A CAPTAIN’S KNOCK OF 82: IN MEMORIAM, MAHENDRA SHAH

On a balmy Friday evening, a High Court judge slid into a plastic chair on the longest boundary of the Police Gymkhana cricket field on Mumbai’s Marine Drive. He was joined a few minutes later by a junior colleague.

“Aren’t you both supposed to be fielding?” asked a lawyer behind them.

“We are,” smiled the senior judge, apparently confident at being positioned far enough away not to risk any needless physical activity.

But the best-laid plans, even of judges, often go awry. A second later there was a sound like the crack of a pistol shot and the ball flew across the outfield towards the seated fielders. Unperturbed by this wholly unexpected development, the senior judge nodded towards the ball and nudged his Learned Brother. The latter obediently darted forward to collect the ball and lobbed it back in the general vicinity of the wicket keeper without visible effort at direction, speed or distance.

“Seniority has its advantages,” smirked the senior judge as the other puffed back to his bucket seat. “Besides,” he said, pointing to the pitch, “this is still the best possible view. Who would want to miss this?”

On that, His Lordship was right. The lawyers-versus-judges fixture, usually a triumph of enthusiasm over ability, had taken on an uncommonly serious note. It was evident that the judges had spent some time at the nets. They were bowling out of their skins, although one was giving the ball not so much air as altitude.

They were bowling to the Bar’s redoubtable openers. At the non-striker’s end stood the irrepresible Avinash Rana. On strike was the supremely elegant and lean figure of Mahendra Shah.

The judicial bowler ambled forward and swung his arm. It was a good delivery. Mahendrabhai’s head was very still. The ball broke to the off. Still the batsman waited. Just when it seemed that the ball had gone completely past him, he moved his feet a precise distance and proceeded to execute what was later described in a gleefully rambunctious post-match analysis as the shot of the match: a perfect, copy-book late cut.

The game exemplified the man. He cherished its stateliness, its inbuilt complexity, its demands of intelligence, skill, prowess and cunning. He revelled in the contest itself but saw it as fine swordplay, not mindless bludgeoning, and so he always exalted the game in its original form. Latter-day dilutions and compressions of its format were travesties best confined to those of limited attention spans.

As in cricket, so in law. Everything he felt about the game applied at least equally to our profession. He was a lawyer in the classical mould: temperate, understated, precise, scrupulously honest and fair, gentle with his colleagues and juniors, unflinching in his defence of his client’s cause. He was a man of few words, but those he used were potent.

Men of true courage are quiet men. Mahendrabhai was a man with a steely determination. Seniors tell us of the early days when he faced persistent hostility from a particular judge in the trial court. Opening a long cause, Mahendrabhai referred to some documents. “If you refer to documents in your opening, I will not permit you to refer to them in your closing,” said the judge. For two days, Mahendrabhai stood his ground. The ensuing outcome was for a long time known as the Rule in Mahendra Shah’s case. In time, he developed an enormous practice in that very court, before that very judge, and there was hardly a matter there in which he did not appear on one side or the other. He was one of the legendary triumvirate that once ruled the commercial courts.

At a social gathering many years later, someone asked that same judge who, in his view, was the best lawyer in his court. Without a moment’s hesitation, the judge said: “Mahendra Shah.” To be able to persuade a judge is one thing. To be able to so persuade him that a personal hostility is replaced with ungrudging respect requires fortitude and courage of a very high order.

Mahendrabhai’s passions ran deep. Cricket was the one that he passed on to his lawyer-son, Salil, himself a bowler in the first-class leagues. Mahendrabhai was also an unusual reader: not indiscriminate, but at once discerning and widely read. He detested gimmickry and pretentiousness in writing, preferred simplicity and clarity, and always sought substance rather than form. He once described a recent read as “both profound and chaste”. His lunch table at the Bar Association was shared by other great readers: the late Dileep Dalal, one of his closest friends, who didn’t so much read as devour books; for many years, Atul Setalvad whose reading is intimidating in its speed, range and level of absorption; and Navroz Seervai. Discussions ranged freely over several matters, and the conversation was always leavened by Mahendrabhai’s puckish sense of humour, freqently resulting in explosive laughter.

He had no airs, but only graces. He wore his success at the Bar lightly, and was always unassuming and accessible. His Chambers, too, were without ostentation. Piles of papers and books covered every available surface. Conferences with Mahendrabhai were unlike most. He sank into his chair, seeming to curl inward into his work. He read silently, spoke little, and listened acutely. He asked very few questions, but these were always pointed and incisive. An unprepared junior who attempted to bluster through an answer received only a gentle shake of the head, followed by a small nod and Mahendrabhai moved on to the next point. It was humbling and educative without ever being humiliating. Only of great lawyers can it be said that one never comes away from a conference with them without learning something new each time. It was always thus with Mahendrabhai.

He carried that same calm, assured air to Court. His conduct and demeanour in court was impeccable, whether he was on his legs or waiting for his matter to be called. The respect for the institution was profound. He abjured flamboyance, never hustled an opponent, and never lost his self-restraint or his immense dignity.

His tribe is diminishing. The qualities he had in such abundance are not easily found today, but are still ones to be valued. In some ways he was increasingly out of his time for, as in cricket, he did not believe that effectiveness came from taking shortcuts or making compromises.

His passing on 7 May 2009 was of a manner that many would devoutly wish for: brief in hand, his gown on back, greeting his son in the High Court library, he went off to court to attend to his matter. His passing was completely in character, quiet and without fuss.

We will miss him at the Association. We will miss his twinkling eyes and wide smile, the honesty and earnestness of his arguments and debates. In a world that daily finds a new way to tear at itself, we will miss his gentle presence and his many kindnesses.

It is with infinite sadness and a sense of immeasurable loss that we bid farewell to one of our best. Mahendra Shah: lawyer, cricketer, gentleman.

- Gautam Patel

Gautam Patel

Mumbai, India