I did not know Ram Jethmalani as well as I would have liked to. Like most people though, familiar with the legend even before I met him. In the legal fraternity, no other name commanded as much respect as his, something I witnessed first-hand on a few occasions.
I first met him the night Arun Jaitley announced he was filing a defamation case against a number of members of the Aam Aadmi Party, including Arvind Kejriwal and me. We approached his chambers around 9 pm to find him surrounded by a few people, immersed in his files, his customary single malt next to the paperwork on his desk. I was understandably on edge: Arun Jaitley, the Finance Minister, had just sued me for defamation, and I wasn't sure how this would end. To our surprise and relief, Mr Jethmalani readily accepted our case. I was tasked with briefing and assisting him on the matter, having handled the litigation for the party at the time. As a result, I was lucky enough to spend the next two years working closely with him.
One of the first things I noticed about him was that, peculiarly enough, he'd go through all documents himself, meticulously examining each detail, rather than delegating the task to juniors and assistants like others of his seniority. Predictably, he would be the only person in the room to land upon possible inferences hidden in the devilish details leaving the rest of us marvelling at the man's foresight and intellect.
I remember he used to prepare the questions for the cross examination in a small diary, which no one was allowed to see. On the first day of Arun Jaitley's cross-examination, as we made our way through the corridors of the Delhi High Court to the registrar's room, I was incredibly tense about what was about to unfold, a clash of titans in more ways than one, but that was soon pushed out of my mind by the way the people around us reacted to the very presence of the institution that was Ram Jethmalani. Every lawyer who saw him, even if from a distance, rushed to him to either shake his hand, touch his feet, or hug him. That was the first time I realized the extent of the respect he commanded. I will admit I enjoyed my fifteen minutes of fame too, holding his hand, walking next to him. Once the cross-examination began, it was a treat for every spectator present. I have no words to explain the brilliance of Ram Jethmalani in his element in a court room, but if I had to pay a fortune to relive that experience, I would pay it over and over again. He would rattle his witness in a manner that is inimitable, and the way he would solicit the answer he was looking for was nothing short of breath-taking.
After a successful first day, we made our way back to Ram Jethmalani's office to prepare for the next day. As I entered his office, to my surprise, he was already in the middle of examining evidence, having begun his preparation before we even got there. We assisted him through the evening, and at exactly 7:30 pm, he asked his help of four decades, Deepchand, to pour him his customary single malt. He insisted that all of us have a drink, and of course, every briefing counsel on the matter politely declined. Then he looked straight at me, and calling me by the pet name he had come to give me, said, "Sonny boy, if you don't have a drink with me, I will return this brief". I'm not fond of drinking, but there are not many people that would readily cross paths with Arun Jaitley in the Delhi High Court. Reluctantly, I relented, and over the course of the evening, while we powered through the briefing, the single malt kept going. The next morning I woke up in a panic, just in the nick of time to rush over to his offices to finish preparing for the second day. Making a mental list of things that had not been covered the previous evening, I rushed over, though I was certain that there would still be some time before we actually started working. Mr Jethmalani was in his 90s and had consumed quite a bit more alcohol than I had the night before, and had still been reading files and meeting people when I called it a night and made my way home. Surely his day would not have begun just yet, I thought, as I searched his chambers, as well as his bedroom, unable to find him. I finally located him in the middle of his exercise routine, working the treadmill at 6 km/h and a considerable incline. Upon spotting me, he waved, and said, "Good morning, Sonny boy, how're you feeling now?" At 7:45 am, not only was he awake, up and about, but halfway through a rigorous morning workout regime.
I suspect that Ram Jethmalani enjoyed few things more than his whiskey, but one such thing was the prospect of cross-examining Arun Jaitley. After Day 2 of the cross-examination, which he again blew out of the park with his charismatic ingenuity, meetings with him became more frequent. Sometimes they would occur over tea, at other times over breakfast, and sometimes over drinks. Each one of these meetings was an eye-opening experience that taught me several valuable lessons. There was always somebody who needed his help, and he would help everyone that he possibly could, including dropping his fee because he felt that as AAP members who have access to the political executive in Delhi Government, we could help the economically weaker residents of Delhi.
I'm sure there are hundreds of people who have many such stories about the phenomenon that was Ram Jethmalani. To say that he had an illustrious life would be an understatement. Only a boy of 16 when WW2 broke out, after obtaining a degree in law from Shahani Law College at age 17, he began practicing in Karachi in pre-partition India alongside other lawyers of the time such as Muhammad Ali Jinnah. And he practiced law till his last breath. His life and his work has invaluably inspired and helped generations of litigators and civilians alike. One of the fondest memories I have of my time with him was when I got the chance to play badminton with him at his home.
The day before he died, I was with Mr Kejriwal at his residence, and over a cup of tea the subject of Mr Jethmalani's health came up; the Chief Minister and I had recently learned that he had not been keeping well. I marked my calendar to visit him the next day. However, it was too late; the next morning, he passed, a week before his 96th birthday on September 14.
(Raghav Chadha is spokesperson and member of the National Executive of the Aam Aadmi Party.)
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