A Personal Tribute to Mr.Atul M. Setalvad

by Mr C.M. Korde, Senior Advocate

One of the most fortunate things in my life was that I got an opportunity to join the chamber of Mr.Atul Setalvad.

I vividly remember my first meeting which took place in his chamber — chamber No.6 in the High Court Annexe.

It was a brief meeting in the year 1972 which lasted for less than 5 minutes. He said “I don’t think I am a good senior for you. I am a non-communicative and reserved person. I don’t go much to the miscellaneous court or the commercial court”. I persisted and said that I was very keen to join his chamber. He said “you can join my chamber but if at any time you feel that you wish to leave, you are most welcome to do so”. The only reason why I was allowed to join his chamber was that I had gone to him with a strong recommendation from a person to whom he could not say no — Mr.S.Y. Rege of Crawford Bayley. My friend Mr.Ravi Kulkarni had also used his good offices in support of my candidature.

He genuinely believed that he would not make a good senior. Hardly did he realise that he was without question one of the best seniors anybody could get. As far as I was concerned, he was the best.

I found him to be the opposite of non-communicative. For the first three years, for all practical purposes, I was the only junior with him — Sudhir Sakhardande was in the process of leaving the chamber and joining his brother Milind, who had a flourishing practice in the City Civil Court.

During our interactions in the chamber, whenever he was a little free, he used to talk a lot on various topics relating to the law, economics, politics and history. These were serious discussions during which he was the one who did most of the talking.

I was struck by his sharp intellect, the wide sweep of his knowledge and the depth of his thinking.

He was fantastically well read not only in the field of law but outside the field of law as well. His reading was mostly serious reading — in diverse fields - history, economics, politics etc.

He was the most widely read person that I have come across in my life — and I cannot imagine that anybody could be better read than he was. I think this was the result of three factors: (1) He had a passion for reading; (2) he had a razor sharp mind, a very fast mind which instantly absorbed whatever he read. The speed at which he could read and absorb what he read was unbelievable; (3) The time which he gave to the activity of reading. He was not interested in distractions like music, films, the T.V. (except the news), not even T.V. coverage of cricket matches or other sports. He was not fond of socialising.

Next to reading, he loved writing. His writing was effortless and fluent — precise, clear and to the point. He could draft pleadings or settle pleadings, or write opinions even when waiting in court for a matter to reach. His concentration was so intense that he hardly had to read it a second time to check whether he had made an error anywhere or missed a point.

Several years ago he wrote several excellent articles in the Times of India at the request of Ms.Dina Vakil, who was then the Executive Editor of the Bombay Edition of the Times. I vividly recollect an incident. We had gone for a matter to Delhi. We were at a restaurant at the Oberoi having dinner. A lawyer from Madras was also there. In the course of our conversation and dinner, he wrote out an entire article in his neat and fluent handwriting and handed it over to us to read. We were stunned. It was perfect and did not require any change — not a word here or there.

His intellectual qualities were formidable but there were others which were far greater. These related to things which are on a higher plane than dazzling intellectual achievements - these fall in the realm of values, principles and character.

His integrity and honesty was total. When he argued in court there was no distortion of facts or the law. There was no attempt to confuse the judge. He fought his cases hard and did full justice to the case. However, the approach was not that you must win at any cost.

He was not money minded or commercial at all. He charged fees which he considered fair and reasonable even though there were many others who were charging much higher fees. His was not a case where he could not have charged higher fees — Solicitors and Clients would have gladly paid had he charged higher. He, however, chose to charge what he considered fair, without any consideration for the prevalent trends in the “market”.

The amount of pro bono work which he did at the cost of paid work was phenomenal. He fought a number of PIL cases on an ongoing basis.

There was a man called Vajubhai, who was a headmaster of a school. Injustice had been done to Vajubhai by a rich and powerful man who controlled the management. Atulbhai took up Vajubhai’s cause and fought an epic litigation for Vajubhai totally free — several rounds before the Charity Commissioner, the City Civil Court and the High Court. Over those few years, every junior in his chamber appeared with him in one or the other rounds in the Vajubhai epic. The amount of time and effort which he gave to Vajubhai was phenomenal — I cannot think of anybody else doing anything like that.

His humility was striking. He never mentioned his name as Dr.Setalvad or Barrister Setalvad. There were occasions when some very big people came to the chamber to compliment him and thank him on his brilliant performance in a matter. He used to be visibly embarrassed on such occasions and did not know what to say. All that he would say was “I just did my job.”

His juniors were extremely fortunate. He was a father figure to us. Whenever we had any difficulty on any point relating to our cases we would habitually go to him for advice and guidance. And he was always available — howsoever busy he was. He took as much interest in our cases as his own.

He was a man who could sometimes be very rough with the high and mighty but who was very soft and gentle while dealing with the so called “small people” — peons, servants, drivers. He never hurt them or shouted at them and always treated them with respect.

Today afternoon, I called Arvind, who is the seniormost peon in the chamber and told him that a Condolence Meeting was going to be held in the evening at which I was going to speak. I told him to talk to the other peons and meet me after half an hour and tell me what where his thoughts about Atul Saheb.

He came back and almost in tears, said only three sentences in Marathi which I took down verbatim. The same are reproduced below. I have also put a free English translation of the same.

“Bolu tevdhe kameech aahe.
Asa manus punha honar nahi
Toh Dharmaraja hota” 

“Mere words are not enough to describe him.
There will never be another man like him. 
He was a ‘DHARMARAJA’”

I have nothing more to add to what Arvind said in just three sentences about Atul Saheb.