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Nani Ardeshir Palkhivala (1920-2002)
(This was a man!)[1]


Prominent Zarathushtis



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Palkhivala as India's Ambassador to the USA, presenting his credentials to President Carter.

"Son, remember the poor orphan next door?", the father reminded the two-year-old who was about to help himself to a bowl of almonds.  That day, a man of charity took birth in the babe.  He immediately handed over the entire bowl to the orphan.

The babe turned boy.  "Become a lawyer, my son, you are cut out for law", his father told him repeatedly, noticing his amazingly clear thinking and his incredible debating power.  But after his B.A., the lover of literature desired to be a college lecturer.  He lost the post to a lady because he did not have her teaching experience.

"Become a lawyer, my son."  But after his M.A., led by the woman he loved, he aspired for the I.C.S., then the highest and toughest examination.  The final was to be held in Delhi.  An epidemic broke out there.  His dear ones dissuaded him from filing the application form for which a time had been set.  After the period expired, the government announced the shifting of the venue, because of the epidemic, from Delhi to Bombay (his home town).

Palkhivala, the young lawyer

"Become a lawyer, my son."  He had always remembered the advice.  Now he respected it.  And stood First Class First in both First LL.B. and Second LL.B. (bagging almost all possible prizes and medals), and first in every individual paper in the Advocate (O.S.) examination.  On one of his answer papers in LL.B. the examiner wrote, "Frankly, this candidate knows much more than I do."  He was a meteor at the Bar and soon left his seniors way behind.

He was offered a seat on the Supreme Court Bench, more than once -- probably the youngest to receive the offer, the first to be chosen straight from the Bar (selection is made from High Court Judges), and with the prospect of the longest tenure ever, both as a Judge and as the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.  Obeying his inner voice, he declined.  Later, he became the most outspoken critic, both in his writings and in his public speeches, of the government's unwise fiscal and economic policies -- what he could not have done as a Supreme Court Judge.

He was offered the office of the Attorney General of India, again more than once and probably the youngest to get the offer.  Last time, he was pressed hard by the Law Minister to accept it.  After a great deal of hesitation, he agreed.  At three o'clock in the morning of the day the announcement was to be made in Parliament, the voice within told him that his decision was wrong and he should reverse it.  Early in the morning he apologized to the Law Minister for changing his mind.  In the years immediately following, he, as the citizen's advocate, successfully fought several historical cases against the government's unconstitutional measures which, as the Attorney General, it would have been his duty to defend.

Once he was engaged to argue a Special Leave Petition in the Supreme Court, and his two-way air ticket Bombay-Delhi-Bombay was booked.  Three days before the hearing, he developed a bad cold and fever and returned the brief.  The next day he felt better, and decided to do the case since it meant a lot to a poor and deserving litigant.  The day thereafter his temperature rose higher and he was forced to return the brief again.  The plane by which he was to come back took off from Delhi and crashed.  There were no survivors.

Nani as India's Ambassador to the USA, with Prime Minister Morarji Desai. 

Nani as India's Ambassador to the USA, with the Minister for External Affairs A. B. Vajpayee (India's present Prime Minister).

Nani as India's Ambassador to the USA, with Prime Minister Morarji Desai and the Minister for External Affairs A. B. Vajpayee.

Nani as India's Ambassador to the USA, with the Finance Minister H. M. Patel. 

A man of these experiences could not but believe in the existence of God, at least as much as in his own.  "I have deep faith in the existence of a Force that works in the affairs of men and nations.  You may call it chance or accident, destiny or God, Higher Intelligence or the Immanent Principle.  Each will speak in his own tongue."

January 16, 1920.    Nani Ardeshir Palkhivala was born in a middle class family where love ruled.  Let him speak: "To my parents, to their love and care and guidance, I owe a debt which could never be repaid.  From them I learnt that all the loveliness in the world can be reduced to its first syllable.  My father inculcated in me a passion for literature, which has remained an abiding joy throughout my life....  My mother was a woman of exceptionally strong character who could meet with Triumph and Disaster and treat the two imposters just the same...."  A parental pair, ever so rare.  Two self-effacing souls, in all matters of family life they placed themselves last.  From them Nani and his siblings learnt lessons which no school, no college, no university could impart.  The children studied in school.  They were educated at home.

From his early years Nani was conscious that he was born with a mission.  Before marrying Nargesh he had told her that if they were to have children it would be his duty to give them all his time needed for their upbringing; but that was not feasible since he had a lot to do for his motherland and for mankind, and to that end he would devote all his time and all his breath. Nargesh, who on her own could see that Nani was marked out for much, readily agreed.  A loving and caring wife, she single-mindedly helped him achieve his aim.

Even as a schoolboy Nani never wasted time, the stuff life is made of.  Forgoing food and other necessities of life, he would save every bit of money to buy secondhand books.  Pleasures did not please him.  He found his rest in work.  His "relaxations" were violin, fretwork, palmistry, sketching and painting, and photography.  Of course, he had humor abundant, and enjoyed practical jokes, for which he spared time even in his later days.  But that was the outer self.  Back must the spirit return to the task for which he had come.  His ready wit regaled his hearers -- in private conversations, in courtrooms, in his law college lectures and public speeches.

Nani fought for his countrymen in Indian courts, and for his country in international forums, most often without charging fees.  To recall but a few instances, he successfully challenged the legislative or governmental action in the Bank Nationalization case when fourteen largest banks in India were nationalized without provision for adequate compensation, the Privy Purse case in which the Indian Princes were deprived of their constitutionally guaranteed Privy Purses by an executive fiat, the Times of India case in which the newsprint order placed a ten-page ceiling and other arbitrary restrictions on newspapers, and St. Xavier's College Society case and other cases in which government interfered with the rights of minorities to establish and administer educational and religious institutions of their choice and to choose the language in which education should be imparted.

The famous Fundamental Rights case (1972-73) challenged Parliament's power to amend the Constitution so as to take away the citizen's Fundamental Rights.  It went on for five months.  The courtroom and the corridors overflowed with members of the Bar and outsiders who had come from far away places just to hear him argue.  The Court held that Parliament could not, in exercise of its amending power, so amend the Constitution as to destroy or alter its basic structure.  A top-ranking journalist congratulated Nani: "You have salvaged something precious from the wreck of the constitutional structure which politicians have razed to the ground."  How that "something precious" saved India's democracy, time was to show.

In 1975 came the "Emergency", the darkest chapter in the history of India.  The judiciary was terrorized, the press strangled, the voice of the common man muffled, and the dissenters jailed without trial.  In such an atmosphere the then government tried to have the Supreme Court overrule its earlier judgment in the Fundamental Rights case, to pave the way for a totalitarian rule.  But Nani was there.  And not so easily could the nation's onward march be stayed.  Not so readily would the lights of freedom die.  His impassioned appeal so moved all the twelve Judges on the Bench that the Chief Justice, reduced to a minority of one, had to take a step perhaps never done before or since: he unceremoniously dissolved the Bench and the matter ended there.  One of the Judges, referring to Nani's address, observed, "Never before in the history of the Court has there been a performance like that."  Justice H. R. Khanna said, "It was not Nani who spoke.  It was Divinity speaking through him."  The other Judges concurred.  "Such arguments will not be heard in this Court for centuries to come"; "a forensic feat that will perhaps never be equaled"; "advocacy and eloquence of unparalleled merit in the entire history of the world" -- were the views of some senior lawyers present in the Court.

He presented India's case in two disputes with Pakistan -- first before the Special Tribunal in Geneva appointed by the U.N. to adjudicate upon Pakistan's claim to certain territories in Kutch, and next before the International Civil Aviation Organization at Montreal and later in appeal before the World Court at the Hague when Pakistan claimed the facility of overflying India.

Nani had an unconquerable mind.  As a child he suffered from a dreadful stammer.  "It seemed that I had as much chance of becoming an advocate or a public speaker as a victim of multiple sclerosis has of becoming an Olympic athlete."  The little Demosthenes overcame the handicap.  Modestly, also justly, he attributed it to "Providential grace".  As a schoolboy and as a collegian, he took part in elocution competitions at state and interstate levels.  And went on to become one of the world's greatest orators.

His annual Budget speech initially drew an audience of about four hundred which gradually swelled to about one hundred thousand.  Nothing less than Bombay's largest cricket ground, the Brabourne Stadium, could hold the number.  Lord Roll of Ipsden, who presided over one of the meetings, observed in his presidential address that nowhere in the world ("I repeat, nowhere in the world") would a Budget speech attract such an audience.  A Hungarian lady from London, when introduced to Nani after one such speech, said to him, "It was worth coming all the way from England to hear you speak."  Another time, an Australian expressed the same sentiment, and added, "Never before in my life have I heard a lecture like this."  "When Nani spoke, the venue itself became the parliament of the people", states a recent article in a newspaper.  The yearly meeting became a national event, and began to be held in different states in India, and abroad.

His oratorical talents were not confined to legal and fiscal matters only.  He addressed meetings of all sorts, of medical practitioners and journalists, of corporate managers, maritime engineers and trade union functionaries, of planters and farmers, the police and the armed forces.  His subjects ranged sweepingly from the spiritual to the temporal, from yoga, religion and destiny to the stock exchange and road transport.  Prominent among the personalities on whom he spoke were Sri Aurobindo and Adi Sankara whose philosophies greatly inspired him.

During his 21-month tenure as India's Ambassador in the U.S.A. he delivered more than 170 speeches in different states, which included speeches at over fifty universities, sometimes giving three or four speeches a day at different places; and he had about eighty meetings with the media of different states, once giving seven interviews in a day.

Nani was a journalist before he was an author.  His first article appeared in a newspaper when he was thirteen; his first book was published when he was thirty.  It was The Law and Practice of Income Tax, greeted as "a monumental work" and "an incredible performance".  Chief Justice Chagla referred to it in open Court as "THE book".  He co-authored Taxation in India, published by the Harvard University in the World Tax Series.  The Highest Taxed Nation compelled the government to bring down the tax rates from their vertiginous heights.  Our Constitution Defaced and Defiled had the spirit of liberty -- the Eternal Flame -- as its theme.  We, the People and We, the Nation, which are collected extracts from his speeches and writings, bear testimony to his life-work and his passionate commitment to public causes.  "My quest for memorable quotes by an Indian has been fruitful", wrote Kushwant Singh.  India's Priceless Heritage and Essential Unity of All Religions show how deeply he had delved into the spiritual treasure of India.

Nani's interest in the economic growth of his country led him into the corporate field.  He was the Chairman of The Associated Cement Companies Ltd., Voltas Ltd., Tata Exports Ltd.  (now Tata International), Tata Consultancy Services, and Tata Infosys (now Tata Infotech); the Deputy Chairman of Tata Iron and Steel Co. Ltd.; and the Vice Chairman of Tata Engineering and Locomotive Co. Ltd. and SKF Bearings India Ltd.  He was on the Board of Directors of the Reserve Bank of India, the Industrial Credit and Investment Corporation of India Ltd., Tata Sons Ltd., Tata Energy Research Institute, National Organic Chemical Industries Ltd., Indian Hotels Co. Ltd., Press Trust of India Ltd., and several overseas companies.

He had many activities outside the immediate sphere of his work.  When he was India's Ambassador to the United States he concurrently held the post of High Commissioner to the Bahamas.  He was a member of the First and Second Law Commissions; a member of the Senate of the University of Bombay; President of the Bombay Chamber of Commerce and Industry, and the Forum of Free Enterprise; Founder of the Jayaprakash Institute of Human Freedoms; Vice Chairman of Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan worldwide; and Chairman of the Maharashtra Economic Development Council, the Federation of Blood Banks' Association, the Leslie Sawhny Programme of Training for Democracy, the A. D. Shroff Memorial Trust, the Lotus Trust, the Income-tax Appellate Tribunal Bar Association, the Auroville Committee of the Maharashtra State, the Sarva Dharma Maitri Prathistan founded by the Bhavan, and the Veda Rakshana Nidhi Trust founded by Paramacharya Jagadguru Sri Chandrasekharendra Saraswathi of Kanchi -- to cite some of the areas in which he gave his best to the nation.

Encomiums greeted him both in and outside the legal field.  Many ranked him among the greatest lawyers of all time.  Justice Khanna said in a public lecture, "If a count were to be made of the ten topmost lawyers of the world, I have no doubt that Nani's name would find a prominent mention therein."  Earlier, Chief Justice Chagla had stated in his autobiography, "Today, he is undoubtedly the most brilliant advocate we have in India."  The public hailed him as "the Keeper of the Nation's Conscience" and "the Tribune of the People of India".  Prime Minister Morarji Desai described him as "the country's finest intellectual".  C. Rajagopalachari called him "God's gift to India".  One of his clients, who walked with kings, said, "Nani's brilliance is unbelievable.  And I know only one man who surpasses him -Winston Churchill."  That was around 1950.  Nani was four years at the Bar.  Churchill had won the war.

A number of honors came his way.  To mention a handful: Padma Vibhushan; the Honorary Membership of the Academy of Political Science, New York; the First National Amity Award; the Dadabhai Naoroji Memorial Award; the Living Legend of the Law Award by the International Bar Association; a Certificate of Honour and Award by the Bar Association of India; the first Indo-American Society Award; and "Citizen of Bombay", "Person of the Year", "Man of the Year" and "Lifetime Achievement" Awards by various public institutions.  The honorary degree of Doctor of Laws was conferred on him by:

Nani with the family members at his nephew Aadil's marriage.

Nani with the family members at his nephew Jehangir's Navjote. 

Princeton University, New Jersey ("Defender of constitutional liberties, champion of human rights....  Lawyer, teacher, author, and economic developer, he brings to us as Ambassador of India intelligent good humour, experience, and vision for international understanding....");

Lawrence University, Wisconsin ("India's leading author, scholar, teacher and practitioner of constitutional law....  Never more did you live your principles than during the recent nineteen-month ordeal which India went through in what was called 'The Emergency'....  Under the shadow of near tyranny, at great risk and some cost, you raised the torch of freedom.");

Mumbai University, Maharashtra ("You have .... through myriad essays, articles and speeches .... succeeded in educating the people and making them realize and appreciate their unique legacy .... All through your remarkable achievements and works runs the silver thread of patriotic, dedicated service to the people, their betterment, their spiritual and economic growth and advancement.  You have lived and worked by the creed that the highest life is the life of service to one's fellow being...."); and

Annamalai University, Tamil Nadu ("....the rare combination of a legal practitioner, an academic, a critical thinker, an upholder of human rights, a crusader against authoritarianism, and an expounder of India's cultural heritage.")

"His life was gentle, and the elements
So mix'd in him that Nature might stand up
And say to all the world, 'This was a man!' "

The man was greater than any of his achievements.  Uncompromising integrity and strict discipline were the hallmarks of his character, even the most vocal opponents to his ideology had to concede.  He loved his family, his friends, his country, and humanity, as few would do.  His was an influence which you would not avoid if you could and you could not avoid if you would.  From the days he made fifteen rupees a month as a journalist to the days he made charity by millions his hat size remained the same.  His innate humility, unfailing courtesy and disarming simplicity endeared him to all.  The instances are innumerable.

On Nani's first intended visit to the States, an American attorney who had met the young Nani in Bombay, gave him a letter of introduction to a Judge of the U.S. Supreme Court, in which it was stated, "He is a taxation lawyer.  But do not bother.  He can speak on any subject."  The attorney was wrong.  There was one subject on which Nani could not speak - himself.  His admirers entreated him in vain for his autobiography.

Most of those who came in contact with him, even once, have happy tales to tell.  A recent one was in a letter to the press a few weeks ago.  The writer as a young law student "with great trepidation" walked into Nani's office to get his signature on one of his books "expecting to be booted out for such a frivolous request".  Surprisingly for him, the secretary just called on the intercom, and "within a minute I was in front of Mr. Palkhivala!  He asked me a few personal questions as he was signing it.  As I stepped out of Bombay House I could not believe it and neither did my other fellow students of the Government Law College."

Ambassador Palkhivala

"My father taught me compassion and kindness for the less privileged", he had said while recalling the 'almonds' incident sixty years later.  "That incident has made a deep impression on me ever since... I have always treasured that lesson.  It has proved far more important than any legacy of land or wealth he may have left me."  His deep concern for the poor did not permit him to use his wealth and earnings on himself and his family alone.  He felt that out of what he earned he was entitled to keep only what was reasonably needed for his requirements, and the rest he had to hold as a trustee for "the man with too weighty a burden, too weary a load".  So he created various charitable trusts, gave donations to charitable institutions, and financially helped those who approached him directly.  No one who came to him with empty hands went back empty-handed.  The recipients ranged from his poor relatives to the needy in remote places in India and abroad.  Amongst his last donations was one of Rs. 2,50,00,000 to Sankara Nethralaya, a hospital in Chennai.

"I was ever a fighter, so -- one fight more,
The best and the last!"

Nani's last fight, also his best, which began in 1996, was with himself.  His seventy-six-year-old frame, which had already felt the surgeon's knife six times in the past was now battered by paralytic strokes, three major and many minor, year after year.  But he worked on.  In the hospital, at home, in his office, and outside.

For the first four years he fought, in vain, with his gradually weakening body, trying to bring it back to health.  In the latter two, after losing Nargesh in 2000, he fought with his rebellious spirit, forcing it to accept the ordained.  Loss of speech, inability to swallow food, loss of the use of his fingers and legs, a big tumour near the neck which made it difficult for him to look straight, urinary infection, prostate pain, failing heart -- he bore them all, without complaint, without demur, as if he had made friends with his fate.

Palkhivala's memorial stamp

In 1987 he had written, "I believe that the journey will be over at the predestined hour, irrespective of the medical care which money can buy."  The journey was over on 11th December 2002.  The predestined hour was 5.15 p.m.

The last word must lie with Justice Kuldip Singh of the Supreme Court of India who presented Nani a citation on behalf of the various Rotary Clubs of Bombay in 1997: "One feels that he is not a man of this world but someone from outside.  I have many times tried to explain him as a man.  But it is very difficult.  One can only feel his essence and enjoy, as one enjoys the fragrance of a flower or the smile of a child.  He is like cool breeze on a warm sunny day.  That is Nani, the gentleman."

[1] The help of Mr. Aadil Pakhlivala of Washington State, the nephew of the late Mr. Nani Pakhlivala in facilitating  the compilation of this biographical information of his uncle is acknowledged.