Biographies as literary and sociological performances tend to be demanding. They require the intimacy of a confessional, the nuances of memory to capture the inner life of a man. They have to link epic and everyday to capture the performative nature of a life. They also have to go beyond linear certainties to capture the shadows, the grey zones. When advocate and author Abhinav Chandrachud attempts a biography of Soli Sorabjee, expectations are unnaturally high.
One expects a classic seeped in the folklore and genealogy of law. One waits for a book which goes beyond competence and due diligence to capture a man and his era, a man who came of age alongside the Constitution, defending freedom of expression and human rights. Sadly, Chandrachud’s work lacks literary power or psychological insight.
Part of the problem is that in capturing detail, the biography becomes a sociological pasteboard of the anglicised Parsi that Sorabjee was—but he was much more. Relying on newspapers for detail destroys the depth of the work. One misses the gossip and the fables, the insights that make for a great biography. Law remains the prime impetus of the narrative. One is tempted to ask how the jazz fanatic and lover of Shakespeare added to the political style of the man. The story, in that sense, is incomplete.
Competence is not enough to confront a Sorabjee. One gets an archival report, a legal file, not the nuances of a fascinating persona. One expects more from the early pages than a sociography of Bombay schools. Perhaps, a dive into the idiosyncrasies of childhood, the eccentricities that add to character. One senses the Soli below the surface from his obsession with horse racing, his memory for devotional rituals, his sense of language and literature. All this is like music to the ear, but the details appear more like a shopping list, a description of a botanical specimen, rather than addressing the personality of the man.
True, the Bombay of the pre-independence years is captured in occasional nuggets. One discovers that many of the great Indian lawyers of that period, including Rohinton Fali Nariman, H.M. Seervai and Nani Palkhivala, were home-grown stalwarts, without that almost statutory stint in England. Chandrachud’s chapter on Sorabjee as a potential Jesuit is intriguing. The impact of Jesuits adds to the scholarly ambience of the man.
The details about the state of law colleges in Bombay set the stage for Sorabjee’s early career, peppered with an array of characters, from Kharshedji Bhabha to Nariman. One wishes Chandrachud had explored them with greater curiosity. The book is full of sociological fragments which constitute essays of their own, from insights into the Jesuit system to the poor salaries of judges. Yet Chandrachud does not explore them sufficiently.
At every stage, his evaluation is of Sorabjee’s record as a lawyer, making him sound like a vicarious cricket fan. One gets a sense of the public face, but little of the eccentricities. Fortunately, a few anecdotes garnish the flatness of style.
Sorabjee’s specialisation was customs and excise, with the rights lawyer appearing after the Emergency phase of the mid-1970s. The political impetus of the Emergency catalysed his career as he became opponent and chronicler of authoritarianism. The three chapters on the Emergency, the Bhopal gas tragedy and the travails of the Janata Dal period constitute the spine of the book. Chandrachud shows that these decades brought together the political and the personal to create the Sorabjee we all remember. But Chandrachud misses the ethical feature of his decision-making; the book becomes a portrait without shadows. Sorabjee exists in the narratives as a public functionary. The personal is passed over in silence.
These years of struggle for a freer India could have been an epic narrative. What we get is a stenotypist’s record or a revised newspaper supplement. What a life like Sorabjee’s demands is a vision of freedom rather than a storehouse of legal detail. In the later pages, Chandrachud captures the difficulties Sorabjee faced, both as an attorney general and a solicitor general. A few quick paragraphs portray the sadness of the relationship between Sorabjee and Harish Salve. His most promising junior, the ever-ambitious Salve wants Sorabjee to retire, “move to a hill station and read to his seven grandchildren”, but that never happens. The distancing is poignant. Years later, Salve made up by offering a tribute after Sorabjee succumbed to covid-19 in 2021.
The final years were difficult ones, with Sorabjee struggling to sustain the India of his dreams, but the book ends abruptly with a set of disconnected incidents. One senses the tiredness of both the subject and the writer.
One wishes there had been a chapter on Sorabjee’s love for poetry and jazz. Law, literature and music gave him three ways of seeing the world and relishing the human narrative. Instead, we get a set of his favourite quotes; for instance, Max Ehrmann’s invitation to Love some one—in God’s name/ love some one—for this is/ the bread of inner life, without/ which part of you will starve and die. Between poetry, music and law unfolded a life that was poignant in its evocations. Sorabjee understood that poetry and music existed as the equivalent of spiritual laws but we see little of that inner Soli.
Chandrachud’s is a diligent but incomplete biography of a many-sided man. It focuses on the professional role when it could have teased out the intellectual.
Shiv Visvanathan is a social anthropologist and a professor and executive director of Centre for the Study of Knowledge Systems at O P Jindal Global University.