A Personal Tribute to Atul M Setalvad

by N H Seervai, Senior Advocate

When England’s finest cricketers met to dedicate the Grace Gates at Lords to that all — encompassing phenomenon, W.G.Grace, they first attempted to find one word that would best describe him. It was Tom Emmett who, to universal approbation, coined that word. He said that W.G. was a “non-such.” Those who knew Atul intimately, would, I believe, agree that that word could equally apply to him. Atul was indeed a “non-such.”

But I think one could equally call Atul the “impossible” man. He was at times impossible to deal with. But it was also impossible to read as swiftly as he could; it was impossible to digest and then dissect a complex legal problem (invariably buried in a voluminous brief) not only as quickly, but as clearly and surely as he did; it was impossible to draft as brilliantly yet as sparsely and tersely as he drafted; and alas it was impossible for a junior to be of any real assistance to him. For, long before you had read the brief, digested it, and made your ever-so-tentative notes and chronology, he had done it all himself; and mastered the case law to boot. Yet, he never made you feel inadequate, or that, as his junior in the matter, you had not done your work. Even as a senior, as far as he was concerned, it was his job, and he did it without fuss or bother, day in and day out.

As we returned to the annexe after the admission of a relatively trifling matter, I was mortified that Atul had hand-written his own notes and chronology. “Do you do this in every matter?” I sheepishly asked. A flicker of a smile and he shot back: “Of course. We learnt this from your father; and it is no more and no less than what he did in all his matters.”

It is not for me to extol his manifold virtues and talents as an advocate and a lawyer par excellence. But 3 things I must say. Atul was an intellectual giant, with a mind that was swift, razor-sharp, deep and crystal clear. But Atul, though he could have, did not rest on his intellect alone. To it he added the most astounding capacity for hard and meticulous work. But above all, he held himself to impossibly high standards — not only of excellence, but of integrity, rectitude and professional ethics. You may have loved or hated Atul, but no one would dare to even remotely suggest that a statement made by him, be it of fact or law, was misleading or mischievous, let alone false. And so for 30 years and more, he was the reference point on all matters of professional conduct and propriety; and one and all turned to him for advise and guidance.

Realistically speaking, I first met Atul when I was 3. I last saw him 7 weeks before he mercifully passed away. In those 50 years, he became as much a part of my life as my father.

And so you can well understand why I should be overwhelmed by the myriad memories that come to mind. Memories of the young Atul in Chamber No.24, at Nirant, at the PVM Gymkhana, at our home, and at all our functions. And from the early days, a particularly vivid memory of our holiday in Coonoor, when we met up several times with Atul and his family, holidaying in Ooty with his parents.

And ever so many more during the 10 years that I chambered with Raman Joshi and him. During those years we lunched together almost daily; worked on matters; talked incessantly on subjects of common interest; and often began the day at Coffee Centre.

To converse with Atul was both an intellectual treat and a learning experience. To laugh and joke with him, was to see a side of his that few were privileged to glimpse. He had a dry, wry sense of humour. And if he made you the butt of his jokes, he took as good as he gave. Atul could be rude; he could be brusque, curt, aloof, distant. Many saw this side of him, and typed him accordingly. But those for whom he made space and allowed entry into his “enchanted forest”, knew Atul in a different light. For behind the mask was a man with a degree of warmth, kindliness, concern and generosity, which it is impossible to describe. It could only be experienced.

You would be showered with gifts for no apparent reason and without an occasion for the same. I would come home and find a book on the dining table. No fancy wrapping, no effusive inscription, just, “For Navroz, from Atul”. And a scribbled note: “Thought you’d like it. Atul”. Or you’d receive a parcel with a shawl or material or sweetmeats. You’d phone to thank him and enquire as to why another gift. “Sita got it. She thought you’d like it”. And before you could thank him and Sita, you heard the familiar click as the phone was cut.

On an early morning trip to Delhi on a Sunday, I spent the previous night at Nirant. “How are you going to the airport?” he asked. “By cab” “Certainly not, I’ll drop you”. All protest was in vain. And so at 5.30 Atul got into his car and drove me to the airport. Dilip Phataphekar just could not believe it. “Was that really Atul?” he kept asking.

Atul loved reading; loved his work; loved his close friends. But above all, he loved his family with an all consuming passion. It would be hard, if not impossible, to find a more devoted and loving husband and father. And yet, no father gave greater space to his children. If the test of a true liberal is how you bring up your children, then Atul was the ultimate liberal.

Atul had no interest in, and no time for music. He made no bones about it. Not for him the hypocracy of pretence to love or understand music — and to dilate upon it, howsoever superficially.

And so I ruefully smiled to myself as I wondered if I should sum up Atul and his life in those memorable words written for Frank Sinatra: “I did it my way”. For if there was a man who lived his life as he believed, he should — and damn the consequences — it was Atul. Yes, Atul, you did it your way, however hard it was, and regardless of the consequences. And consequences there were, believe you me.

But I could not end with Frank Sinatra. My background forbids it. So I moved on to more familiar territory. So many words and lines could fittingly sum up this most remarkable of men. The famous words in which Plato described Socrates — that of all the men of his time, he was the wisest, the justest, the best. Churchill’s tribute to his close friend F.E. also came to mind. Or Wordsworth’s haunting lines on Venice:

“And what if she had seen those glories fade,
Those titles vanish, and that strength decay;
Yet shall some tribute of regret be paid,
When her long life hath reached its final day:
Men are we, and must grieve when even the shade
Of that which once was great, is passed away.”

But I think Atul deserves nothing less than Milton — lines which in times past have been uttered in this High Court, on the passing of truly great lawyers:

” … … … … … unmoved, 
Unshaken, unseduced, unterrified, 
His loyalty he kept, his verve, his zeal,
Nor member, nor example with him wrought,
To swerve from truth, or change his constant mind.”