copy of the 10th edition. The moment Behram saw the book, his eyes became moist; he hugged me and said, “Nani would have been so proud to see this edition”.

That evening Behram said something that I will never forget for the rest of my life. He remarked that this edition had been prepared by his “younger brother” and of which his “elder brother” would have been so proud. These words brought tears to my eyes and it made years of effort of our entire writing team worthwhile.  It also set a very high benchmark that we have to maintain in the years ahead.

I had gone to Mumbai on August 29, 2016, to meet Behram on his 90th birthday.  A few friends were also there and it was wonderful meeting him and his family; his wife Dhan, who is also a lawyer, his sons Jehangir and Phiroz and his daughter-in-law Rashmi. For almost a decade, I had visited their home several times and always came away energized with the warmth of their affection.

To me, Behram will always remind me of the painstaking effort and meticulous attention to detail that must go into the writing of any book. May his soul rest in peace.