IN A 2011 MOVIE, Mather McConaughey plays the role of a criminal defence lawyer who works out of the back of a Lincoln. The movie struck a chord with audiences and helped resurrect McConaughey’s career as an actor. For me it did more than that. It reminded me of a lawyer that I once knew, who operated out of the back of a Maruti Omni.
I was in my third year of law school. Rebellious, already. Lost, mostly.
The third year winter vacation was the first mandatory internship that we had to do. And as is typical of me, I hadn’t done the groundwork of applying to dozens of law offices or litigators in the hope of scoring a perfect internship. The professor in charge of coordinating internships, a brilliant and inspiring teacher in his own right - Dr NS Gopalakrishnan - clearly had an idea when he took it upon himself to throw me to this lawyer.
Dr NS Gopalakrishnan
Before I left for Delhi, my prof smiled as he looked at me and said, "Vivek, don’t screw this one up”. I had no idea how to do that.
I arrived in Delhi, and per instructions of the lawyer, reported to the Supreme Court of India's parking lot. You read that right - the parking lot. Because seated in his Maruti Omni, with a lone junior lawyer standing outside, was this strangely manic man with thick hair floppily covering his forehead, wading through files.
Over the next 4 weeks, this guy endeavoured in every small way, to make my life miserable. Even as I acquainted myself with the corridors and courts of the Supreme Court. And the High Court. And the Company Law Board. And his house in Mayur Vihar. And the Omni van.
At some point, the junior told me a story. She said that the manic man had once been a normal person. He’d had a flourishing practice, a proper chamber instead of a van and many junior lawyers working with him. Until one day, something snapped.
He shut down his chamber, let go of all the lawyers except one and plunged himself into public interest litigation work. He focussed on cases very few talented lawyers would pick up. Like death penalty appeals. He supported this work by occasionally taking up corporate litigation matters at the CLB.
And he’d figured out a way to support it. No juniors, only van.
The van was also the most efficient way to manage multiple matters in different courts without having to employ junior lawyers to manage them. He could attend a case in the Delhi High court, then rush to the Supreme Court, prep for cases sitting in the van, then move to Patiala House (where the trial courts were located). Efficient.
In an always cynical court, with a bar that was already divided at the time along political lines, he was known, in a not-so-complimentary way, as the PIL lawyer. But he was also grudgingly respected as one of the hardest working lawyers in the Supreme Court. He was an idealist.
As the internship wound down, the lawyer became more mentor, less oppressor. He started talking about the choices I could make in life. About court work. About starting my career in the trial courts, like he had done, and working myself up to more polished appellate court work. I spent more time at his home, in the evenings. His wife Usha and I chatted about my career options.
Then, as I prepared to leave Delhi, news came that my dad, an IPS officer, had been transferred, barely 4 months after serving at the head of Karnataka’s police force. It was a politico-commercial move carried out so that a more pliant, or should I say, co-operative, officer could take charge. Orchestrated by the then Prime Minister.
I rushed to my lawyer’s home. As he opened the door, I explained to him what had happened and asked if there was a way to litigate this. He dropped his head. His shoulders hunched. He explained to me that the chances of litigating this successfully were low. This was a service matter and such matters had a poor track record at the tribunal that handled such matters. I called my dad later that day from a PCO booth (no mobile phones). He seemed relaxed, if disappointed at the abrupt transfer, but even he wasn’t interested in contesting the transfer. In some ways, this wasn't a big deal. As kids we had lived a life filled with his transfers. A month later, my mom and he had moved to Delhi. I moved back to Bangalore. Life moved on.
24 years have since passed. That lawyer is now a judge.
Another Prime Minister is at the helm. It's now his turn to orchestrate a transfer. Except this time, it's the guy with the van.
No that's not a picture of his van (this was the 90's - we didn't carry around smartphones taking pics of everything we looked at).
That's a picture of the farewell he received last week from the lawyers and judges of the High Court of Delhi.
His name is S Muralidhar.
Vivek Durai is the founder of paper.vc, a freemium financial data platform that tracks privately held companies operating in India and the private investment market as well.
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