Gone Too Soon at 95, Ram Jethmalani

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Gone Too Soon at 95, Ram Jethmalani

Illustration: Reynold Mascarenhas

“Oh, please!” said that soft but conclusive voice, “You can’t stop at one! Cognac with warm water is the best drink to have because it has practically no sugar.” 

“Yes sir,” I responded feebly, looking around for support. With me was director Hansal Mehta, the mentor who I thought would be the saviour. The best he could do was negotiate on the quantity of Cognac in his next drink, not even mine, offering his beatific smile in return. I felt betrayed, but that’s another story. The drink that followed, and the two after it, were inevitable. We were not going to win against the persistence. In any case, how do you win any argument against the man who cannot be defeated, and who, touching 95, was handling more alcohol than you ever could!

The man was Ram Jethmalani. Perhaps the youngest and the oldest practicing lawyer of the country, starting way back in 1941 and continuing until 2017. Former Law Minister of India. Troublemaker. Troubleshooter. Rebel without a pause. And the man behind high-profile cases ranging from Nanavati to Harshad Mehta, Hawala to 2G scam, Ramdev to Asaram Bapu, and lots more.

We had gone to see him for a film project. The conversation had extended from late afternoon to evening. He was in his element, complete with the very many stories of his life. Alert and attentive, he knew everything, and then some, about holding court. There were some tales that he had forgotten, some that he was repeating, some that he was making up, but the narration was equally astounding for all of them. He had his retinue around. The bar and the library were neatly stacked. The case files were there. But on display wasn’t just Ram Jethmalani, the ace lawyer, this amazing nonagenarian kicking some serious ass with the rendition of his professional life, complete with all the bawdy details. We were seeing Ram Jethmalani, the person, the chronicler and creator of the contemporary History of India, reflecting upon and recounting India’s last seventy years to us lesser mortals, overflowing with genuine affection and love for everybody around him.

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Ram Jethmalani, the person, the chronicler and creator of the contemporary History of India, reflecting upon and recounting India’s last seventy years to us lesser mortals, overflowing with genuine affection and love for everybody around him.

Vaibhav Vishal

Ram was every inch the man he was when I had last seen him way back in 1988. 

Rajiv Gandhi had just botched up on Bofors. Congress could see its massive victory turning into a defeat within three years of Gandhi coming to power. VP Singh was becoming the contender to the top job. The regional satraps were finding their voice. The third front was coming together. Some brave journalists were exposing the scams of the day. But the first person to take Rajiv Gandhi literally head-on was the firebrand Mr Jethmalani! He teamed up with Arun Shourie and Ramnath Goenka of The Indian Express to do what must have been the first-ever trial by media in the country, shooting 10 Questions every single day for 30 continuous days aimed not at the Rajiv Gandhi government, but directly at Gandhi himself. The questions ranged from the sublime to the ridiculous. Some did focussed damage, some were incisive, some uncomfortable, a lot just for effect. This was showmanship backed by hard facts. This was the quintessential Ram Jethmalani at work. And it had its desired impact. Suddenly, the Prime Minister of the country had very visible feet of clay. Ram followed that up with events across the country, mobilising support for Singh who had not even formally asked him for help. He believed in the cause and he gave all his time, energy, and resources to spread the word. 

All of 13 years, and learning to find my politics, I had pedaled down 10 kilometres to Shri Krishna Memorial Hall at Gandhi Maidan in Patna to interact with him. After his brilliant speech was a Q&A session with the audience, and I managed to attract his attention, despite my puny self literally hidden amongst the sea of people. I would be embarrassed to remember what I had asked, because a kid can display only a certain level of maturity/gravitas while questioning the biggest lawyer of the country. But what I do distinctly remember is how respectfully he reacted to my point of view and me. He heard me out, looking at me into my eyes, treating me as an equal. He could have very well dismissed the question, given a cut-and-dried answer to whatever I had posed. But he indulged me, keeping me in a sincere, positive space. He answered me and asked if I had any more questions. “Oh, please!” said that soft but conclusive voice, “You can’t stop at one!”

I came back home a more confident person.

Even if he half-lived the life I have constructed in my writings, it breaks my heart to think of those moments, and how he braved all odds to live them, still leading from the front.

Maverick, temperamental, eccentric, non-conformist, the permanent dissenter… There are lots of adjectives used for Mr Jethmalani. In my interactions with him, he was none of it. He was only a man who had utmost belief in himself and what he did. And that’s what made him what he was. Had he not been a lawyer, but a cricketer, he would have given Don Bradman and Sachin Tendulkar a run for their money. Had he been a scientist, he would have discovered newer galaxies already. He believed in law, and he believed in being the best goddamn lawyer that one could be. The histories of the kind of people he defended – some good, some bad, lots ugly – didn’t matter to him as long as it was an opportunity for him to do good lawyering. That’s what he lived for. It sounds too simplistic a conclusion for the life and times of one of the most celebrated lawyers of India. But he actually was a man just doing his job. That’s it! 

As I wait for what I have written on Ram to take a formal shape, I continue to marvel at the detours and travails of the man. Even if he half-lived the life I have constructed in my writings, it breaks my heart to think of those moments, and how he braved all odds to live them, still leading from the front. When he gave his daughter away to somebody else because he couldn’t take care of the child after coming in as a refugee to India. When he got married a second time despite a wife and two children at home because he believed in love. When he confronted his personal demons living through the Partition, Emergency, and Blue Star. When he defended what the world thought were undefendable, from Haji Mastan to Manu Sharma. When he stuck his neck out to do what he thought was right, his political and personal affiliations notwithstanding, during his victories and defeats… during his life. I was there with Ram. I could see a life well-lived. With Cognacs, warm water, warmer vibes, and warmest conversations. 

Not cool, sir. 95 is not the age to go. Not for Ram Jethmalani.

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