-by Adv. Advait Uday Shukla, practicing lawyer in Bombay High Court and Sessions Court, Mumbai.
(Book Review of the Autobiography of Justice V. A. Mohta)
“There is no character on earth more elevated and pure than that of a learned and upright judge. He exerts influence like dews of heaven falling without observation”
There are some books which you like, there are others which change your perspective, but there are some which have an eternal impact on your life! “Time and Chance” is an inspiring autobiography of the late Justice Vallabhdas A. Mohta, one of the greatest judges and lawyers of the Indian legal profession. The author in the preface mentions that the book is not an Autobiography but is a collection of the jottings made by him. As we read the book, we realize that this book is an autobiography capable of not only enlightening the future but also enriching the past, as defined by the author himself.
As a young member of the bar, I found this book written by Justice Mohta as a life changing account of his simple, yet legendary life. This ‘book review’ is technically not a review of the book, but a documentation of the scribblings I wrote while reading the book. The book had a galvanizing impact on me. It taught me:
SIMPLICITY AND HUMILITY
The first thing this memoir conveys to the reader is, the simplicity of a person. The ability to remain down-to-earth even after becoming successful. The lucid language which runs through the pages, reflects the simplicity of the author. Born in Akola, Maharashtra in a reputed family, Justice Mohta inherited two important qualities from his parents: simplicity and modesty.
He narrates this one hilarious incident from his childhood in the book. He says that, once as a child to fulfil his thirst for a milkshake, he had taken away money from the family almirah and fulfilled his thirst by drinking two milkshakes but paying for only one, seeing that no one was around! He later says that he always felt guilty about the same and therefore, in future when the son of the owner of the same shop became his client, he refused to accept even a single farthing from him!
What makes a person great, is his ability to appreciate things. Humility is what makes a person open to learn. In his memoir, Justice Mohta mentions the interesting incidents of interacting with eminent persons in law. While driving in front of Mr. M. C. Setalwad’s house, he gave in to his temptation to meet the doyen at the bar and asked his PA that he had a desire to meet him! His narration of events of meeting the great personnel like Ram Jethmalani, Motilal Setalwad, A. K. Sen, Justice Bhagwati, Lord Denning, Justice Bingham and even the then prime minister Pt. Nehru with a complete selfless attitude even after becoming a judge of the High Court or thereafter becoming a practitioner in the Supreme Court is an inspiration to the young members of the legal profession!
Even after becoming a Judge, Justice Mohta always remained modest. He says:
“I firmly believe that every self-respecting person occupying a public chair must always carry his undated resignation letter in his pocket. One does not know when the need to take a call can arise. Only those who are ready to kick the chair, if occasion arises, can occupy it with dignity.”
‘Time and Chance’ made me realize that as a member of the legal fraternity it is not enough to read only what is sufficient for your profession. Being in a profession which touches upon all aspects of the society, it becomes the duty of all practitioners to read not just about law, but in and around the world we live in. Justice Mohta in the book gives examples from the books written by several great writers including Mark Twain, M. K. Gandhi and Winston Churchill. Only an enthusiastic reader can read and find the origin of his family history and have a wide spectrum of reading books on mythology, history, philosophy and even world politics!
Reading also makes us realize the importance of humour in life. According to Justice Mohta, humour is serious and basically is a social lubricant.
Even with respect to Law, his reading had no boundaries, from criminal law to taxation he has read the intricacies of all the laws. Only a voracious reader can become a great writer on the subject, and therefore Justice Mohta also authored books on Arbitration and Conciliation, on Trade Marks, passing off and franchising, which earned him a place in the Cambridge blue book of Who’s Who in the World.
On one hand where we are losing our attention span because of mobile phones, use of books to enlighten ourselves like Justice Mohta did, will inspire many in the profession.
TRAVEL WITH YOUR EYES OPEN
In his Memoir, Justice Mohta also writes about his love for travelling. He had travelled to many countries in the world including USSR, UK, Belgium, France, Switzerland, Italy, USA, Japan, China, Sri Lanka, Australia and even Bangladesh and Pakistan. However, when we read the book, we realize that Justice Mohta is telling us not to just travel the world, but to travel it with our eyes open! When he visited the USSR, he studied its culture, history, legal system and political development. He further studied the legal system there and immediately thought of studying its pros and cons and discussed them in a lecture delivered by him, later at the Akola Bar. Similar was the tour when he visited China and even the Commonwealth countries. Travelling for the sake of it and travelling for the purpose of understanding the place you are visiting is completely different. Even after becoming the Chief Justice of Orissa, Justice Mohta traveled the whole state not only for the sake of travelling but also for the sake of understanding the social background of the state under his judicial administration.
The term ‘ethics’ has become a utopian word in the legal profession. ‘Time and Chance’ gives an account of the ethical life of Justice Mohta. At the beginning of his legal career, he vowed to remain ethical and remained so till the end of his life. We find that ethics and morals is not something which is easy to follow, however the author says the answer to it is ‘conscious ethics’. Once we put efforts consciously to remain ethical in the legal profession, it not only creates an invaluable goodwill, but also gives a great mental satisfaction. In addition, he adds that his experience by stating that people are willing to pay more fees to a lawyer giving genuine advice including the advice to avoid litigation, rather than a lawyer for personal benefits giving advice to litigate.
Justice Mohta made these ‘conscious ethics’ a foundation of his professional attitudes and in Abraham Lincoln’s words, forever resolved to become an Honest Advocate. He preserved the honourable values he received from his father and his senior in the profession. In the legal profession we often hear people saying, to gain success you will have to compromise with your values. Justice Mohta answers this in his following words:
“I can honestly say that I have never allowed any person or occurrence to tempt me to compromise my self-respect, regardless of the importance of the person or the attractiveness of the temptation. Everything has a price in life but I do not regret the price I have paid. Surprisingly, while chronicling the journey of my life. I find that I have gained much more for adamantly adhering to this value than have lost.”
JUDICIAL INTEGRITY AND COURAGE
The incidents which shake the pillar of judicial independence are not rare in India. Government intervention was not new when India was in the infancy of its democracy and today it is still the same. However, what distinguishes a judge of integrity from others is his courage.
After being elevated as a High Court Judge, Justice Mohta assumed the post at the Bombay High Court as an ad-hoc judge for two years. Usually, a judge appointed after that term becomes a permanent judge. However, the then law minister and the government had different plans. All the ad-hoc judges were made to sign an undertaking permitting the government to transfer them wherever the government wishes to, as a condition precedent to the permanent judgeship. Even the language used in the letter displayed a threatening attitude and was derogatory to the post of a High Court Judge. Out of all the ad-hoc judges, Justice Mohta was the only person who fearlessly refused to sign and also decided to voice his protest against such a demand. Because of that, his tenure of an ad-hoc judge was extended twice, but he was not made a permanent judge. Finally, ‘Time and Chance’ responded to the courage and he was finally appointed as a permanent judge of the Bombay High Court. His belief in conscious ethics perfectly complemented his judicial integrity.
However, there is a difference between conscious ethics, judicial integrity and complete aloofness from the societal problems. Being a judge or a lawyer doesn’t mean you should completely stay away from understanding the problems of the society. Even after his retirement, Justice Mohta was an active member of several social work groups, including his work for social working groups like SEARCH or his active participation in Euthanasia Movement for recognition of Right to die with dignity.
ADVICE FOR THE YOUNG MEMBERS OF THE LEGAL PROFESSION
The entire book delivers a strong message through simple language and the simple life which Justice Mohta lived. However, he also gives some particular advice to the all young members of the profession. Though the book is named ‘Time and Chance’, Justice Mohta believes –
“Success is the result of a combination of luck and effort. Luck is beyond one’s control, so there is no use bothering about it. Effort is one’s own. Therefore, one must concentrate upon it.”
He wittily tells all young lawyers, that there are three stages in a lawyer’s life, first stage, there is neither work nor money; second, there is only work and no money and third there is no work and only money. However, he believes in the Cypriot proverb- “work is hard; no work is harder”.
In the words of Tolstoy, he tells in the end
‘There is only one way of serving mankind. That is, to become yourself!’
In the generation of social media and in the era where we are able to see the constitutional principles which are being compromised easily, ‘Time and Chance’ is a book which can galvanize a young generation of lawyers. The book tells us to read, to travel, to remain modest and to become conscious of our professional ethics.
Here was a book that inspired me, I hope it inspires our generation to become like ‘ourselves to serve mankind!’
[Disclaimer- The views expressed in the article are the personal views of the author]
Adv. Advait Shukla, Bombay High Court, Mumbai
This article is written by Adv. Advait Shukla, practicing in Bombay High Court and Sessions Court, Mumbai. The Author may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.