Soli Jehangir Sorabjee seems suitably jolly inside his Niti Bagh office in south Delhi. And why shouldn’t he be? At 80 years and two days, he is between two parties: one that was celebrated on the evening of March 9, his birthday, in Delhi, and another that his family and his friends are expecting this weekend in Mumbai. “We Parsis have a wicked sense of humour. A few days ago I was thinking, ‘I’m 80, I’m old, my friends are dying one by one’, when these Parsi friends of mine tell me, ‘Soli, we’re all sitting in the departure lounge waiting for our plane,’” the former Attorney General of India says with an unbridled chuckle.
The room in which he’s sitting is like any other’s lawyer’s chamber: lined with bound volumes of legal books. But there’s one significant difference: there’s a state-of-the-art Sony sound system complete with a steel-coloured turntable resting delicately under a framed Padma Bhushan citation. Jazz is Sorabjee’s ‘first love’. He doesn’t play the clarinet any more because of breathing problems (“I gave the clarinet to my grandson, but he doesn’t practise”) but he’s still a die-hard jazz fiend.
“I was 18, playing the violin and into classical music when I went to Rhythm House, the music shop in Kala Ghoda in Bombay, and picked up a record of Brahms’ Hungarian Dance. I came home and played it. It sounded funny. I played it again. It wasn’t Brahms,” he says. “My mother complained about how incompetent the salesman was. But after a few listens I liked what I heard. It was Benny Goodman’s playing ‘ Tiger Rag’. I was bitten by the bug.”
Sorabji, one of the prime architects of the annual Jazz Yatra, insists that jazz has left a deep influence in the way he practises law. “The essence of jazz is improvisation. In my advocacy, I don’t make ten-page notes. I prepare a case, argue in court according to what the situation demands.” So what made him choose law, not the first profession one thinks of when extolling the virtues of improvisation, in the first place? Government service, he says, “was out of the question”; he wasn’t interested in his mother’s side of the family business; he toyed with the idea of becoming a lecturer, but then figured with his skills in public speaking and debating, law was a good option.
At this point, he asks whether anyone is interested in beer. It’s 1 o’clock in the afternoon and before there’s a response, it turns out that there’s no beer in the house, so gin will have to do. To underline where his priorities really lie Sorabjee talks about a “difficult choice” he once had to make. “I was invited to attend an anniversary of the Magna Carta [the world’s first legal charter] in England. Benny was playing the same day in New York. It was a difficult choice.” So what did he do? “It was pure logic,” he says after a gin-sip. “I figured the Magna Carta would stay. Benny, on the other hand... Benny versus the Magna Carta. The choice was easy in the end.”
As one of the strongest voices against censorship, freedom of expression and human rights, Sorabjee was there during the darkest days of the Emergency. With a priceless (and shabby) first edition copy of his The Law of Press Censorship in India — published in June 1976 in the thick of the Emergency — he speaks about how the closest shave he had with ‘the authorities’ was when he was staying at the Oberoi hotel in Delhi. “A police called at my hotel room where I was with my friends. I met him at the lobby downstairs. ‘What’s this you’ve written?’ he said. I told him that it was nothing but a standard law textbook. And that was that. The only thing I was concerned about was that if I was detained, I get a decent bathroom.” But did his family feel the pressure during the Emergency? After other, many others had decided to leave the country rather than face harrassment or even imprisonment. “Well, my daughter was by then studying in England. My wife, if she had told me to leave everything, I would have left her,” he says with a laugh. “It was my youngest son, Hormuz [now editor of Autocar magazine] who said at the dinner table, “How bad it will look, na, if they put you in jail?”
Over a veritable gin party, Sorabjee speaks about how the media, has since then, been doing its job, bringing cases of injustice to the notice of the judiciary. “If that is ‘activism’, activism’s good,” he says. But what case is he most proud of? “The Bombay High Court judgement of 1965 that led to the Passport Act, dealing with the right to travel abroad. This wasn’t a fundamental right in the Constitution. But it was read in accordance to Article 21 [personal liberty] that led to every Indian having the right to a passport.”
The conversation again shimmies back to jazz. As he’s showing off his favourite record, Benny Goodman in Moscow, Sorabjee walks up to the mantelpiece and picks up a framed photograph of him with Bill Clinton during the latter’s 2000 presidential visit to India. “That’s him looking shocked after I’ve just told him that I wasn’t going to talk about the Constitution but about Lester ‘Prez’ Young [the American jazz saxophonist-clarinetist]. He didn’t know where that came from!”
Sorabjee toys with having another round of gin, but says he better stop as he has to prepare for a lecture he’ll deliver on April 14 at Brandeis University, Massachussetts (‘Rule of Law: An Imperative for South Asia and the World’], as part of the Soli Sorabjee Lecture Series started by the university last year.
“Chief Justice Venkatachaliah once told me, ‘I saw a picture of you in Span magazine with Benny Goodman.’ It was my turn to get shocked. Imagine him following jazz!”
He improvises a chuckle and prepares for his Bombay birthday party. The sacred laws of jazz remain intact.