BETWEEN SEA AND SKY: IN MEMORIAM SHEKHAR SHETYE

We knew of each other from Court but became friends through our children: his son and my elder daughter were at the same nursery school. Other intersections followed: Shekhar’s in-laws lived in a flat in the same complex as we then did, and his wife taught both my daughters. In a short while, we formed a group with others, all with children at the same place.

Our group holidayed together with the children. There was one legendary trip to Daman, of all places. Shekhar seemed not to mind the tedious journey, the tawdry rooms, the distressingly black sand. As long as his friends and family were around him and there was food and beer to be had he seemed perfectly content.

A snapshot from many years ago: on a beach in south Goa the ladies chatting to one side, the elder children playing on the sand, we guys arguing about something entirely irrelevant, and, off to one side, my younger daughter in a pram with Shekhar bent in half over it, gurgling happily with her, letting her clench his fingers.

In the January of 1993 as the city haemorrhaged outside the little enclave where we lived, I told Shekhar of the threatening phone calls my wife and I had received. “What are you going to do?” he asked, visibly alarmed and then insisted I send the ladies to my parents’ house. “I’ll wait up with you,” he said.

Nothing happened that night, or the next. Shekhar and I spent hours outdoors feeling more than slightly foolish, not least because we’d decided to arm ourselves with a pair of golf clubs from a set I’d borrowed from Iqbal Chagla. Shekhar laughed and then there was little point in continuing the pretence. We retreated to things more meaningful, a shared beer, smokes, conversation.

In the days before the Debt Recovery Tribunal, Shekhar was the uncrowned prince of drafting bank suits. I went across to Alli Chambers one afternoon with a question on a draft plaint. His desk in Saleh Doctor’s chambers was covered with a small mountain of briefs. He rummaged through the pile and gave me one to use as a precedent. The drafting was meticulous, very precise, very spare, no flourishes. His riders were inscribed in hand, neatly ordered. He used broad-nibbed calligraphic fountain pens and jet black ink. It looked like something from another era. But there was something very solid about his drafting. Every averment was made in exactly such a way; exhibit references were always positioned only at the end of the paragraph, never anywhere else. There wasn’t an unnecessary word.

I returned the precedent to him and casually asked if he wasn’t tempted to copy-and-paste stuff between drafts. I had notions of automating the drafting on a computer. “Never,” he said. “That’s a formula for disaster.” Each draft, no matter how like a previous one, was a completely bespoke work from start to finish. He did this with all his drafting, and he had a huge amount of it. In a time when the emphasis is on rapid turnover, Shekhar’s seemingly anachronistic approach is even today a reminder of what really matters: a fine-grained attention to detail.

Our group drifted apart. Neither of us really understood why. The Shetyes moved to a flat at Churchgate. We moved away too, and the neighbourhood wasn’t the same any longer. We seldom met. When we did, it was only in Court, and even then it was just a nod of acknowledgement. I felt a certain wistfulness, and I’d like to believe he felt it too — I don’t think either of us ever knew why we lost the things we all once had — but it just seemed safer, and kinder, to let matters rest.

Recently, his health failed. I was shocked when I saw him after a gap of several months. He looked gaunt and frail, much older than his years. I learned that he’d been very unwell, in and out of hospital. In April last, just before this summer recess, I heard his attorney seek time in court because Shekhar was unwell again. And then on 23 May we heard the news of his passing.

Every friend’s death is a personal loss, but the death of one who was once a friend is perhaps the saddest of all. I wish I’d known him better. I wish I’d kept in touch, had the courage to mend fences.

But what I do have is a moment suspended in time; an image in memory of an evening caught between sea and sky with Shekhar chuckling at my daughter in her baby carriage. Then the sand was still firm beneath our feet, and we thought our world was beautiful and would last forever.

Gautam Patel

Mumbai, India