Atul Setalvad and the Subversion of Books

by Gautam Patel, Advocate

Mr Justice Vazifdar, Mr Kapadia, President of the Association, Mr Zaiwalla, Vice-President, Mr Rao, Honorary Secretary, members of Atul Setalvad’s family, his juniors, and friends.

Even after all these years, it still feels odd that, of all the people of his age and standing, even the most raw junior referred to him only by his first name, even when addressing him directly. No disrespect was intended, no offence taken. That is how he wanted it. He was a man who lived and breathed the concepts and ideals of freedom, democracy and equality, and it began with himself. He was not sir, not Mr Setalvad, not even Atulbhai. Just Atul.

Last week, a few days after he died, I wrote a lengthy article about Atul. It’s not so much an obituary, or even an eulogy. It’s an entirely personal piece — some memories, some reflections, some impressions of what I held him to be, and all the many feelings that I’d never expressed while he lived. Later, his family, juniors and many friends all said they were moved by what I wrote, that it echoed their own feelings. I did not write it for that or any other reason, but simply because, at that moment, I had to. That piece has become the invaluable of things, the last of many gifts we received from Atul. This one comes from him from the Great Beyond, a reaffirmation of a bond we will always share.

I have not much left to say after that. There are only two things I do want to touch upon. The first is about his imagination of the law. He was not only lettered in law as few are. He understood, perhaps more than anyone else I know, its contours and profile and, quite literally, what lies beneath. Just one example. Sixteen years before it was even a dream, Atul formulated a proposition on the citizens’ right to information. He asked us to draft a writ claiming this right. It was a dodgy draft, unsure of its footing. Atul settled it, and the final version looked like nothing we’d imagined. He argued it before, I think, a bench headed by Justice Dharmadhikari sitting in Court Room 54. We succeeded. The proposition was upheld. That local residents are entitled to information and inspection of building proposals coming up in their localities, and social action groups to this information throughout the area of their work. Not just entitled. As a matter of constitutional right. Atul envisioned this as integral to our fundamental rights. He saw the constitutional underpinnings of it long before the statute makers.

The Supreme Court upheld the decision. That was, of course, back in the day, when the Supreme Court did that sort of thing, upheld judgements that were right and not just overturn the Bombay High Court simply because it was the Bombay High Court. The decision is still good law. At some point, the Ministry of Environment & Forests published it itself in a nice green booklet. We called it the “Tom, Dick And Harry” judgement because it says something to the effect that “we are not dealing here with any Tom, Dick or Harry. We are dealing with responsible citizens and social action groups.” Those were Atul’s words, in arguments, and in conference.

The second matter is that great love he and I and some others like Navroz and Shyam Divan shared, a sort of pathological obsession with books, the notion that reading is like breathing. We can’t live without it.

Atul had many friends but I believe among his closest and dearest were his books. To read is to be enriched beyond calculation, and to be able to read like he did is a privilege: astute, fast, attentive, with complete absorption. His reading was discerning, too, a perennial quest for knowledge, and he abhorred quietly but intensely any assault on what he considered to be an inviolate, sacred space, the space occupied by learning, most of all self-learning. When the Bhandarkar Oriental Institute in Pune was ransacked by hoodlums over Laine’s book on Shivaji, I sent out an appeal to friends for donations to the Institute, and the first request was to Atul. I sent my peon to him with a note. The peon came back with a very large cheque.

There is a connection, too, between his vision of justice, freedom, democracy and equality and reading, and of no one is this more true than Atul.

A passage in Alberto Manguel’s brilliant “A History of Reading” captures this with uncanncy accuracy. Manguel writes:

“But not only totalitarian governments fear reading. … Almost everywhere, the community of readers has an ambiguious reputation that comes from its acquired authority and perceived power. Something in the relationship between a reader and a book is recognized as wise and fruitful, but it is also seen as disdainfully exclusive and excluding, perhaps because the image of an individual curled up in a corner, seemingly oblivious of the grumblings of the world, suggests impenetrable privacy …

… [W]ith increasing effect, the artificial dichotomy between life and reading is actively encouraged by those in power. Demotic regimes demand that we forget, and therefore they brand books as superfluous luxuries; totalitarian regimes demand that we not think, and therefore they ban and threaten and censor; both, by and large, require that we become stupid and that we accept our degradation meekly, and therefore, they encourage the consumption of pap. In such circumstances, readers cannot but be subversive.”

If I must imagine Atul in another world than ours, I should like to imagine him in a vast and limitless library, surrounded by thousands of books, always reading.