A tribute to Mr. Soli Jehangir Sorabjee

‘Honourable Chief Justice, Honourable Mr Justice Lalit, Honourable Mr Justice Chandrachud, my special mentor, Zena, Zia, Jehangir, Hormazd, and distinguished members of the audience. I thank the Sorabjee family, offering this occasion to speak a few words about Soli.

Soli Sorabjee will be always recognised as the greatest Indian lawyer since the Second World War. He occupies the Hall of Fame with Cornelius Sorabjee, and of course Dr Richard Sorabjee who narrated to me at Oxford his constant kindness when he used to visit Delhi.

A glorious career as an advocate over an unusually long span, he was the first individual in the modern era to act both as counsel for citizens and act as Attorney General twice in dispensations which still bore pluralism as a creed, nevertheless. His arguments defined the place of individual rights in the landscape of a changing Indian constitution. His knowledge of comparative law informed his interpretation of constitutional law, and he merged and layered this with knowledge of treaty and various international conventions.

He was a mentor, an idol, a teacher, an empathic soul, who delighted in the successes of his juniors. I saw him for the first time in 1974. He came to argue the St Xavier’s college case. I was sitting there in the visitor’s gallery looking at him and I still remember that Zena too came to hear him argue that matter in the Supreme Court. He was very alert, quick, smart, moved with energy, and I harboured a secret desire to be like him. Years later, my mother, who I miss today, asked Soli if he saw any merit in me, he would leave it to him to advise me. I walked inside the first floor in Sundar Nagar. I was overwhelmed by a large government and Soli intuitively assessed me. Very importantly, there was a certain understanding which he exuded and quickly asked me to join his chambers from the next day.

In him, I found the qualities which lead to ‘peace that passeth understanding’ in the words of Wordsworth. He would start the day with nature. He would alternate between poetry and music. He would treat the members of the staff as members of the family. Dislike of ostentation, a playful sense of humour, a great mimic without any disparagement, and a man who was untouched by jealousy. He had a unique style of working. His reading speed was enormous, accompanied by quirky annotations on the back flap, and that was sufficient to set out his questions in a conference where he quickly moved like a thoughtful judge in the head, a possible answer, and he had the design of argument already in his head. He never spoke once rudely. Never once said an offensive word to a judge, and he maintained the most excellent standards of professionalism.

He was indeed a great typification of Justice Frankfurter’s advice. He enjoyed art, he admired painting. He loved classical Western music, Mahler's Second Symphony, and resonated with humanity and the spiritual without an overt God, like John Rutter, the great English composer. He argued with ease and elegance and it was a privilege to witness his torrential downpour of arguments which bore the stamp of conviction sometimes, and poetry, and many times with trigonometric precision.

Even though we have our individual journey of life, what is life if we do not publicly admit our debts? I remember Chief Justice Chandrachud telling me with his gentle and characteristic smile, ‘brilliance and perseverance are very relative terms. What comes with perseverance endures. In the profession you're never still. You go up or you go down. It is a slope.’ Very wise words, never forgotten. And when I mentioned this to Soli, Soli said, ‘Remember this always.’

Soli taught me so many things. Amongst them the uselessness of praise, the ethic of decency, fairness in advocacy, connectedness with all. He lived out every part of the leaves of his extraordinary wife Zena’s book of values. Whatever I am is a product of Soli’s care, love and benediction, accompanied by Zena’s unwavering blessing.

He rejected with characteristic firmness, clarity and authority, the then government's approach to the judiciary. Like Tom Bingham, he believed that the function of independent judges charged to interpret and apply the law is universally recognised as a cardinal feature of a modern democratic state, a cornerstone of the rule of law itself. Those judges who valued human liberty with concrete soulful acts of enforcement of fundamental rights, and who were visited with punitive transfers, were elevated to the Supreme Court with the exception of two judges. Soli knew the value of truth and justice. He hid his personal disappointments about individuals, would not easily disclose but retain it as personal pain. That was the reason I knew which restrained him from critical expression in recent times. But yes, he did feel the pain. That would be right to say. As Shakespeare said in Romeo and Juliet – ‘that lies on him like an untimely thrust.’

What do I feel now? In honour of a lawyer whose advocacy flowed like a full summer throated ease, I can only share Keats ‘Forlorn! The very word is like a bell, to toll me back from thee to my sole self! Adieu! The fancy cannot cheat so well, as she is famed to do, deceiving elf. Adieu! Adieu! Thy plaintive anthem fades, past the near meadows, over the still stream, up the hillside; and now ‘tis buried deep in the next valley glades. Was it a vision, or a waking dream? Fled is that music - Do I wake or sleep?’

Soli, like August Compton, was a believer in humankind. His religion is and was humankind, and it has powerfully moved me in my life, along with Henry Sedgwick that this alone will endure safely the times to come.

Soli, I will miss your physical presence, but I will not forget you. In the strength of your memory, wistfully seeing your smile, I will be like you - quick to hide my tear. I share the sense of loss with Zena, Jamshed, Hormazd, and Zia, but this legendary allegro will always live on. He will always reinforce our dignity, the inner beauty and creativity with which every one of us is born.

Thank you.’

Disclaimer & confirmation

The sole purpose of this website is to host and showcase Mr. Gopal Subramanium's academic, research and philanthropic work. It does not serve any purpose to solicit commercial or legal work in his capacity as a Senior Advocate in the Supreme Court of India. 

By clicking "I agree", you acknowledge that this website is for informational purposes only, and should not be interpreted as soliciting work or advertisement in any form.

In cases where the user has any legal issues, he/she in all cases must seek independent legal advice.