A good man died last Sunday.
He was a kind man, a gentle man, with a resolve of steel and a commitment to his beliefs that never once wavered. He combined these qualities with an acute mind. He read widely. His interests were many, and varied: from music and theatre to the the law and rock-climbing and mountaineering. Lalit Chari was a man of many parts. Those who knew him in his other avatars should count themselves blessed.
He was born to the law. His father was ASR Chari, one of the finest practitioners of criminal law this country has ever produced. Lalit, too, achieved success with his designation as a senior counsel. But his approach to the law, and his practice, differed from his contemporaries. Fees, earnings, what hotels one stayed in while traveling on work — these things remained unimportant and he made litle effort to hide his disdain for such measures of success. His background was unique, and is shared perhaps by only one other member of our Association, the redoubtable Mr K K Singhvi; and it was this background that informed his work. At the core of his being as a lawyer lay a belief that everyone has a duty to defend the oppressed against the oppressor, to combat inequity whereever it is found, to remain steadfast in the battle for a just social order.
His parents, ASR and Dilshad Chari, were both communists. Not the pretentious kind, but card-carrying members of the Communist Party of India. Lalit was raised in party-run communes. It is fashionable today to belittle and decry communism and Marxism, and even to equate it with anti-nationalism. This is a shame, because this attitude overlooks matters that are, or should be, fundamental and which, at least in the Chari family, were pronounced: intellectual discipline and honesty, and a moral integrity of the highest order.
There were other passions, too, and they ran as deep. In 1969, long before the fashionistas discovered either Khandala or the environment, Lalit and Malvika (herself a child of the law; her father was Mangaldas Mehta, partner of what is now AMSS) built “Le Gite”, a small cottage of of wood and stone off Old Khandala Road. At that time, one could still scramble up Barometer Hill behind the house through bramble and brush and trees at impossible angles. The area was very quiet, with only a few houses. The nightmare trophy homes and the desecration of the hill came much later.
We often visited Lalit and Malvika in Khandala. For a ten-year-old, their house seemed bigger than it probably was, and I remember being awed by the sheer iconoclasm of its design. Pushed back against the hill, the house was simply one large space with a huge steeply pitched roof pulled down tight like a very large hat. That one space was the living room, bedroom and everything else but the bath; and the front of the house completely unfolded into an untamed garden that sloped down to the edge of the property. From wherever you were in that house, you were with nature and nature with you.
And there were papers everywhere. What I would later recognize as briefs, but also lots of newspapers and magazines: the large-format Illustrated Weekly of India, and piles and piles of The Economic and Political Weekly. The elders sat in tough cane chairs on the large verandah with their cups of chai. My sister and I wandered the house and the garden. We could hear only birdsong and the wind in the trees and Malvika’s laughter and Lalit’s gravelly baritone, smell the bitter-sweet aroma of his pipe tobacco. In the monsoon, a thick mist crept up from the bottom of the garden and stole through the house. Now there was an ancient quiet to the place, just the soft dripping of the rain from the leaves and branches allowed to grow free.
My sister, four years younger, said, “Is this like the Garden of Eden?” and Lalit and my father laughed gently and said, “We think so.”
No manicured paradise spoke to him. He rambled the hills around Khandala, alone or with Malvika, perfectly content. He was happiest in a wilderness and none more than the menacing beauty of the high Himalayas. I knew he trekked. In the early 1970’s, he, Malvika, my father, Ashok Desai and others trekked to the base camp of Annapurna. My father recalls a day of brutal ascent and then descent into a forest infested with leeches. They were everywhere, and almost impossible to get rid of. At day’s end, finally at their camp for the night, he remembers the Charis saying, What a wonderful day we’ve had.
There are photographs still from that trip, old 35 mm Kodachrome slides that my father would load into a projector and show us. Some images are indelible. This one is a prize-winner: perched on a huge sloping slab above a churning river, Ashokbhai down to his shorts, twisted like a pretzel in an arduous approximation of yoganidrasana with his heels behind his neck, and, if memory serves, Lalit off to the right, smirking visibly. Shortly after the photograph was taken, gravity triumphed as it inevitably must: to widespread glee, Ashokbhai slid gracefully down the rock into the river.
A little more than a year ago, Lalit called me and asked me to see him in the High Court library. I sat across from him at his table in the eastern corridor. He gave me two files. He had written his memoirs. I flipped through the files quickly. This was a typescript. I asked if he had it on a computer. “Just a photocopy somewhere,” he said a little waspishly. “Can’t be bothered with machines.”
He asked me to read them and tell him what I thought. I read it through most of that night and the next. There are two volumes. The first is about his large and bewildering family, growing up in a city that we couldn’t begin to recognize, and being a communist and what that means. The second is entirely about mountaineering. The writing echoes the man: in the old school, free of any avant-garde flourishes; spare, controlled, yet with an immensity of longing and affection for people, times and places.
The names in the first volume are well known to everyone, for Lalit’s family was immersed in the politics of pre-Independence India. He tells of the time his father spent two years in jail for his political views, between 1940 and 1942; of his mother’s inexplicable shift to a smaller house with a higher rent possibly to avoid surveillance; of growing up in a commune and of meetings of the Communist Party. In those pages, this city that we lose a bit of day after day comes back to life: tramcar rides and ice-cream vendors on tricycles, public meetings at Chowpatty, and the Pathe cinema halls.
“There must have been a lot of political talk at home, but I cannot honestly remember any. But by the time I was five or six I certainly knew about Congress and its leaders, particularly Gandhiji and Nehru. I had been taken to Chowpatty to see Subhash Chandra Bose address a monster meeting and had seen Khan Abdul Gafar Kahn leading a vast procession of his “Redshirts” along Lamington Road. I have also become aware of the Communists and the Soviet Union, of Marx, Lenin and Stalin. I have been taken to several workers’ meetings at Chowpatty … That is the reason I remember the European boy, Alan, from the Modern Preparatory School. There was a large world map hung up on the wall of one of the rooms. One day I found Alan sitting alone and gazing at it thoughtfully. He drew me close and pointed out the outlines of the USSR on it. “Do you know,” he asked me, “that that is a country where there are no masters and servants, no rich men and beggars?”. I stammered rather inarticulately that I did know. He smiled. He left the school a few months later, and I have no idea what became of him.”
The second volume of Lalit’s memoirs is a very different work. Suddenly, all tension and anxiety and concerns are gone, and there is in these pages a tangible brightness, a sense of freedom, a richness of breath and a lightness of being. He talks of the house in Khandala and walks in the woods, of taking up rock-climbing and training as a mountaineer.
Many of the names are now familiar: colleagues and friends from court, and their families. Dilnavaz and Sam Variava, Almitra Patel, Shaukat Chagla, Ashok Desai, Vijay Pradhan and his son Sanjeet; Vijay Tulpule and his daughter Sangeeta, among others. But the main players here are the mountains themselves.
“The next day’s march took us through the Kali Gandaki gorge as it breaks through the main Himalayan chain. It has been described as the deepest in the world, since the river here is at a height of only 7000 feet while the mountains tower up on either side to over 26,000 feet. We came to an astonishing place beyond the gorge, the little village of Lete. This is situated on a flat area. To the west, Dhaulagiri towers to 26,800 feet and, to the east, Annapurna goes up to 26,500. Sunset at Lete was too beautiful for mere words: suddenly, Annapurna blushed a fiercy crimson while, opposite, Dhaulagiri was cold and blue against the western sky.”
This is not the Lalit Chari we saw in court. Here, he seemed stern and forbidding, was known to be acerbic. But you only had to push a little, be careful not to cross the line, and he let you into his world of books and music and mountains and a perfectly wicked sense of humour. He trained two generations of lawyers and for those youngsters who cared to get to know him, he was a revelation and had much to offer. To the end, he appeared free for the causes in which he believed, lending his remarkable legal acumen to matters that others felt were hopelessly doomed.
And there was something iconic about his tall, lean frame and long face with those heavy glasses. Many of us will recall him in the Association, sitting alone or with Soma Singh, huddled over some particularly intractable crossword that he alone seemed able to solve.
I returned the files to him a few days later. I told him I’d made two photocopies, for safety. He asked if I thought they were worth publishing, and did I know anyone who might be interested. I can answer the first question. I never got around to the second.
From “Mountain Memories”, by Lalit Chari:
A good man left us last Sunday, dying as he lived, quietly and with dignity.
Farewell my friend. I am glad I was privileged to have known you. Go softly now to that palace in the mountains that awaits, and know that in your time among us you bettered many lives, but marred none.
And yes, the mountains will remain.