A Day in the Chambers of SHJ
Life as a barrister in Bombay
It costs two hundred rupees to park in the municipal parking lots. Two hundred rupees. I could get twenty packets of Lays for that much, or one and a half Kalaghoda Cafe cappuccinos. So to avert this disastrous outlay of money, I have started to come to Oval House at 9AM instead of 9:30AM. Parking in British Hotel Lane is free, and the earlier I make it there, the higher the chance I can get a free parking spot. The savings also make me feel less guilty about spending money on my latest obsession: a daily cortado at Blue Tokai. More on that another time.
The unintended consequence of this preponed arrival is that I am often driving to office at the same time as Mr. Dwarkadas. One morning, in my usual driver’s rage, I honked incessantly, and wildly, at a car in front of me on Marine Drive. Just as I overtook the car and stopped at the next signal, I noticed in my rear-view mirror that the person driving that car was — you guessed right — JD. My heart was in my mouth. If there was any hope of redeeming myself, it was lost when I zoomed away twice as wildly the moment the light turned green, out of fear more than anything else. As the weeks went by, I found myself behind JD a few more times. On these occasions though, I was conscious to be on my best behaviour. But to my ultimate surprise, I noticed JD honking away at the cars in front of him! Previously I would rebuke myself for such driving. Now, after seeing JD do the same, I suddenly view my habit in a positive light.
The Chambers of Sharan H Jagtiani (SHJ) is a special place. My early introduction to chambers was as an intern, about three years ago. I remember being swept away by the sheer speed of things. I had just spent two years working at a law firm that did four or five matters a week. SHJ did ten matters a day. If I had to describe my internship experience in one word, it would be this: whirlwind. And I would not have it any other way. I wondered if I would ever get the opportunity to be a junior in the Chambers of SHJ.
Today, I have been given that opportunity. The significance of that opportunity has not passed me by. For all the obvious practical reasons, it is a great privilege to be a junior in the Chambers of SHJ. Additionally, one feels the weight of history too. The Chambers of SHJ is an offshoot of the chambers of the legendary late Sir Jamshedji Kanga. [Sir Jamshedji Kanga > Khurshedji Bhabha > Iqbal Chagla > Janak Dwarkadas > Sharan Jagtiani].
The everyday experiences in chambers, however, are moulded and defined by the people that inhabit it. Each person bringing a distinct perspective; each person with his or her idiosyncrasies; each person a unique and colourful character. This short story is dedicated to every one of these characters.
There is actually a twin-reason for coming to chambers early. The first is of course to address the parking conundrum. The other is to enjoy a brief moment of solitude and quiet before the whirlwind picks up speed.
My fellow morning-quiet-seeker is Shradha. Shradha arrives shortly after me. If you meet her at any other time of the day, you will see her yapping away, often without stopping to breathe for 15 seconds. But true to the tag ‘morning-quiet-seeker’, Shradha remains practically mum early in the morning. It is her zen time. If I coax anything more than a stern “Hi Sid” from her at 9:15AM, I can consider it an auspicious day. That is, until her phone starts ringing. Clients and attorneys from here, there and everywhere are reaching out to her. My phone, on the other hand, feels like it is meditating. So much for seeking quiet. If I thought I could rest on my laurels from the previous day’s exploits, this is the first reality check.
After many weeks of this morning routine, Shradha and I realized that we could guess who has come into chambers next based on the speed, and other accompanying sounds of that person’s descent down the staircase. Mutahhar, for example, scampers down; Vishal levitates. Today though, we hear neither of those sounds. Today we hear a relaxed walk with the sound of multiple vessels or Tupperware clanging against one another. It must be Rohil. The number and type of Rohil’s dabbas have attained a high degree of uniformity over time. One big box with the main course, one box with fruit, one box of dry fruits, and one gigantic thermos flask, all thrown into a jute bag. Environmentally conscious. Rohil and I have both agreed on the merits of a compact lunch box like the one Apurva has. Neither of us has invested in one as yet.
Many of the other juniors start trickling in now. We have our usual morning laugh. Aditya is expressing his disdain for illogical night curfews. Apurva is telling us how she got Piyush to make breakfast for her. I decide to start getting ready for court. Once ready, I go upstairs.
Upstairs, I see a group of attorneys that have come for a morning conference with SHJ. There is always someone waiting their turn to meet SHJ during non-court hours. It’s 10:12AM. Mangesh is sitting at the reception paying close attention to his phone, in case SHJ calls to inform him that he will be going straight to court. Naren, as if at the starting line of a 100m race, has pre-empted this phone call and is ready, SHJ’s gown and band in hand, to race to court to hand it over to him. But the call doesn’t come. Instead, we see a maroon car pull over outside Oval House, and as if on cue, Sagar shouts “sahab aaye, sahab aaye”.
SHJ has planned to start his day with a mentioning in Justice Colabawalla’s court, followed by a few ad-interim matters before Justice Chagla. It is 10:31AM, and we are still in chambers. Previously, this would puzzle me. But in time, one observes and learns. SHJ has likely already accounted for the fact that Justice Colabawalla will sit at 10:45AM at the earliest, and that, being Serial №7 before Justice Chagla, his matter will not reach there before 11AM. This gives him until 10:40AM before he must leave for court. A crucial fifteen minutes in which he can prepare for two matters.
At 10:40AM on the dot, our 5-a-side football team is on its way to court with SHJ. I happen to be walking next to Apurva, which is a boon and a bane. A boon because Apurva is unaffected by what time of day it is when it comes to making conversation. I, on the other hand, can be rather quiet in the morning. This ability of Apurva’s ensures that there is never an awkward silence. Sometimes I don’t even realise when she has gone from talking about her matter before a court to her holiday plans. Seamless. What is not seamless however, is that while she is sharing her holiday plans, she has narrowly avoided, by a whisker, an oncoming truck and two bikers. I am not sure I am as well equipped to deal with near-injury causing events.
We are now approaching the entrance to the High Court premises. I cannot help but be filled with awe every time I enter this holy grail. As a lawyer that has had the good fortune of starting my practice in this court, I often take for granted the value and prestige of the High Court of Judicature at Bombay. This is the court of Seervai and Palkhivala, of MC Chagla and Bhulabhai Desai, to name a few. Six Chief Justices of India started their practice here. As have several Attorney-Generals and Solicitor-Generals of India. Kesavananda Bharti was argued by counsel from this court. The High Court building itself befits the grandeur of the institution. One need only observe the beauty of the passages, the detail in the design, the intricacy in the carvings, and the manner in which it stands out among its peers, to recognise this.
But I digress.
SHJ finishes his mentioning before Justice Colabawalla, and heads towards Justice Chagla’s court. Serial №6 is being heard over there and the attorneys are frantically looking for SHJ. But just as Serial №7 is called out, SHJ arrives. It’s clockwork. We remain in courtroom 16B for another half an hour. SHJ finishes two ad-interim matters there. He has a fixed matter at 12:30 before Justice Kathawalla, and is 10 matters away before Justice Jamadar. So he starts to walk to the far end of the court. It’s going to be either the library or the Bombay Bar Association room.
Just then, I hear a familiar sound. It’s my stomach grumbling. Owing to the morning rigmarole, I have once again forgotten to eat breakfast. I sprint back to chambers and stuff myself with a chutney sandwich and poha. As I am making my way back up the staircase in chambers, I feel something strange happening. The wind is picking up. I notice the leaves outside swirling. Through a cloud of dust, I see a figure approaching chambers, backpack strapped on, aviator sunglasses firmly in place. It’s Vishal. Vishal strutting in at 12PM on Friday in this avatar can mean only one thing — he has had, as the English would say, a ‘banger’ of a Thursday night. We greet each other. Actually, no. I greet him. He walks past me and heads straight for his desk in the basement.
I return to court, and walk towards the library because I have noticed that Justice Jamadar’s board has not moved for a while, and there are still fifteen minutes before the 12:30PM matter before Justice Kathawalla. For the sake of certainty, I call Sagar to confirm SHJ’s whereabouts. Much to my surprise (just kidding), Sagar does not answer his phone. As I am approaching the library, I see Sagar standing outside. For fun, I call him again. I can see that his phone is in his hand. My call connects, the phone is ringing. Sagar spots me and smiles. I smile back. Despite the phone being in his hand, he still has no idea he is getting a call. He smiles more widely. I do too. I guess some things never change.
The High Court library is a wonderful place. Here, you can find any book you need, including AIR volumes dating back to the pre-independence era. The librarians are the gate-keepers to a wealth of treasures that don’t meet the eye. There are even hidden nooks and corners, and ‘reserved areas’ that one stumbles upon every now and again. But the library is not just a place that stores books. It is more a reading room than a library. A place where one can work in the company of colleagues. Some people go there just to maro gappas. One individual, Mr. Sudhir Sethna, used to be a junior in my grandfather’s chambers. He stopped practicing a long time ago, but I believe he would still come to the library to chit-chat with his lawyer friends. All of this adds a real sense of community, the thing that binds us all. Interestingly, there is no designated seating in the library, but still, there is designated seating. If you know you know. Virag sits on the right-hand side of the table furthest from the entrance; Dinyar sits at the center of the nearest table; SHJ sits on the left-hand corner of the center-table.
At 12:30PM SHJ makes his way to courtroom 20. SHJ describes Justice Kathawalla as equity-minded and practical. He says that Justice Kathawalla sees through parties and their intentions easily, and arrives at the heart of the matter instantly. I suppose SHJ’s reading of the court is accurate, because as we enter the courtroom, we notice Justice Kathawalla scolding a party. “You think we don’t know what is going on here?” he says. SHJ’s matter gets called out. It is listed for compliance of an earlier order. The parties have complied. Petition disposed. From courtroom 20, we head to the annex building of the High Court, to courtroom 17A. The matter gets adjourned. Not the worst outcome. Courtrooms in the annex building simply do not replicate the charm of the main building. Maybe the absence of high ceilings? A point to keep in mind if the court ever moves to a larger campus.
With the first session of the day finished, we begin the walk back to chambers. Priyank normally walks beside SHJ because I guess he has a lot to discuss with him. But on this occasion, he is walking with Rohil and me. Naren bhai is leading the pack, and in doing so makes a quick and dangerous maneuver, narrowly avoiding an oncoming car. Priyank instantly commentates on this move, saying “wah, khatron ka khiladi”. This is not the first time Priyank has a ready-made dialogue to share which succinctly describes the moment. It certainly will not be the last. There was another occasion in court once, when Priyank was describing confused and non-committal arguments made by some counsel in a matter. In critiquing the arguments, Priyank said it was like he was saying “mere haan mein meri na hain”. I just had to laugh.
As we enter chambers, we can hear mayhem downstairs. I immediately wonder if someone has dared spoken the S-word near Vishal. But then I hear Vishal laughing (and not on the offensive). I resolve that it is safe to go downstairs.
Descending down the stairs, I hear peals of laughter, followed by Vishal’s trademark line — savaaal. And seated at the center of this perfect storm, is the one and only Akshay Doctor. You put Akshay in a room full of inanimate objects, and he will still create a ruckus. He will somehow get the paper-weight to have an argument with the desk. Because what’s the fun in peace and quiet. Akshay is also the ‘everything man’. Whatever you may need, just ask Akshay. He will suggest the correct PDF software; he will tell you the driving route from Bombay to a remote village in Karnataka without the help of Google Maps; he will procure rice wine for you during lockdown because his friend’s aunt’s nephew’s girlfriend’s brother knows a Nepali bootlegger in Sion; he will tell you the result of the toss in the cricket match between India and England before the toss has taken place, kyunki upar se tip aaya hai. He can also talk about any topic. He knows the Marvel universe arguably better than the creators of Marvel; he knows about the crisis in Myanmar and could provide daily updates on it if he chose; he has all the legal gossip (and may even be behind some of it). Oh, and he knows the Companies Act backwards.
It’s now time to proceed to that wonderful thing: lunch. Luciano Pavarotti, one of the great Italian opera singers aptly said that “one of the very nicest things about life is the way we must regularly stop whatever it is we are doing and devote our attention to eating”. Lunch in the basement is always a feast. We sit around the small conference room, lay out our respective dabbas, and share the joy. Rohil’s food is so good that someone once murmured that his family runs a home kitchen. Today he has my favourite spicy chicken with gravy. Shradha, in yet another one of her experiments, has got a chickpea salad. Akshay has brought his usual and delicious high-protein, low-fat, Chinese-style paneer. Apurva’s new cook (who she is not yet complaining about) has mastered the chowla and ghee rotis. Vishal has brought macaroni and garlic bread, and the omnipresent dal and rice, which Shradha his eyeing. Surabhi has brought thai curry from Miss T. Priyank opens his four layered dabba slowly, keeping the suspense going. Does he have coal infused mushroom-panner makhani? He does! A feast indeed.
Aditya never actually sits to eat with us, but does hover around during lunch time. Aditya is the coolest chamber senior one could ask for. While he is working, he doesn’t interact much. But when he is not working, he is either demonstrating his rendition of the jugnu dance, or planning his next vacation while lambasting the rest of us for being too serious. I am a sucker for traditions, so when I got chamber keys made for Rohil and myself, Aditya was most happy to bestow each of us with our keys in a ceremonial fashion. He posed for a picture too. There comes a moment however, when Aditya goes from being a participant in the lunch conversation, to sitting quietly on his desk, earphones on, watching something on his laptop. It took me a while to figure it out. Nirman eventually put the puzzle together when he told us that Aditya does not share his home food because he loves it too much. I once tried the masaledaar aloo tucks from his dabba, and understood exactly why.
There was a time when I displayed a deep propensity to snooze in court in the afternoon session. My rude awakening, literally, was when the stern Ms. Kunte, Justice Kathawalla’s assistant, directed a chobdar to wake me up after I had dosed off in court. Once awoken, I was met with Kunte’s steely gaze. I have since avoided her gaze, and also restricted my lunch to two and a half rotis at most. So once I had hit that number during the chamber lunch, I excused myself from the small conference room and prepared to go back to court for the afternoon session.
The walk back to court in the afternoon tends to feel different. The activity on the streets is taking place at a more meandering pace. It is representative of the many facets of Kalaghoda. It is such an eclectic place. You have lawyers zipping around in their black and white; fashion bloggers posing for pictures outside gourmet restaurants; wedding-goers visiting boutique clothing stores; art lovers visiting galleries. Banks, a stock market, pubs, synagogues. It retains all the charm of a locality that is at the heart of what can be termed ‘Old Bombay’, i.e. Bombay before Sir Bartle Frere as Governor decided to break down the fort walls and expand outward.
My walking partner this time is Surabhi. One of the more admirable things about Surabhi is that she walks at a speed that is distinctly hers. Rarely have I seen her harried by the circumstance. Surabhi is also a walking, talking Yelp + Airbnb. She somehow knows the best new food places in town, the best place for ice-cream takeout, the hidden beer seller and the swankiest new villas for rent in Goa. If the chamber trip has not worked out for a while, it is not for Surabhi’s lack of trying. Every time someone mentions potential dates for the trip, Surabhi follows through with an appropriate villa option. For the moment, I ask her for some good new dessert places, because dessert is on my mind after the lovely lunch. She rattles of three that she went to the night before (she has a very sweet tooth). I decide to order from one of them.
On SHJ’s afternoon schedule are two matters before Justice Kulkarni. One is a Section 34 for hearing, but that may not reach. The other is a Section 37, which is called out shortly after we reach. SHJ explains to the court that the Section 17 order under challenge is passed by an arbitrator seven years after the award was rendered. The arbitrator is clearly functus officio. The court seems to be in agreement. The other side argues. The court reserves the matter for orders. Just as we exit courtroom 10, I steal a glimpse of Mutahhar, who is in conversation with a few people. One of the funny things about Mutahhar is that he is either stationery (sitting or standing) or in a hurry. I have not as yet seen Mutahhar walking araam se. In the morning he scampers down the chamber staircase while speaking to someone on the phone. Then he rushes to court. In court he is sprinting. From Blue Tokai after a chamber coffee we turn left for chambers, he turns right for a conference that he is delayed for. So on. Though Mutahhar is absorbed in conversation, he sees me from the corner of his eye and quickly acknowledges me. I decide not to bother him any further.
Upon our return from court, we notice the arrival of sabka-sahab, Sumeet. Sumeet is perfect. Be it his neatly cropped hair and well-fit glasses, his accurately tailored pants, his uniquely calm temperament, his ability to receive everybody warmly, or his finely constructed legal arguments. There is barely a fault. Everyone loves Sumeet. I often try to copy him by extending more generosity to people when I receive them. I also confess that seeing Sumeet’s colourful socks, I tend to feel the need to speed up my shopping plans to purchase new socks, replacing the current ones which have a few gaping holes in them. Sumeet though, oblivious to our return from court, is engaged in his favourite pastime — pulling Vishal’s leg. I plan to join the party.
Just then, I hear Shradha shout “Nirmaaaan”. That’s the alarm call for when Nirman has decided to drop by chambers. We all turn to face him. Shradha is not the only one who exhibits a certain degree of reverence or liking for Nirman. We all do, and we know we are in for a few stories, maybe a prank, and certainly some wisdom. Nirman is midway through his story, when there’s yet another familiar sound. “Eh-heh-heh-heh-heh-heh”. It’s Bob, sliding down the staircase, with his newest intern shortly behind him. As if the decibel level wasn’t high enough already, with Bob in chambers there is complete pandemonium. There are now 14 of SHJ’s juniors causing a riot in the basement. The only one missing is Rohan, who I have never had the privilege of meeting, but is by all accounts a true gentleman and astute lawyer. His liking for the finer things in life is oft-discussed. I also associate him with SHJ’s fond retelling of a matter where SHJ succeeded after a strong rejoinder, catalysed by Rohan’s uttering of the words “reverse-consideration”.
The shouting in the basement is cut off by a sudden, shrill sound “Ssssssss. Sir ka conference chalu hai”. It’s Mangesh, the Enforcer-in-Chief. If it were not for Mangesh, things would get out of hand a lot more than they already do. But Mangesh sure enjoys his role. Legend has it that there was a day when SHJ was in Delhi for a matter. When the noise in the basement got too loud, Mangesh interjected with “Ssssssss. Sir ka conference chalu hai”.
I have had enough of a rest. I go upstairs to see if I can join the conference. It seems to have just started. I look through the glass pane on SHJ’s cabin door to check if the couch is occupied. The couch is an interesting thing. In most situations in the field of law, the more senior you are, the more the benefits that accrue to you. But the couch turns that logic on its head. The unspoken rule in chambers is that unless the couch is occupied by a junior who is assisting SHJ in the matter for which the conference is ongoing, the junior-most person in chambers has the right of first refusal to it. If the intern wants the couch, it’s his/her’s. If not, the junior-most junior, and so on. Seeing the couch empty, I enter the cabin and occupy it.
I suppose every counsel has his or her own unique style of conducting a conference. Some don’t reveal very much to the client, about strategy or otherwise. Others are blunt with their views. SHJ too has his own distinct style, and it’s one of the many things I hope to emulate from him. SHJ will, of course, be forthright in his assessment of the strength of the client’s case. But he will then proceed to think aloud about the potential arguments that can be made. It is like he is preparing for court the next day, making semi-arguments to test if they might work. Maybe without even realising it, he is putting on a show. The attorney and the client always come away from the conference feeling reassured. Whatever be the strength of the case, SHJ is certainly going to give it a fight.
Through the glass pane in the door, I can see Shweta miming something to me. It seems like the word she is miming begins with “ha…”? I immediately put two and two together. Someone seems to have told Shweta that I have handvo for my evening snack, and she has come to get it. You see, Shweta is my fellow scavenger. Looks can be deceptive. In addition to scavenging, she is also the type of person who will make sure she gets what she wants. So without wasting any more time, I step out to hand her the box of handvo, and rejoin the mayhem taking place downstairs.
One of the insights that I now have about chambers is that the benefits of staying late at the office on a Friday evening far outweigh the costs. Why? Because if SHJ does not have a conference scheduled between 6 to 7PM, it is the best time to be in his cabin. After yet another gruelling but productive week, SHJ finally has the bandwidth to think beyond the matters for the next day. So, if you have been chasing him for a conference all week, now is a good moment to approach him for a time. If you want a draft settled, snag that Saturday afternoon conference time now! If you want advice on a personal issue, ask away, and expect the best, most detailed response. If you’re lucky, you may even be in for a story or two of Supreme Court escapades, Ashok Desai, and more.
You see? Winner.
It’s now 7:15PM and I decide that I can leave for home. I am happy that the weekend is here, but not “relieved” in the way I used to be when I worked at a law firm. I would happily come into chambers on Saturday if I had to. That may be a testament to a certain degree of freedom that counsel practice offers, but it certainly is a testament to the Chambers of SHJ — the work, the environment, and the people.
There you have it. That was it.
In the Chambers of SHJ.