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Fali Nariman (1929-2024): A colossus who stood above all

Updated on: 22 February,2024 06:55 AM IST  |  Mumbai
Hemal Ashar |

Forged in the corridors of the Bombay High Court, legal legend Fali Nariman left an indelible mark on Indian jurisprudence

Fali Nariman (1929-2024): A colossus who stood above all

Fali Nariman

Key Highlights

  1. One can run out of superlatives to describe the legend Fali S Nariman
  2. Eminent jurist of astonishing intellect, he inspired through acumen and example
  3. Nariman’s spirit which will live on in courtrooms across

One can run out of superlatives to describe the legend Fali S Nariman, who passed away on Wednesday at 95. Eminent jurist of astonishing intellect, he inspired through acumen and example. Like Siddharth Chandrashekhar, advocate Bombay High Court, said, “I remember the late Fali Nariman saying in his book Before Memory Fades: An Autobiography—“The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”

For Amitabh Verma, an advocate from New Delhi, “It is a time for heartfelt condolences and warm regards to an iconic figure amongst us.” Verma recalled briefing Nariman, “Only on a few occasions starting in 1984 (for a Jabalpur client) but realised that his impatience at times was because of his brilliance. This complemented by a booming voice, made a great professional in court.”

(From left) Siddharth Chandrashekhar; Chaitanya Prabhu; Anita Shekhar Castellino and Amitabh Verma
(From left) Siddharth Chandrashekhar; Chaitanya Prabhu; Anita Shekhar Castellino and Amitabh Verma

Verma points to Nariman’s mastery of what he calls, “Court craft with wit and wizardry about complex issues, making him someone I silently idolised. He was not concerned about razzmatazz, his attire sometimes included a patched-up pullover, and unlike some seniors was quite Gandhian.” Verma added, “I just wished over the last few years he was more vocal against the present political and judicial dispensation where many democratic norms were totally compromised or demolished.” Having said that Verma signed off, “May his soul be embraced and rest with the Highest Powers.”

Being human

Anita Shekhar Castellino advocate and convenor, Interactive Lawyers Association for Women recalled the human, humane side of Nariman. She said, “We used to have an elderly lady running the canteen for the Bombay Bar Association. We had some younger members who thought that she was very old and we needed a replacement. Nariman stepped in convincing them to let her continue as she was elderly.” Legally Castellino said succinctly, “He had the mind of an eagle. Absolutely brilliant. He knew the Constitution literally by heart and was a real expert. He was absolutely true to the brief.”

Advocate Chaitanya Prabhu said, “As young advocates, we often find inspiration in the wisdom and guidance of our seniors. Among them, one figure stood out and that was Fali sir. Through his books and lecture series, he instilled in us a fundamental understanding of what it means to excel,” recalled Prabhu. “He urged us to be prepared for any eventuality, citing statutes like the Indian Evidence Act and Article 165, which empowers judges to seek proof in any form.”

Prabhu said Nariman’s ethos espoused, “Where there is injustice, one must always interfere because sometimes law takes a backseat” and he championed the role of the Supreme Court as the ultimate protector of rights, particularly through Article 32. He also spoke with experience when he said ‘the man who speaks less generally wins’.”

Sweet memories

Paras Singh, Advocate on Record (AOR) of the Supreme Court asked, “How do you mourn and glorify at the same time? Or is mourning for someone a kind of glorification too? That is the question I am asking myself, such was the persona of Fali Nariman. Now that we have lost him to legal eagles in the sky, I remember my first meeting with him.” Singh met the legend on January 10, 2024, when he turned 95.

Singh said, “At that age, he still followed a set regime with dedication, a 45-minute walk and a precise time for his meals. The meeting was unplanned. I was out with a senior at Khan Market, Delhi. I mentioned that it was Mr Nariman’s birthday. Now, for public figures like Mr Nariman, birthdays are more public affairs than quiet dinners with family. My senior said, ‘we should go and extend our greetings’. 

A meeting was fixed at his residence and we greeted him with flowers. While discussing many things we talked about SC’s judgment on Article 370. He said that it was politically correct but it need not be constitutionally right.” Singh added that Nariman was, “Warm to his guests and offered us sweets kept on the table. He said that they were (original) Parsi sweets from Bombay. It was my first and last meeting with him. Though I can still find that Parsi sweet in Bombay I cannot find Fali Nariman. A loss for the country looking for sane voices in agenda-ridden times.”

Nariman’s spirit which will live on in courtrooms across, through which the lines of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow will ring out: ‘Lives of great men all remind us; We can make our lives sublime, and Departing, leave behind us, footprints on the sands of time.’

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