Registered with the Registrar of Newspapers for India under R.N.I 53640/91
Vol. XXIX No. 22, March 1-15, 2020
(Continued from last fortnight)
When Palkhivala was annoyed with me
My recollections of Palkhivala in Madras also include the memory of an exceptional occasion when he was annoyed with me. At the first Rajaji Memorial Lecture he delivered under the auspices of the Mylapore Academy, his bio-data was read out while he was introduced as the speaker. It disclosed biographical information relating to his early life which, out of modesty, he preferred not to publicise. Under the impression that I had shared all that information with the Academy, he was furious with me. Only when the organisers told him that they got it from some other source did his annoyance with me abate.
The first G.L. Mehta Memorial Lecture (1975)
The Institute for Financial Management and Research invited him to deliver the first G.L. Mehta Memorial Lecture in Madras on 4th January 1975. They wanted to hold the event at the Taj hotel and asked me to assist them in making the necessary arrangements. I enquired if the public were free to attend and advised them that if it were otherwise then the Taj might not be the appropriate venue. They replied that attendance was to be by invitation only and they did not expect to see a large crowd. I conveyed this matter to Palkhivala. He then asked his P.A. to tell the organisers that he did not wish to give the lecture at the Taj because he wanted it to be a public speech. He preferred to address the common citizens of Madras and not just a few elite invitees. He suggested Abbotsbury as the preferred venue; he had grown fond of it lately. The Institute then decided to hold the event at Abbotsbury but they doubted if the hall would get filled. The evening of the event arrived, and the crowd overflowed the hall!
My recollections of Palkhivala also include memories of his clients trying to meet him for professional advice or assistance when he visited Madras for giving speeches. He was so busy that he would hardly find time to meet them. He would also leave immediately for the airport after the speech to catch the return flight to Bombay. On one occasion, a client was insistent because of the urgency in the matter and his local advocate sought my help. I informed Palkhivala of the matter and he agreed to meet the client at the airport for a few minutes if the flight was delayed. Fortunately for the client, the flight got delayed that day!
On another occasion, Palkhivala appeared before a Tribunal in Madras and, after giving a speech at a venue, left for the airport. One of the members of the Tribunal, who was a personal friend of mine, told me, “You may inform Mr. Palkhivala informally that he has won the case and wait for the formal communication tomorrow.” I gave Palkhivala the good news at the airport. In a child-like manner he was surprised and happy to hear it.
A piece of information that made the rounds in those days was that Air India – Palkhivala was its legal advisor – ensured that the seat next to him in a flight in which he was travelling was left vacant so that he could grab some sleep, because usually he would be pestered by the passenger sitting next to him. Whether this was a fact or merely a rumour I do not know, but I wonder if it would be an exaggeration to liken his popularity to that of a movie star!
A fond personal recollection
A fond personal recollection comes from 1998, when he acceded to my request and gifted me the precious eleven volume set of Will and Ariel Durant’s celebrated work, The Story of Civilization, from his collection. During our phone conversation, he apologised with characteristic humility that he was unable to write and sign on each volume. He dictated and signed below the following words in the first volume called The Oriental Heritage:
For, Mr. T. S. Gopal,
In appreciation of your services to the Forum of Free Enterprise, and to public causes.
He also arranged to have the set packed in a box at his office in Mumbai and, having paid for the parcel charges himself, directed his P.A. to check with me if I had received it!
His last visit to Chennai
The last time I saw him was during his last visit to Chennai. That was on 4th February 2000 when he came to Chennai to receive the honorary doctorate conferred by the Manipal Academy of Higher Education (MAHE). On that memorable occasion, MAHE honoured Palkhivala, C. Subramaniam and A.P.J. Abdul Kalam with doctorates for noteworthy contributions in their respective fields.
Earlier that day, Palkhivala, who was suffering from persistent ill-health, felt unsure if he would be able to travel from Mumbai to accept the honour. At 2 p.m., I got a call from Mumbai that he wanted to be present at the event and he would be accompanied by a nurse. I was asked to look after his needs at the venue. He arrived at the venue ahead of the scheduled time for the start of the event. His physical condition was in such a poor state that he could barely talk or walk. I took him to the wash room. After he had freshened up, he was put up for a while in a small room in the same premises as the auditorium in Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan’s Chennai centre, which was the venue. The nurse who had accompanied him made a failed attempt at the last minute to make him wear a tie. We then wheeled him into the auditorium and helped him climb the stage.
While encomiums were paid that evening, Palkhivala’s illhealth prevented him from properly comprehending them or responding. It was sad to see that the man who used to move thousands with his speeches had to struggle to move his limbs and utter the words that did not come out coherently. This tinged the occasion that was otherwise a happy one with melancholy. Many had assembled in that hall with the fond hope of hearing him but that was not to be. When the function ended, I helped him get into the car. The car drove away and I saw him no more.
A couple of years later the sad news of his passing came. Today, in Chennai, the Nani Palkhivala Foundation and the Nani Palkhivala Arbitration Centre in Mylapore, and the buildings in the Sankara Nethralaya campus on College Road, named after him and his wife, perpetuate his memory.
The fragrance of the many memories lingers in my mind. It was a pleasure and an honour to have known him. Although I am reminded of Will Durant’s words, “with as much modesty as my inherent immodesty would permit”, I will not dissemble the pride of having been associated, though in my own little way, with Palkhivala for many years. The pleasant exercise of sharing these recollections had transported me in my mind across a few past decades to hear his speeches laced with mordant wit and sprinkled with apt quotations and the tumults of applause that greeted him whenever he spoke in Madras.
Many times when I felt reminiscent, I have heard the audio recording of the 1971 speech at Bertram Hall. I cannot help feeling nostalgic whenever I hear the sound of his voice and Rajaji’s. It is a heart-warming feeling that many people in Chennai associate me with Palkhivala in their memory. Money cannot buy but only passion for a cause can bestow so great an honour.