Soli Sorabjee — Life and Times, An Authorized Biography review: The man of law who loved all that jazz

In Abhinav Chandrachud’s retelling, the biography of the former Attorney General of India comes together like a puzzle

By Radha Thomas

The story goes that Soli Sorabjee’s life-long passion for jazz began accidentally, while he was in college. He was at Bombay’s Rhythm House, now shuttered, looking for Brahms’ ‘Hungarian Dance No. 5’ but the salesman inadvertently handed him a single, with jazz clarinet and big band maestro Benny Goodman’s, ‘Tiger Rag.’ Sorabjee became an instant convert, and not long after began playing the clarinet in the college band. The love affair with jazz continued throughout his life.

Abhinav Chandrachud, author of  Soli Sorabjee: Life and Times, An Authorized Biography, and grandson of former Chief Justice of India, Y.V. Chandrachud, confesses that he had only one meaningful conversation with him (recorded on his phone) but was able to construct a biography based on the multiple cases Sorabjee appeared in, many of them landmark judgments, all part of public record.

For justice and fairplay

It’s an interesting idea, to create a biography of a person’s life through the court cases he appeared in. It’s almost like solving a crossword puzzle — and soon a theme is visible. It is clearly one of a man who was apolitical, believed in fairplay and possessed moral integrity. When he was appointed Attorney General of India in 1989, in a statement to the media he said it was his duty to act as a guardian of public interest and not as a “hatchet-man of the government.”

It must have been difficult to stick to one’s position, especially in an era where politics was violent and brutal, such as during the Emergency. In the Kissa Kursi Ka case, he called Sanjay Gandhi the “personification of untruths” to his face in open court.

History jumps out at you through the cases Sorabjee appeared in, as post-colonial India asserted its identity. One case, relevant even today, is his defence of Article 21 of the Constitution. It was in 1966 that Sorabjee argued for Satwant Singh Sawhney, whose passport the government had wanted to revoke. He successfully persuaded the government that the right to go abroad is a fundamental right to a person’s liberty. That if the person has broken no specific law, then the government cannot stop them.

Maybe it was the jazz, but his success as a lawyer did not deprive him of a sense of humour and mischief.

Open to public

During the Emergency for instance, when the press was severely censored and the court’s rulings were often banned from the papers, Sorabjee (who wrote several books), published one called  Law of Press Censorship in India. In it he cleverly buried the court’s rulings in the appendix so that the public could still access them.

It is wonderful to discover that Sorabjee loved words. In a case where he pleaded with the government to raise the salaries of judges who were being severely underpaid, he says, “Rising prices do not freeze in their tracks in the face of the stern majesty of law.”

In the C.B. Muthamma case, Sorabjee, then Solicitor General, persuaded the government to review her seniority, so as to ensure she regained her seniority over her junior officers. One of India’s first women foreign service diplomats, Muthamma had complained that she was denied promotion because she was a woman, and that the government was promoting men far junior to her.

As an aside, one of the fallouts of this landmark case of women’s rights in India was that women in the IFS no longer had to procure permission from the government before getting married. He did not receive any awards for the work he did in promoting jazz in India, but without a doubt Jazz India launched the career of many a musician.

Our lives intersected irrevocably when back in 1975, an organisation called Jazz India, of which Sorabjee was the first president, selected me to represent India at international jazz festivals in Europe. Coincidentally, we lost Soli Sorabjee on International Jazz Day, April 30, 2021.

Soli Sorabjee: Life and Times, An Authorized Biography; Abhinav Chandrachud, Penguin/Viking, ₹799.

The reviewer is a jazz singer, author and podcast host.

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