Guest Post: Justice R.F. Nariman: An Ode to a Teacher that I never had

For all sad words of tongue and pen;

The saddest are these: ‘It might have been’.–John Whittier

Justice R.F. Nariman: An Ode to a Teacher that I never had

Whittier’s words aptly manifest my longing. They manifest my unfulfilled aspiration- “How would it have been if I had worked or interned under Justice Rohinton Fali Nariman.” This wish did not come to fruition as this colossal judge Nariman retired on 12th August. The seed of this dream was sown during my nascent law school years as I came across one of his lectures.

The lecture was in the memory of another giant, i.e., Nani Palkhivala, titled “Guardian Angel of Fundamental Rights.” The vociferous oration replete with case laws and trivia ignited a spark and left an indelible imprint on a first-year rookie- it germinated a deep love for the discipline of law. Since then, it has been a steep learning curve, and in dire times, these lectures have acted as my north star irrespective of the problem. As Shakespeare would say, “There was a method to my madness”, and I did exhaust every means to get an internship but, I failed, therefore this Article. There is a common narrative at both bar and bench w.r.t. the consistent efforts required in the legal profession; the most quoted statement which buttresses the same would be “The law is a jealous mistress and requires long and constant courtship. It is not to be won by trifling favours, but by lavish homage”. The statement made by SCOTUS’s Judge, Justice Joseph Story, is worth its weight in gold, albeit not gospel truth. J. Nariman is a rare breed of lawyer who could dabble into various disciplines and interests without distressing his first love, i.e., law. There exists extensive literature on landmark judgments delivered by J. Nariman, and thereby, I wish to trace his extraordinary life through the lectures that I heard and devoured.

Justice Nariman: The Priest

Justice R.F. Nariman: An Ode to a Teacher that I never had

J. Nariman is in the select company of- Sir Dinshaw Mulla, Sir Jamshedji Kanga, and H.M. Seervai. The commonality amongst these remarkable men, apart from being an institution within themselves, is that they were Parsi Priests turned lawyers with a photographic memory. One could get easily intimidated by his hour-long lectures, delivered without a single piece of paper. He attributed his elephantine memory to his training as a young Parsi priest, where he memorized 50 out of 76 prayers in Avestan. It was at the Cathedral and John Connon School where J. Nariman was ordained as a priest at the tender age of 12.  J. Nariman, in his felicitation ceremony by Bombay Parsi Panchayat, reminisced about his trying yet memorable times at the school. Moreover, his profound knowledge about Zoroastrian faith is reflected in his first book: The Inner Fire, where he analyses 238 verses of Gathas. A primer of that is also provided in the Gathas Master Classes– where he discusses in a great deal about the verses.

J. Nariman is also a comparative religious expert with deep passion and respect for other faiths. His lecture highlights philosopher-kings; he delves deep into inter-faith religious parallels and explains them with utmost lucidity. A brilliant illustration to show his inter-disciplinary understanding of contemporary issues is elucidated in his L.M. Singhvi Memorial Lecture.  He provides a noteworthy juxtaposition of fraternity by linking it with Ashoka’s Inscription on Rock Edict XII “For whosoever honours his own sect and condemns the sects of others wholly from devotion to his own sect… — one acting thus injures more gravely his own sect on the contrary. Hence concord alone is commendable, in this sense that all should listen and be willing to listen to the doctrines professed by others.” These beautiful words perfectly sum up the feeling of fraternity that our forefathers had in mind while drafting the Indian Constitution. One should not miss these lectures- they extrapolate on noble virtues of tolerance, spirituality, and heterogeneity in these current radical times.

The Historian

His history lectures are most patent for J. Nariman’s forensic prowess to consume insurmountable chunks of information and the ability to present them with inadept clarity. Most of his lectures had a pattern- the topic he chose was explored with the help of 3-4 historical figures of the said period.  He delivered a three-part lecture on Persian History and outlined the two great dynasties of the Persian Empire, i.e., The Achaemenian and Sassanian Empire. A seemingly mundane and dry subject was brought to life by astute storytelling, insightful quotes, exact dates, and anecdotes. I learned about Cyrus, the great, one of the first philosopher-king and founder of the Achaemenian dynasty. The lecture had not only historical facts but moral lessons- people who wield power should monitor themselves.

J. Nariman also gave an insightful address on World War II. He started the lecture with a question; Who won World War II? Furthermore, he went ahead to summarise the entire war in about 51 odd minutes. It started from the dreadful date of 30th January, the day when Hitler was made Chancellor to the Nuremberg trials. The entire address was replete with interesting trivia. It involved some gripping stories like the 17 assassination attempts on Hitler and how he waded them all by happenstance, the great war tactics that the countries employed, and the crucial Generals who led the war. I had no idea that Radha Binod, a Calcutta High Court Judge, presided at Tokyo trials. Not only that, he gave a dissenting opinion reflecting the perils of victor’s justice. In a single line, J. Nariman explained a 1200 paged dissent “if the top man is not caught, how could you punish the lackeys. Moreover, if America bombed Hiroshima, why aren’t they being tried for a war crime.” These lectures not only create a foundation but nudges you to delve deeper into Indian and World History.

The Musician

There has always been much chatter about J. Nariman’s deep love for Western Classical Music. A staple line every host uses while introducing him is “If J. Nariman hadn’t pursued law, India would have another Zubin Mehta.” J. Nariman remembers every note written by Beethoven. This was evident in his lecture at India International Centre, where he gave a splendid speech on Beethoven’s Symphony. One would learn about Sebastian Bach, the father of music, and how he brought the music out of the Church. Stories like how the 14-year-old Mozart, on a trip to Sistine Chapel, heard an Italian Composer’s Score (exclusive for the Church) and replicated it only after hearing it once enamoured and inspired me. J. Nariman talks about Ludwig Beethoven’s Heiligenstadt Testament, a letter written for his two brothers in 1802 after it dawned upon him that he will eventually go deaf. A small excerpt from one of the most heart-wrenching letters must be remembered “but what a humiliation when one stood beside me and heard a flute in the distance and I heard nothing, or someone heard the shepherd singing and again I heard nothing, such incidents brought me to the verge of despair, but little more and I would have put an end to my life – only art it was that withheld me, ah it seemed impossible to leave the world until I had produced all that I felt called upon me to produce.” I would have never stumbled upon this literary piece if it hadn’t been for J. Nariman’s lecture.

The Teacher

Perhaps his lectures on legal issues inspired me to scavenge and scrouge YouTube to find other lectures. If one were to keep the topics in watertight compartments, the lectures could be divided into constitutional and commercial themes. Firstly, on Constitutional topics- one should watch his lecture on the origins of the Constitution. Herein he puts on the Comparative Constitutional Law expert’s hat. Forensic analysis on the Government of India Act 1935, Constitutional Assembly Debates, American, Canadian and Australian Constitutions would give you a divergent understanding of the world’s Constitutions. He has also delivered lectures on Basic Structure Doctrine, Centre-State Relations, Dissenting Judgments in the 1950s-60s, and a remarkable lecture on Article 31B. If one just simply writes whatever J. Nariman orates in these lectures, s/he would have college projects for his/her entire law school. Yes, with all the footnotes and citations.

J. Nariman’s contribution to Commercial laws could be compared to one of the greatest judges on the commercial side of the practice, i.e., Justice Mansfield- Chief Justice of the King’s Bench. Justice Mansfield developed the Commercial law (called the Law Merchant), which is followed to this date. The most intrinsic principle adopted by J. Mansfield while adjudicating issues were- the law should follow the merchant and not the other way round. With this principle in mind, J. Nariman single-handedly moulded the Insolvency and Arbitration Law of our country. His desire to make India an Arbitration hub is reflected not only in his judgments but also in his lectures. There is an enlightening lecture on setting aside of Arbitral Award delivered alongside Gary Born. Herein, J. Nariman takes us back to 1680 when British Parliament passed a law stating a private tribunal’s decision could only be set aside on the ground of fraud and bribery. From 1680 he traces the evolution of Arbitration Law right up till 2015, highlighting the loopholes in the Arbitration Act. To the controversial issue of the Court’s intervention in awards, J. Nariman provides a solution yet again by taking help from Buddhist texts. He advises arbitrators to follow Buddha’s middle path while writing awards, i.e., the rougher the justice delivered in the Award, the more likely the Court would interfere.    

It was a herculean task to put in words the impact his lectures had on my infirm mind. My ignorance of law increased with the expanding knowledge. Shakespeare’s words come to my mind “Here was a Ceasar; whence come such another.” Now, I could only plead to my fellow friends studying law to unravel this treasure trove and thank this great personality who disseminated his wisdom. This is a homage- my guru Dakshina, to the teacher that I never had but who taught me the most. To end, I would quote Nani Palkhivala, who wrote a great article on J. Khanna’s supersession: whereby he concluded with these ringing words-

“To the stature of such a man, the Chief Justiceship of India CAN ADD NOTHING.”

This is a guest post by Shikhar Yadav, student of law at Dr. Ram Manohar Lohiya National Law University, Lucknow (RMNLU). He can be contacted at His linkedin profile can be accessed here.  

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