A master of law and lover of jazz

Sharing a common residence boundary wall for 21 years (except when soli twice occupied official accommodation as AG), I had a standing pact with him & wife Zena that they would not hesitate to call me for anything at any time of day or night. Soli never invoked that right.

When Zena called at 11 pm last week, my heart skipped a beat, but she reassuringly said that both Soli and she had Covid, that Soli was on his way to Max in an ambulance, that he was fine, that she did not need hospitalisation, but that she wanted me to help in fumigation of her house. Despite my insistence, she refused any other assistance. The fumigation was done the next day, she thanked me profusely and said Soli was doing well at hospital but wanted company and was fidgety. Mid week, she again confirmed their joint well being.

Early Friday morning, she told me that Soli had heart trouble the previous night and despite all attempts at revival, passed away. Just a month ago, I sat at a distance in his lawn & discussed law, politics, gossip and departed friends. Despite lack of mobility and physical frailty, Soli retained a sharp and cognisant mind till the end and his memory did not fail him. That was also evident at his 91st birthday a few weeks ago at his beloved India International Centre, where he succeeded, after a gap, my father as President. I reminded him of my decade old reprimand — he should have written his definitive public law book and his memoirs. He smiled wryly when I also reminded him of all the summer holidays he had promised to miss in his beloved London to write these books.

It is in public law that Soli cut his legal teeth and made a mark as a lawyer. Satwant Singh (1967) established the contours of the right to travel. From a junior in Keshavanda (1973) to a law officer in Maneka (1978) to the Auroville case (1983) on religion, Soli helped immeasurably in shaping the law. In Kihoto, Soli expanded the limits of judicial review of 10th Schedule cases but his finest moment was undoubtedly the celebrated Bommai decision (1994). It has forever changed the meaning of Indian federalism. There are many other landmark judgements, including those in Soli’s advancing years viz BP Singhal (2010) on rights of a governor against dismissal and the Shreya Singhal case (2015) circumscribing intrusions on free speech under the IT Act.

When we spoke at conferences — two major ones were at Karachi in 1987 and in Kashmir a few years later — it was mandatory to congregate in Soli’s room for mimicry sessions. At the latter, Soli’s each mimicry item was dramatised by a tall strapping lawyer in shorts, Divyang Chaya, with all of us in uncontrollable splits. Pakistani lawyers and the influential Karachi Parsee community revered him alike and I enjoyed their derivative affection for decades, especially as president of Saarclaw.

Soli as chamber head has spawned a longer list of juniors who became eminent seniors than perhaps anyone else in the history of the Indian Bar. M/s Subramaniam, Salve, Ganesh, Lalit, Lokur, Haksar and many more are in that list. His chamber was my first choice but I found it overcrowded. His children have excelled in their chosen vocations — top doctor, top car analyst and top lawyer — but old fashioned Soli would always lament that daughter Zia (heading India’s largest law firm), should have remained a counsel!

The first room upon entering his house remained his favourite till the end, his “go to” den of music, books & discs/ records, neatly lined. To be allowed into this sanctorum was a privilege and since I knew nothing about jazz except its spelling, he would show me his well-thumbed, read and marked books. Their range was breathtaking. He lamented giving away some which were never returned. Today, Soli would definitely be enjoying paradise with the same music and books.

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