An Insight into the Mind of One of India's Greatest Legal Luminaries
Before Memory Fades, is a beautiful collection of anecdotes, wisdom, and lessons by Fali S. Nariman. Mr. Nariman is regarded as one of the finest legal minds of India. He started his journey at the Bombay High Court and currently, practices as a Senior Advocate at the Supreme Court. In his long and illustrious career, he has been the Additional Solicitor General (“ASG”) of India, a Member of Parliament, Vice-Chairman of the International Court of Arbitration of the International Chamber of Commerce, President of the Bar Association of India and has appeared in some landmark cases like, the Golaknath case[i].
Mr. Nariman in his autobiography records his experiences from a career spanning over 55 years; allowing readers to get a first-hand account of his experiences. The book serves as a sort of guide to not only students but also, the active citizens of this country. Just as a well-reasoned judgment allows one to understand the rationale of a learned judge, a well-written autobiography, like this one, allows the reader to get an insight into the mind of one of the greatest contributors of the legal field.
On reading the book one can get an idea of the manner in which a man of Mr. Nariman’s stature conducts himself, and of the principles and values he considers invaluable. Furthermore, his opinion on several matters in the book seems particularly relevant today, given the political and social context.
The book begins with the narration of his families’ immigration from Myanmar to India in 1929, and ends with him looking back at his life, as a man of more than 80 years. Over the course of this book, we get to witness Mr. Nariman right from his time as a young apprentice in Mr. Kanga’s chambers, all the way to being a Padma Vibhushan awardee. Through his autobiography, he takes the reader on a journey visiting the different stages of his life and at each point, leaves one with a lesson to imbibe.
In his early days, he elucidates upon how he came to learn a great deal by simply listening to and watching some of the “professional giants”, like Jamshedji Kanga and Nani Palkhivala, perform in court. In one of the initial chapters of the book, he goes on to give lessons that he learnt in the Bar which he refers to as the “school of hard knocks”. [ii] He lists down twenty-eight points of advice for law students on how to prepare and argue cases, in this chapter of his book.
Thus, in the span of twenty or so pages, a reader may learn some of the most fundamental principles of advocacy, from one of India’s greatest advocates. These lessons which Mr. Nariman explicates can only be learnt from experience — the experience of more than fifty years in the legal field. Thus, in this chapter, the author presents the reader with certain pearls of wisdom which would otherwise, take a lifetime to acquire.
One of the most notable appointments of Mr. Nariman was when he was appointed as the ASG of India in 1972. The highlight of his tenure as the ASG was the imposition of the General Emergency by the former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, which he vehemently condemned. Mr. Nariman became one of the first public officials who officially registered their protest against the gross violation of civil liberties and human rights during the period of the said Emergency of 1975. He did so by resigning from the post of ASG of India.
While talking about his resignation he highlights the insecurity and trepidation he felt during this time, especially when his security was taken away. He also goes on to give instances of the kind of crackdown that was witnessed against any form of resistance to the Emergency at the time. Dissent against the government even today is dealt with a strict hand. A similar crackdown could be witnessed during the farm law protests[iii], the Anti-CAA protests[iv], and the protests which took place against the abrogation of Article 370[v]. Juxtaposing today’s scenario and that of the Emergency period, the suppression of dissenting voices can be said to be a characteristic feature of the Indian governments, irrespective of the party in power.
What can be learnt from Mr. Nariman in this context, is his ability to rise above political affiliations and stand up for what he believes in. In today’s context, it is very rarely the case that politicians oppose their own party in situations that go against their personal beliefs and morality. Politics and public service, in general today, is too often more about partisan loyalty, rather than righteousness.
He also acknowledges and recognizes people who risked their positions for standing up to what they believe is right and one of them was Justice H.R Khanna, for his recognition of the right to life and liberty as a natural right. Although Justice Khanna was suspended for this approach, he took it gracefully, because of the sheer belief he had, in his principles and his actions. His perspective on the Emergency, gives us an understanding of the importance Mr. Nariman placed, not only on civil rights and personal liberty but also on standing up for what one believes in.
A particularly relevant part of the book, in today’s context, is Mr. Nariman’s views on press responsibility. He recounts an incident that took place in 1998 where he refused to continue to represent the State of Gujarat in the Supreme Court despite being the standing counsel for the State, when incidents of atrocities against minorities came to light in the media. He stated that had it not been for the press coverage of the issue of attacks on Christians in Gujarat and the Government’s inaction against the same, he would have been ignorant of the problem. In this context, he says that one of the most important parts of press responsibility is to effectively perform the role of an opposition to the government, and that this is one of the most essential roles of the free press.
He says, “And this is why when dictatorial governments take over and parliamentary systems of governments are given a go, the press is always the first victim.”[vi] In a book that is full of anecdotes, lessons and principles that seem timelessly relevant, this particular part in the book stands out in light of the current context, with highly partisan media outlets and increasing governmental crackdown on the press in the form of raids and restrictive laws. Mr. Nariman’s statements here serve as a reminder for one of the most fundamental principles of democracy — freedom of press, and also of his strong beliefs in such principles.
While in his autobiography, Mr. Nariman discusses several experiences of his lifetime, one that stands out for the criticism he received for the Bhopal Gas tragedy case[vii] in which he represents Union Carbide Corporation (“UCC”). He was criticized by several NGOs and academicians for taking the role of the lead advocate of UCC, despite being very vocal for the protection of human rights. He defended his actions by saying that everyone has the right to be defended in the court of law, by a lawyer of their choice, and that the act of pre-judging guilt precludes that right of an accused person to be represented in court.
However, Mr. Nariman’s reasoning is questionable here as, he has mentioned an instance in which he declined a brief for the State of Gujarat because he disagreed with the actions of the government. In this stage of the book, we do see a tinge of hypocrisy, with him accepting a case that would seemingly go against his principles, even though he has declined to accept a brief before.
While talking about the criticism he received here, he chooses to reproduce the exact copies of the letters and articles criticizing him, along with his reply to the same. The reason he gives for reproducing not only his reply but also the criticism he received is that he wished to depict an accurate picture of himself. Not one that flatters him, but one that depicts all his flaws as they were. At this point in the book, while his decision to represent UCC might be criticized, the manner in which he deals with the criticism can be appreciated. At a time where high ranking individuals seem to only react aggressively to criticism, his gracious conduct stands out.
Before Memory Fades has rightly been labelled as a “must read” for every law student or lawyer. While there are several instances in the book wherein the reader will gain an insight on several aspects of the law, what makes the book stand out is the insight into the personality and character of Mr. Nariman. The importance Mr. Nariman places on professionalism and righteousness is abundantly evident in the entire book. At a time when most law students are striving to achieve that coveted “perfect CV” the importance of such values is often forgotten. This beautifully written book is a reminder of the same from one of India’s best.
[i] Golaknath v. State Of Punjab, 1967 AIR 1643
[ii] F.S. Nariman, Before Memory Fades, 91, (2017).
[iii] Esha Mitra, India cuts internet around New Delhi as protesting farmers clash with police, CNN, available at https://edition.cnn.com/2021/02/01/asia/india-internet-cut-farmers-intl-hnk/index.html accessed on 14.03.2021
[iv] Prakash Karat, Suppression of anti-CAA protests reminiscent of colonial excesses post Rowlatt Act, National Herald India, available at https://www.nationalheraldindia.com/opinion/suppression-of-anti-caa-protests-reminiscent-of-colonial-excesses-post-rowlatt-act accessed on 14.03.2021
[v] Debayan Roy, Internet restrictions in Jammu & Kashmir challenged in Supreme Court for the third time after abrogation of Article 370, Bar and Bench, available at https://www.barandbench.com/news/litigation/internet-restrictions-jammu-kashmir-challenged-supreme-court-third-time accessed on 14.03.2021
[vi] F.S. Nariman, Before Memory Fades, 268, (2017).
[vii] Union Carbide Corporation v. Union Of India, 1992 AIR 248
* Image taken from
This book review has been authored by Shivali Shah, Associate Editor and Rakshit Sharma, Assistant Editor at RSRR.