Outspoken, committed to doing the right thing - Hindustan Times

Outspoken, committed to doing the right thing

Mar 02, 2024 10:00 PM IST

“Fali Nariman had a way of saying things that could be pertinent and pointed but never offensive or hurtful.”

A picture of Fali Nariman hangs on the wall opposite my desk in the office. It doesn’t capture the gentle smile and twinkling eyes characteristic of him but it, clearly, conveys his resolve and resilience. Looking straight into the camera, his right hand firmly gripping the arm of the chair, you can tell this is a man who knows his mind and unhesitatingly expresses it.

Fali S Nariman has an exemplary career spanning over seven decades. (HT Photo)(HT_PRINT) PREMIUM
Fali S Nariman has an exemplary career spanning over seven decades. (HT Photo)(HT_PRINT)

The picture is from my penultimate interview to mark the launch of his last book, You Must Know Your Constitution. I’d like to believe that a lot of what he said is a message to our country.

Quoting with approval Ivor Jennings, the acclaimed British academic lawyer, Nariman said: “It is not untrue to say that the most important part of Parliament is the Opposition …the Opposition is at once the alternative to the government and a focus for the discontent of the people. Its function is almost as important as that of the government. If there is no Opposition, there is no democracy.”

How do we convince the government, I asked. During the interview, Nariman simply laughed. It’s not for me to do so, he said. Afterwards, however, he added, “I put that in deliberately. I’m so glad you picked it up.”

Nariman had a way of saying things that could be pertinent and pointed but never offensive or hurtful. At times, you wouldn’t even realise he was gently steering you. For instance, at what I imagine was our first meeting at the author Patwant Singh’s home, he put an arm around my shoulder and took me to a corner as the others headed to the drawing room from the dining table. “Remember, Patwant likes the last word. He’ll always be your friend if you let him.”

Clearly, I had asked one question too many and Nariman was gently telling me I might have crossed a sensitive line.

In the interview, he adopted a similar style on many subjects close to the government. “We will never be able to piece together a new Constitution in the present day and age,” he said. Brilliant and innovative ideas can never give us an ideal Constitution in the absence of “the spirit of persuasion, of accommodation, of tolerance”. As things stand, “In India, all three are at a very low ebb today.”

After his death, I heard that interview again and immediately noticed how artfully Nariman had spoken. “The preamble is the most important part of the Constitution”. He called it its “conscience”. Was he drawing attention to the concept of fraternity? It’s only in the preamble that it features.

He, not I, then steered the conversation to talk about tolerance. The problem today is we have “no tolerance”. Once again, he stepped beyond the bounds of his book to make this comment.

At the time it didn’t strike me but now, after he’s gone, I wonder if these were carefully delivered messages! There were others too.

Our judges must be more willing to stand up for the rights conferred on the citizens of India. He was clearly disappointed by their unwillingness to do so. But hesitant to be sharply critical, he chose to compare them to the Curate’s egg.

I did several interviews with Nariman. In earlier ones, he’d be sporting braces, whilst I a bow tie. Ours were animated discussions with frequent friendly interruptions. Excitement or enthusiasm often leads to that and certainly, our exchanges could thus be described.

Bapsi, his wife, would sit in a corner and hear our discussion. Almost unfailingly she’d invite me to dinner and I would readily accept. He would walk me to the car and as I bid goodbye he’d say, “She’s fond of you”.

That’s also the apt adjective for him. I had the greatest respect for him, admired his intelligence, and marvelled at his outspokenness and his unflinching commitment to doing the right thing. But I also grew to be fond of him. A word that suggests affection without familiarity.

Karan Thapar is the author of Devil’s Advocate: The Untold Story. The views expressed are personal

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    Karan Thapar is a super-looking genius who’s young, friendly, chatty and great fun to be with. He’s also very enjoyable to read.

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