New Delhi, late November 2002. The hotel restaurant isn’t full; only two other tables are occupied. It’s very quiet, and the three of us are happy to have it that way. I’ve just asked him to tell me about his early years. He hesitates, protests that it’s of no interest. I press him again. His wife agrees with me.
It starts in a trickle at first and then is like a river in spate, memory piling on memory, the words building a city and a life lost to time. He tells me of his childhood. He used to play table tennis (he calls it ping-pong), and was very good at it but had a hard time reaching the table top because of he was so short. His father, a giant of a man, he says, who could lift three children on one arm and another three on the other, built him a podium around his end of the table so he could scamper around. He tells me of the struggle of his early years as a lawyer, and his wooing of his wife. He recalls the city of those days, a place of open spaces and many graces and clean air. The narrative is rich and textured. He speaks without interruption for the better part of an hour. When he’s finished, there’s a huge sense of loss. I wish I had a video camera so that I could have filmed this. I tell him so, and ask him to write a memoir. “My family says that, too,” he smiles. “But who would be interested in any of this?”
He was quite wrong, of course, and I told him so then, and again over the next two years. After that it was too late. Khatu died in March 2004 and those memories, retold in that unique voice of unfailing humour and boundless generosity of spirit, were gone forever.
* * *
Those who worked with him will tell of his legendary grasp of the fundamentals of law, almost like a musician with perfect pitch. I remember him arguing against us in a Cipla matter before the Division Bench, and laying out the principles of anticipatory breach of contract. His exposition was not just original; it was completely lucid, with a deceptive simplicity and the kind of assurance, certainty and precision that only comes from someone thoroughly confident of his knowledge. Rohit Kapadia was with us for the underwriters to the share issue, against him. Five minutes into Khatu’s address, he leaned across and said, “Listen closely, boys. You’ll never get such a chance again.” Vivek Divan and I sat there, rapt. When he was done, Vivek said, “If I could only argue like this once, just once, in my life!”
Before Justice Guttal in Court Room 2, he led Navroz Seervai and me in a matter about a contract said to be in restraint of trade. He asked us to research the law, and enunciated a proposition. In the days beore the Internet and databases, we combed through volumes of reports and books. We went back to him, saying we’d drawn a blank. “Look again,” he said. “That is the law.” We went back to it, and, sure enough, found what he wanted. It wasn’t just an approximation of the proposition he’d set out. It was in his very words.
In court, the other side cited Niranjan Golikari. Khatu rejoined. “This judgement is not against me,” he said to the judge. “It’s in my favour. Please, read it with me. Pause when I pause, read when I read. You will see.” When he was done, the senior on the other side turned to him and said, “Cooper, you’re right. That’s the correct position in law.”
We were thrown together in a trial before a sole arbitrator. I was his only junior in the matter and I did a great job hiding my terror. I drew up a long list of questions for cross-examination. He read them carefully and said he’d think over them. He never used one. He didn’t even keep his brief. The solicitors held on to it, and a few days before the matter, he’d call a conference at his house at Hampton Court. When we arrived, he had a long list of questions for us about the matter. How did he even remember without the papers? The trial started. I didn’t know what he was going to ask. I didn’t know what documents he wanted. Our solicitor, the client’s legal manager and I sat together a little behind him, divided the brief between us. Khatu fired off a question and stuck out his hand and we did our best to thrust the most appropriate document into it. His questions were relentless and came at a furious pace. Within twenty minutes, he had what he wanted and then was all over the place. “Why do we need to ask him this?” I whispered. “Dikra, from this point on I couldn’t care less what he says. There’s no answer he can give that doesn’t help me.” We had our decree.
In the days when he was the President of our Association no Bar dinner was complete without some raunchy joke or limerick from his vast repertoire — ranging from the hump of the camel to the licentious old justice of Salem. No judge could possibly take umbrage, and many of us remember Justice Bomi Lentin’s grin of utter delight at that legendary farewell dinner when Khatu spoke.
But for me his finest moment was not in court, or even in a more personal or intimate surrounding. It was in the corridor of the High Court outside Court Room 43. At my request, he agreed to appear pro bono for a group of tribal farmers whose lands had been grabbed by a large developer company. They came to court in their tattered clothes and squatted along the balustrade in the corridor. In their eyes there was nothing but empty despair. They didn’t say a word. I don’t know if they even knew what was going on, but one thing was clear: they knew that their destiny would be decided in this strange and intimidating building. It’s impossible to describe that abject poverty. While we waited for the matter to be called, someone told me that a representative from the developer was going up and down the corridor threatening these poor farmers. I rushed to Khatu in the library. I hadn’t finished a sentence before he sprang from his chair and stormed out to the corridor and accosted the man.
I’d never seen him like this. Here was Khatu, that genial, smiling, kindly soul, now scarlet and quivering with rage. “Get out of my court, right now!” he bellowed, uncaring that the courtroom was only a few feet away. “One word, one more word and I’ll have you arrested!”
The goon was taller than him and significantly heftier. It didn’t matter. Khatu towered over him and everyone else.
Five steps back, I stared. I thought he’d have a heart attack. I tried to calm him down. “Calm down? I won’t calm down! Just look at them, for heaven’s sake! Look at their eyes! Have you ever seen such hopelessness? What kind of justice is this? What have we become?”
He’d have been 85 today and, remembering him, I can’t help but feel that no video or written memoir could ever have captured the essence and soul of Khatu Coooper, that most evolved of men. That wintry evening in Delhi with him and Mani was in every sense a gift. Perhaps some things are best left in memory.