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Vol. XXIX No. 19, January 15-31, 2020

Nani Palkhivala in Madras

by T.S. Gopal

Who does not remember Palkhivala? This brilliant lawyer had many facets to his personality – a champion of civil liberties, a great orator whose budget speeches were famous, a donor for deserving causes and a man of letters. Madras had a special relationship with him, for between 1966 and 2000 he not only came here numerous times but also delivered several thought-provoking speeches. In this, Palkhivala’s birth centenary year, T.S. Gopal, who in his capacity as Secretary of the Forum of Free Enterprise handled much of the logistics for many of his visits, has penned a booklet titled Down Memory Lane, which recalls many memorable incidents associated with the former in this city. We are serialising it in Madras Musings, kind courtesy T.S. Gopal. It is also our tribute to a great Indian.
– The Editor

Page 7-1

I moved from Bombay to Madras, as those cities were then called, in 1967 as Assistant Secretary of the Forum of Free Enterprise’s Madras centre. I have fond recollections of making arrangements for Nani Palkhivala’s budget speeches for many years in Madras. Our city was close to his heart. If Bombay was the commercial capital, he maintained that Madras was the intellectual capital of India.

Many interesting memories of Palkhivala and the Madras of those days crowd my mind as I look back across a few decades. In the nineteen seventies, Madras had a number of shaded avenues and street houses; apartments were mostly unknown. Residents of the city had more time at their disposal. The city reverberated with public speeches of eminent personalities addressing cerebrally alert audiences. I have always maintained that when it came to a perspicacious crowd for a cricket match or a speech by Palkhivala, Madras was unsurpassed. I have pleasant recollections of seeing people walking on far less crowded streets, after attending a music concert or a stage drama or a speech by Palkhivala.

These memories also bring back images of people who were so moved by his speech that while walking back from the venue to their respective places they would fervently discuss the many points he had raised that evening. Such conversations sowed many seeds of friendship, which grew stronger and withstood the test of time among those who were total strangers until then.

I also recall my volunteers at the Forum of Free Enterprise – volunteers who helped me out in arranging Palkhivala’s speeches in Madras – forming teams for different events and becoming great friends and who kept in touch with each other for many, many years. They were young collegians and students of the Chartered Accountancy course who never failed to respond enthusiastically whenever I asked them to assist me in making arrangements for a speech by Palkhivala and at the venue during the event. I consider it a privilege to have been part of an energetic group of public spirited men devoted to causes in the interest of the common man, including Veeraraghavan of Mylapore Academy and the Parthasarathy-Narasimhan duo, who even now are quite active, at the Triplicane Cultural Academy.

A Speech in 1966

As far as my recollection goes, the first time Palkhivala spoke under the Forum’s auspices in Madras was in January 1966, a year before I moved to the city; I was on a visit to Madras when I attended this speech. The event took place at the famous Gokhale Hall and it attracted an audience of four hundred. The next time he gave a speech in Madras was in 1969, under the auspices of the Sir C.P. Ramaswami Aiyar Foundation, at the Grove in Teynampet. That event attracted a crowd of about seven hundred.

A budget speech in 1970

Realising that those venues were inadequate to accommodate the vast crowds, I chose the famous R.R. Sabha Hall in Mylapore as the venue for his budget speech in 1970. That was the first time when I was associated with arranging his speech in Madras. The R.R. Sabha Hall had a capacity of about a thousand. If the earlier venues were too small, my boss at the Forum of Free Enterprise wondered if this venue might be too big and if all the seats would get filled. But I believed that ample publicity coupled with Palkhivala’s popularity would ensure that the hall will be filled to capacity. That was also the first time when we had posters printed for a non-political meeting. Apart from the name of the venue, date and time, they simply read ‘Palkhivala Speaks on the Budget’. We had them pasted at a few prominent places in Madras such as Mylapore, Kilpauk and Sowcarpet.

A few were pasted en route from the airport so that Palkhivala could see them while travelling by car. I invited Cho Ramaswami, the late founder-editor of Thuglak, to attend this speech and he quietly slipped in and sat in a chair at a corner of the stage. Of Cho’s association with Palkhivala, I have many memories to share and will relate them in a later portion of these reminiscences. Dr. P. S. Lokanathan, the eminent economist, presided. The stature and popularity of the speaker was such that even this venue proved inadequate. The crowd overflowed the hall and filled the corridors and passages!

Popularity in Madras

By the mid-seventies, Palkhivala’s popularity had grown by leaps and bounds, owing mainly to his relentless championing of the common man’s cause and the landmark constitutional cases he had fought, the most popular of which was the Fundamental Rights Case. This meant that larger venues had to be found for his speeches as years rolled on. For many years those events were held in Abbotsbury (where there is now a hotel and a mall) in Teynampet, and the crowds that gathered there invariably numbered between three and five thousands! When even Abbotsbury proved small, they were held in Congress Grounds in Teynampet. On one occasion the crowd numbered about eight thousand! As his popularity grew, I felt that from R.R. Sabha, it was but a natural progression to Abbotsbury and Congress grounds.

Making arrangements for his speeches was always a great experience and I learnt much from every occasion. I ceased to be the Assistant Secretary and formally associated with the Forum in 1977. In later times, Palkhivala’s speeches were held in the Ramakrishna School grounds in T. Nagar and in the Centenary auditorium of the Madras University. Although I was not formally associated with arranging his speeches in the nineteen eighties, I was still actively involved in the planning and making the necessary arrangements.

Among the many memories I have of Palkhivala in Madras, I recall a speech by him held at Rajeswari Kalyana Mandapam in Mylapore sometime in the nineteen seventies. It was held under the auspices of an NGO called ‘Roof for the Roofless’, and I distinctly remember that the dais was placed at such an angle that no pillar obstructed the view of the speaker from anywhere in the hall or from the open space outside.

A Speech at Bertram Hall in 1971

Another event that stands out in my memory was the speech he gave on the 24th and 25th amendments of the Constitution at Bertram Hall, Loyola College, in 1971. Presided by Rajaji (C. Rajagopalachari), that speech was held under the auspices of The Servants of India Society. To me, the occasion was a dream that came true. After the speech under the auspices of the Sir C. P. Ramaswami Aiyar Foundation in 1969, I told Palkhivala that he deserved a larger audience and some day his speech must be presided by Rajaji’. He was exhilarated by the thought and wondered if it might happen. It happened two years later!

In 1971, the news of Rajaji presiding over his speech attracted a huge number of people, including party workers, from near and afar. Thousands thronged the venue and the surging audience spilled out to the lawns. Even so distinguished an attendee as Raja Sir Muthiah Chettiar could not enter the hall but he was happy to hear the speech sitting near a pillar outside. The turnout was so large that day that after the event a great number of people wanting to return to their respective places formed a long queue at the nearby Nungambakkam railway station.

To various destinations until the Fort and Beach stations at one end and Tambaram station at another, there was a great demand for tickets. I had jocularly warned the station master about this; it was hardly surprising that the railway station ran out of ticket cards that day!
(To be continued next fortnight)

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