Before Memory Fades is the celebrated autobiography of Fali S Nariman, one of the greatest jurists India has ever produced. The book is an international bestseller and highly critically acclaimed. It traces Mr Nariman’s life from his childhood and early career beginnings and the hardships he faced in the course of his career to his glorious years as a constitutional law expert, his stint with being Additional Solicitor General of India, the dark hours of Emergency and some reflections post-emergency.
The autobiography also acquaints readers with some of the most important cases in the history of Indian judiciary.
Fali S Nariman was born on 10th January 1929 in Rangoon, Burma to a Parsi Zoroastrian family of Persian Origin. He describes his early childhood as a single child to his parents, a ‘cloudlessly happy one’. ‘Baba’ to his parents, he along with his family had to leave Burma and take refuge in India when the Japanese bombed Rangoon in 1941. After arriving in India, he did his schooling in Shimla and attended the Government Law College, Bombay for his law degree where he discovered his enduring love for the law.
The book in its early chapters describes his career as a junior lawyer in Bombay Bar. After working as a trainee for a year, he was able to secure an entry into one of the most prestigious chambers in Bombay – the chambers of Jamshedji Kanga, whom he considers as his mentor and father figure. He describes the event as the most important prop to his professional career.
He fondly recalls his time at Kanga’s chamber and greatly admires his humility and is immensely proud of the fact that he belonged to his chamber. It was Kanga who helped him to understand something very important to him:
“The art of advocacy – is to make simple what is complicated and vice versa”.
Nariman reflects on the idea of justice and says it is always a matter of perception on which opinions can genuinely differ. He states that justice is often elusive, sometimes unpredictable and often unsatisfying.
Nariman’s Account of his Early Career
Fali S Nariman recalls his early years wherein he did more watching and listening than pleading. He reminisces about a great deal of knowledge and information he gathered during that time. He also recounts how the judges during his time were kind, considerate and encouraging of young lawyers, especially Chief Justice M.C. Chagla.
He recollects one instance where his senior Mr. Nani Palkhiwala was unable to present a case before the division bench and how Nariman had to present the writ appeal. This provided a golden opportunity for him to prove himself and he read the facts and the legal provisions. While he could see the solicitors and clients who were sitting behind him wringing their hand in despair, Nani arrived before the court just when the judgement had been delivered. Nani interrupted but Chagla who never liked interruptions when he was dictating judgments, said:
“I don’t think, Mr. Palkhiwala, you can add anything more to what Mr. Nariman has so well presented”.
Fali was astounded by his graciousness.
Nariman’s Idea of Professionalism
In Chapter IV of the book titled “Lawyers & Legal Profession”, Nariman reflects on the importance of a lawyer in the society and how they specifically find a place in our Constitution but he is of the opinion that practising lawyers today are found wanting and there exists a deep distrust for the legal profession. He points out that one of the serious aspects facing the legal profession is that the legal education system in India seems to have lost its ethical content.
He quotes the famous American trial lawyer, Clarence Darrow who says that the law provides that every defendant regardless of the charges is entitled to a lawyer to defend him, especially when the entire world is against him and adheres to this principle. This clearly depicts Nariman’s understanding of what it means to be a professional lawyer. He reflects on the crucial role a lawyer plays in grave circumstances- constitutional or national. People look up to lawyers and how they react to these circumstances. They are the first ones to rise up and take action against injustice.
Nariman believes that it is his duty to defend any side, in any case which approaches him, regardless of his own personal beliefs, the seriousness of the charges or the probability of his prospective client of winning or losing the case. This is evident from Chapter XVI of the book titled, “A Case I Won, But Which I Would Prefer to Have Lost”. In this case, irrespective of his personal beliefs on the matter, he fought and won the case for his clients.
He points out that the first five judges of the Supreme Court in terms of seniority are not necessarily the top five in terms of wisdom and knowledge and feels that the appropriate mechanism is to consult all the judges in the highest court when a proposal is made for the appointment of a high court judge (or an eminent advocate) to be a judge of the Supreme Court. He is of the opinion that the closed-circuit network of five judges should be disbanded.
Nariman: The Flawless Storyteller
This book showcases Nariman’s talent as a flawless storyteller with his wit, humour and weaving words to keep the reader interested throughout the book. The book, unlike so many other autobiographies, is not just a chronological depiction of the various stages of his life. He wields the words so beautifully and his way of narration is very easy to understand. The book is an adequate reflection of Nariman’s gentlemanly and decent nature wherein he wholeheartedly praises those whom he admires and has high regards for but refrains from naming those about whom his opinion is less than satisfactory.
Nariman’s unconditional love for his family and friends seeps into many pages of the book. Nariman recalls some of the most touching family sentiments, when he was offered High Court Judgeship at the age of 38 but declined the honour for financial reasons. Thereafter his daughter Anaheeta told Bapsi (Nariman’s wife):
“Mummy, please tell daddy to accept; I promise I will not spend too much money, and will cut down on chocolates and sweets because I would like him to be a judge”.
Years later, Anaheeta presented Fali a cartoon picture which cheekily reminds Nariman of the Judge he might have been.
Before Memory Fades is more than just an autobiography and rather a very insightful look into India’s political and Constitutional history. It recounts some of the most important cases such as like Shankari Prasad (1951), Sajjan Singh (1965), Golaknath (1967), Keshavananda Bharti (1973), and Minerva Mills (1980) which laid the fundamental basis of the Indian Constitution.
Nariman explains how the judiciary dealt with these amendments and held that Fundamental Rights form a part of the ‘basic structure’ of the Constitution which can never be amended. This book is a wonderful piece of art which gives even a layman with no knowledge of law an insight into certain landmark events in India’s constitutional history and the role of judiciary vis-à-vis the executive and legislative functions of the state and the impact of these three arms of democracy in the life of a citizen.
Nariman: A Righteous Man with Strong Beliefs
Nariman strongly believes in protecting the Fundamental Rights of the citizens and takes a very emphatic stand in this regard. He has a firm belief that the freedom of the citizen is not bestowed by the Constitution of India, but guaranteed by it. Freedom is primary and the Constitution is its safeguard; therefore, the fundamental rights of the citizen cannot be compromised on any count. This belief is so strong in him that he resigned from his post as Additional Solicitor General of India when National Emergency was declared in 1975 by Indira Gandhi, being the only public official in the country to have registered his protest against the suppression of civil liberties.
He also recalls how difficult it was for him to find accommodation in Delhi post his resignation as people were reluctant to rent him houses, for fear of going against Indira Gandhi.
Fali S Nariman acknowledges the contribution of a brave Judge, Justice H.R. Khanna, (the then second senior-most Judge) for his dissenting judgement in the case of ADM Jabalpur (1976). He recounts that Justice Khanna’s attempt to hold that Right to Life and Liberty are Natural Rights, not rights bestowed upon men by a Constitution, but inherent to all men by virtue of them being humans, cannot be praised enough.
He praises Justice Khanna for being upright and not bowing down to the tyranny and obvious might of Indira Gandhi. He writes,
“Khanna knew, when he signed the dissenting judgment, that he was signing away his future chief justiceship”.
Justice Khanna resigned “in a blaze of glory” when Justice Beg superseded him. He vehemently condemns Indira Gandhi’s actions of promoting Justice Beg to the post of Chief Justice of India because he was close to him when clearly, Justice Khanna had the best and natural claim to the post.
Moreover, he recalls the case when he was the standing counsel in the Supreme Court for the state of Gujarat in a PIL filed on behalf of the tribal who were displaced by the rising height of the Narmada Dam in Gujarat. But when he found out that the Christians in the area were being attacked and copies of Bible were being burned, he returned the brief and said:
“I would not appear for the state of Gujarat in this or any other matter.”
Thus, it is evident that Nariman is someone with mighty willpower not willing to bow down to anyone who is wrong and is not at all afraid to express his opinion on the same. He is a man who never compromised on his principles. His frank nature shines throughout the book and is not diplomatic like many others.
Conclusive Remarks about the Book
In Before Memory Fades, a career spanning over six decades has been beautifully woven by a master storyteller who attracts the readers by virtue of his simplicity, humility and brilliant candour. The factor which makes the book most attractive to its readers is due to the simple and clear language used throughout the book. For a law student or a person acquainted with the legal profession, this book is a must-read which is a testimony to the intellectual forces that went into the making of today’s nation. He ends his autobiography by raising a flag to the secular idea of India saying,
“I have lived and flourished in a secular India. In the fullness of time if God wills, I would also like to die in a secular India”.