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Soli Sorabjee, SJ

Updated on: 15 May,2022 09:16 AM IST  |  Mumbai
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Why the former Attorney General of India for a BJP-led coalition government had a soft corner for Jesuits of St Xavier’s in Dhobi Talao

Soli Sorabjee, SJ

Former Attorney General of India Soli Sorabjee at a book launch event in New Delhi in November 2019. Pic/Getty Images

Sorabjee moved to St Xavier’s High School [from Bharda New High School, at age 12] because it had better prospects. It was a school of older vintage, it enjoyed greater patronage from the government and it had a stronger academic record. Despite having transferred from a Gujarati-medium background, Sorabjee excelled in subjects like English and French. He liked the atmosphere there. Charles Correa, later a famous architect, was one of his classmates.

He revered the Jesuit priests at St Xavier’s and developed a deep sense of fondness for them. Towards the end of his life, when his memory was no longer what it once was, he gleefully remembered the Jesuit priests who taught him at St Xavier’s even though he might not have been able to recall the names of some of the more prominent politicians that he had encountered as the Attorney General of India.

Father Morant was the Principal at St Xavier’s, and Sorabjee’s teachers included Father Solagran, Father Tena (a particularly compassionate figure), Father Esteller and Father Jorda. If the students made too much of a ruckus, Father Jorda would get upset with them and stop teaching. Sorabjee admired his teachers’ lessons in school. 

On 14 April 1944, Sorabjee was in his classroom at St Xavier’s when the students heard loud explosions. Those were the days of World War II.

All the students rushed out of their classrooms in order to figure out what had happened. They later learned that a British freighter called SS Fort Stikine, which had arrived from Karachi and was carrying explosives and ammunition, had exploded, causing serious casualties. Father Bonet, another Jesuit instructor at school, had provided relief to the injured during that tragedy.

Sorabjee had a friend in school by the name of Nani Wadia. Wadia was not a very good student and used to believe that he would be promoted to the next level if he participated in the Boy Scouts programme. Father Bonet would firmly tell Wadia that this was not true. ‘Wadio’, he would say in his characteristic way, ‘if you think you will get a form [to advance into the next standard] merely because you are in the Boy Scouts, you are mistaken. If you work, you will get a form.’ Father Bonet frowned upon pupils who swore, even those who uttered the words ‘Damn it’. In a society fixated by race, caste and complexion, Wadia, a dark-skinned Parsi boy, was teased by his classmates about the colour of his skin. In turn, Wadia never lost his sense of humour. He and his classmates had once played a prank on someone. When the victim of the prank asked Wadia and others to apologise, Wadia asked him: ‘Should we say sorry one by one, or together?’ Wadia, Sorabjee and another classmate, Jimmy Umrigar, were called ‘the gang of three’ by their friends. They were sometimes ordered out of the classroom by the instructor.

The Jesuit teachers at St Xavier’s got Sorabjee interested in the principles of Roman Catholicism and he was deeply influenced by them. His classmates used to often tease him and say that the first two letters of his initials ‘SJ’ stood not for Soli Jehangir but for ‘Society of Jesus’. Priests of the Jesuit order would write the letters ‘SJ’ after their names. The basic principles of Catholicism appealed to Sorabjee. Roman Catholicism struck him as a very gentle religion. He enjoyed reading the Sermon on the Mount in the New Testament, and felt that its lessons had to be practised in order to really bring about a true Catholic spirit in keeping with the requirements of the times.

His parents, on the other hand, were a bit concerned about his interest in Catholicism. They took steps to ensure that he would not convert to it. They tried to persuade him and instil in him the notion that Parsis believe in a particular faith because of the values that it represents. At that time, there was a Parsi woman called Dhalla who had converted to Catholicism and become a nun. The phenomenon of Parsis converting to Christianity and causing an upheaval in the community was not unique to that time. In 1839, for instance, two senior Parsi pupils at Wilson School converted to Christianity, creating an uproar in the community. Predictably, there was quite a commotion in the Parsi community when Dhalla converted in Sorabjee’s time. In fact, Sorabjee’s family knew Dhalla’s father distantly. Interestingly, many years before, as a student at Queen Mary School in Bombay, when Sorabjee’s own mother won a prize in Biblical scripture, her father promptly pulled her out of the school and put an end to her education for fear that she might convert to Christianity.

Despite such fears, however, the Parsi community took to English education in the Jesuit St Xavier’s High School and College in large numbers. In retrospect, Sorabjee believed that he never came close to converting to Catholicism, though he was certainly influenced by it. He did not, for instance, make it a habit of regularly going to church, though on some occasions like Christmas Mass he may have attended church. The Jesuit instructors at St Xavier’s made absolutely no attempt to convert Sorabjee. As he later confessed to an alumni audience, though he was not converted at St Xavier’s, he was transformed by the education he received there. Many years later, as a lawyer in the 1960s, he made sure to visit the Vatican. Sorabjee later enrolled his sons, Jehangir and Hormazd, in a Jesuit educational institution as well. 

He was also quite pleased when he learned that his grandson, Raian, would be enrolled in a Jesuit institution. 

Sorabjee’s interest in Catholicism deepened as a college student [at St Xavier’s]. He continued to be fond of his Jesuit instructors in college. One such teacher was the legendary Father Duhr, who used to heavily criticise the philosophy of the Nazis in his classes on history. Sorabjee enjoyed attending his lectures and listening to him particularly because Father Duhr did not care whether Sorabjee got the right answers in class or not. He had a great personality and Sorabjee later wrote about him in his column in the Indian Express. Another instructor, Father Raphael, used to play the piano in his free time and Sorabjee loved listening to his rendition of Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto. Theophilis Aguiar, his professor of English at St Xavier’s college, was another favourite.

Sorabjee was quite upset with him when he did not visit Sorabjee in the hospital when he broke his leg in a motorcycle accident later on. In his college days, Sorabjee could not write very well because he had writer’s cramp. Even his examination had to be written by somebody else under his dictation.

Of course, not every lecturer at St Xavier’s College was universally admired. There was a professor called Father Fell, the sports director who taught poetry in the first year. In their youthful way, students would say behind his back, ‘Father Fell, Go to Hell’. Sorabjee developed an aversion towards poetry in Father Fell’s classes only to fall in love with poetry all over again in 1961 during a case at the Bombay High Court. 

Father Noguera, a well-built instructor, would point to his large forearm and threaten students by saying, ‘Do you see this?’, when a student got on his wrong side during a lesson.

Excerpted with permission from Soli Sorabjee: Life and Times by Abhinav Chandrachud, Penguin Random House

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