MR M.S. SANGHAVI
President, Bombay Bar Association
Addressing the House of 106 members who attended the meeting, Mr Sanghavi said that Mrs Sohini Nanavati came from an illustrious family, many of whom practiced as solicitors. He mentioned he association with Mr Gordhanbhai Thakkar and the manner in which she withstood the pressures of a male-dominated profession. In the face of such odds she built up a large practice with her forceful personality, sound knowledge and incisive approach. She made her mark on the profession and touched one and all.
MS. FRENY PONDA
Mrs Freny Ponda rose to address the House. Speaking without notes, she recalled the early days when she first met Mrs Nanavati in law college. Even then she was always a force to be reckoned with. She stood out from the crowd and was always dressed in crisply starched saris. Later, in Court, she made many friends with her remarkable generosity and largeness of heart. Her devotion to her clients was absolute and unquestioning, even at the cost of her own health and well-being. She never charged high fees and frequently was out of pocket herself because she believed that her client, who could not afford fees, had a cause that was just.
[Regrettably, we do not have a transcript of Mrs Ponda’s very fine address on the occasion. This is, therefore, a very brief and rough record of what Mrs Ponda said. We apologise for this lapse. It would not, however, be out of place to mention that Mrs Ponda’s heartfelt speech moved every person present.]
MR. SURESH PAREKH
For more than fifty years, I have known Sohini as a close and true friend. She reminds me of Narsi Mehta’s famous poem describing the virtues of an ideal human being. The first verse is "Vaishnav jan to tene kahiye, je peed parai jane re, Pardukh upkar kare toh ye, Maan abhimaan ne ane re": an ideal person does charity, resolves unhappiness and problems of others, without any false pride. These poetic lines truly describe Sohini.
I recall an incident in her legal career showing her many virtues. After many years of a monogamous love marriage, a civil marriage and four children, a husband, a famous and prosperous surgeon, preferred a younger woman and wrongly claiming talaq threw his wife to the street. Sohini helped this forsaken wife, who had no relatives, no friends, no shelter and no money. She helped her free of charge, valiantly fought her case with great competence in the High Court and in the Supreme Court. Sohini helped the wife to fight a gross injustice. The wife won and got a good settlement. Sohini followed the rule: no charge to the client whose brief was accepted free of charge.
In the middle of this case, she had to meet family demands. She was a modern woman, combining her career with devotion to her young daughter. In the middle of this case, she took her daughter to a swimming competition outside Bombay. A devoted mother who balanced her career with family duty. She entrusted the case to another lawyer on the same free basis. On her return, she rejoined the case. Career, charity and devotion to her family are all reflected in this one incident that was one of so many in her life.
I recall another virtue of hers, a generous heart. Generosity, your other name is Sohini. Who present here does not know of her generosity? When people are afraid to give their vacant flats in this city, she gave her flat more than once on a friendship basis. She had a most generous heart.
I recall yet another facet of her life. In the dark days of the 1975 Emergency, her voice of protest was loud and clear. She was a staunch supporter of freedom. She was fearless and outspoken. She was a true diamond and not a useless hope of a diamond referred to in a pathetic judgment of the Supreme Court. Sohini’s performance in the 1975 Emergency and the performance of the Supreme Court of that period are a sharp contrast. She belonged to a minority of our Indian society, a person of undisputable integrity, now a rare virtue.
My memory goes back 50 years to the Elphinstone College, where I first met her. Sohini was 17, vivicacious and smart. Many in college admired her. My eyes will always recall the vivacious college girl Sohini.
I remember that even then she was an enthusiastic adviser to her friends. I recall how sweetly she told me to go directly to the law college and not spend two years doing a BA graduation, the option she took. She was a woman in a hurry to start her career as a solicitor.
She achieved her ambition of a bright career, first as a solicitor and then as a counsel. She enjoyed the love and respect of almost the entire Bar. As a lawyer she was trustworthy, competent and hard working. She charged very reasonable and modest fees, much less than what her merits warranted. She was the first or one of the first women lawyers to be designated as a Senior Advocate. She had the audacity and nerve to advise a distinguished Judge in open Court how he should arrange his Friday Chamber board and how his error caused inconvenience to many. The Judge heeded Sohini and changed his board arrangement. She was brave to fight a rude and opinionated Judge who crossed swords with her and considered himself special, in the 1975 Emergency. She was a staunchly independent counsel.
For more than fifty years she was my dear and close friend. I know that she never harmed anyone. She never failed in her duty to her charming daughter. She transformed the life of her husband, Dharmasukh. As a friend, no one can desire a better friend than Sohini. Once a friend, she was a true and reliable friend. To her friends, she was loyal to a fault. She sincerely and honestly would not notice a fault in her friend though the fault may be visible to the rest of the world.
To me, Sohini’s death is an irreparable personal loss of a very dear and noble friend. For my remaining life, I will miss her daily. With her death, society has lost a wonderful human being.
I again extend my heartfelt sympathy to Dharmasukh, Sonal and their family. May her soul rest in peace.
MR NAVROZ SEERVAI
We are here not only to mourn the sad passing away of Sohini Nanavati. I believe we are also here to celebrate her life.
Sohini Nanavati was by any standard a truly remarkable lady, for she had innumerable qualities of both heart and mind. In fact, it is difficult when speaking of Sohini to know where to begin and where to end.
Sohini was a supremely good lawyer and advocate, who maintained the highest standards, both of professional ethics and, far more importantly, a morality which transcended mere professional ethics. She was dedicated to her case and her client: she argued with conviction and passion; not for her the facile and, if I may say so, false doctrine of equating our profession with the cab-stand. But I am not here to speak on Sohini the lawyer. For Sohini far transceded the narrow confines of the legal profession.
So let me speak, briefly, of Sohini the human being. First, her loyalty to her friends. It was the most genuine of friendships. It was deep, and it was fierce. Not for Sohini the fine balancing of issues, where friends were concerned. Friends were meant to be supported through thick and through thin. Those of us who were fortunate to be within her close circle of friends were truly privileged.
As I look back over the past 22 years, for that is how long I have know Sohini, I am struck by another remarkable trait of hers -- she was singularly lacking in ego. One never heard Sohini speaking about herself or tom-toming her achievements, of which there were many. She was unassuming and down to earth. She abhorred ostentation or pomposity.
But it is impossible to speak about Sohini without mentioning her generosity. It was legendary; and I believe I speak for many when I say that her generosity was boundless and unalloyed. I have never met more generous people than Sohini and Dharmasukh. They are the exception to that Americanism, “there is no free lunch”. For in their generosity and in their giving there was never any expectation of any return. In fact, any attempt to do so was met with a polite but ever so firm response — in the negative.
Well, Sohini has gone; and yet, in a sense she has not gone. She will linger in our memory; we will remember her; we will cherish her; we will mourn her passing and we will celebrate her life.
I do not know Sohini’s preferences in poetry, but as I mused over some of my favourite lines, I felt these beautiful lines of Christina Rosetti best sum up her life and the manner of her going; and so I will end with them:
MR GAUTAM PATEL
Ashok Desai once remarked that one could not hope to find a stauncher ally than Sohini and, over the years, we all witnessed this quality in her. She was always fiercely loyal, unquestioning and unbounded in her generosity.
That generosity knew no limits: when H M Seervai retired and was looking for chambers, she marched up to him though she did not know him well at the time and offered him her own chambers. “It’s ridiculous that Seervai should not readily have space for himself,” she announced and that was that. Luckily, Mr Seervai found his own Chambers at Marine Lines. But she never did use her own chambers after that. Justice Kantawalla was the recipient of the same offer, and he accepted, using it till his death. Now Justice S K Desai uses it. Sohini moved to a desk space and used it to the last. Her own flat at Marine Lines was readily given, gratis, to Soli and Rashna, Navroz and Mona, Dhananjay and Rashmi till they found their own flats. No compensation, not a bill to be paid. In this day and age how many would even dare such trust? But it never occurred to her to think twice: these were friends. Therefore, they were entitled to it. Therefore, it had to be done.
Her clients remained dedicated to her: I, personally, know of many who have been with her for over 20 years. She stood by them all. Her dedication to her work was amazing. Only last year, when she was again in the ICU at Cumballa Hill hospital, I received an urgent phone call. She wanted to see me. I went, expecting we would chat, or some such. I ought to have known better. For 45 minutes from her bed in the ICU she gave me instructions on a draft affidavit in reply in a new matter. And no amount of telling her to relax, that it would be taken care of, would set her mind at ease.
When we were children left her in her care, she brooked no parental interference. Anything and everything was permitted. With our own children, too, it was just the same. An attempt to discipline them in her house drew a scathing “not under my roof!” — much to the glee of the children.
There is nothing quite like such a friendship. It is a wondrous thing: rare, bold, limitless, unconditional, uncaring of the station of the recipient - lawyers, friends, clients, servants, family - everyone received, without count. It is also a terrible thing: because of its sheer magnitude and depth, it creates, willy-nilly, a debt one can never repay. Not that Sohini ever expected repayment — the mere suggestion was enough to trigger her legendary temper and elicit a suitably withering remark. And such a friendship is terrible also because when it passes it leaves an enormous, unfillable void. When Sohini died she took a part of each friend with her — and there were so many.
She died, I think, as she lived: in her uniquely no-nonsense, matter-of-fact way. And in losing her, we mourn, we grieve. But she could not know, as we do now, that this grief is a selfish thing. We grieve for what we have lost. But, we owe it to her, I think, to grieve differently: to rejoice in having been touched by such a friendship, and to mourn only what she missed: for myself, that she did not see my daughters grow to womanhood; that she did not see Ishan, her adored grandson, become the fine man he undoubtedly will.
In this profession we measure success in different ways: the number of cases won, the size of a practice, wealth amassed, positions attained. None of these was ever Sohini’s measure. When, as juniors, we protested at her low fees she treated us to a look of disdain and said “that may be your yardstick. It’s not mine.” And indeed, it never was. We watched first in amazement and then in wry despair as client after client was treated with utmost concern. None were charged high fees. Many were not charged at all. Her measures were her own.
So, standing here today, amidst so many friends who have come together to pay their respects to her memory, I cannot help thinking that perhaps her measure was, indeed, the only true gauge. For what higher success, what greater wealth, what richer legacy could be hoped for than the everlasting friendship of so many?
Mr Sanghavi then proposed the following resolution, which was seconded by Mr NG Thakkar, Senior Advocate and passed unanimously.
"This House mourns the sad demise of Smt Sohini Nanavati and expresses its heartfelt condolences to the members of the bereaved family. May her soul rest in eternal peace.”
The House observed a two-minute silence as a mark of respect to the deceased.