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C K Daphtary

The Indian bar has produced many luminaries. In flights of fantasies, one might dream of discussing the classics and the Constitution with Seervai, listening to Setalvad on ethics or just listening to Palkhivala. But, in your fantasy, if you are looking for deliciously pointless banter on everything under the sun over a drink and a fat, smouldering churchill, it has to be with CK Daphtary.

Daphtary never let his professionalism interfere with his good life and vice versa. He enjoyed the finer vices in life, the cigar being a particular favorite. He memorably bemoaned the imposition of Prohibition in state of Bombay after independence with the epigrammatic, “Now that we are a republic, and there is no pub in it, let us hope we will not become a relic.” But his defense of the “obnoxious” legislation as a government lawyer was exemplary, but, at times, subtly and playfully subversive.

His wit was spontaneous as exemplified by his repartee when a newly elevated judge took exception to finding a bug in a submission. Daphtary scrutinized the bug for a while and said, “A very ambitious bug, my Lord, to have traveled from the Bar to the Bench.” It could be said that Daphtary had a penchant for ribbing on judges. When Justice Hidayatullah, later CJI, was elevated to the Supreme Court, a senior brother judge felt it necessary to warn him of Daphtary. But his put-downs were so “charming”, even the bench looked forward to them.

He was an automatic successor to the Bombay titans – he continued Setalvad’s forensic tradition and would eventually be the Attorney General of India. His logical acuteness matched that of Palkhivala and he was in demeanour British like Seervai but with widely divergent plan for the evening. But he never cared much for matching their greatness as a jurist. He was content at being a very good advocate and in being tremendously affable. Successive personal tragedies, and resultant stoicism, eventually tempered but did not extinguish, his joie-de-vivre.

He appeared for the Indian government in critical cases, starting with the Mahatma Gandhi assassination case. He would play a significant role, along with NA Palkhivala and JM Thakore, in the considerable success at Geneva in the Rann of Kutch dispute. His peers remember him to be a particularly dangerous opponent if he was briefed for a weak case. His conjurer like panache in court, remembers Soli Sorabjee, lead to the nickname “Chandu the Magician” in Bombay circles.

He never pretended he was the kind of lawyer who would burn the midnight oil and memorise all relevant citations and cases – he is disarmingly honest about his philosophy of minimum effort and maximum returns. But he entered the court, after, of course, placing his cigar on the stone railing outside, like a grandmaster sitting down for a match of chess. Methodically and with sheer logic he would destroy the opposition’s case. He was unsurpassed in finding the most apt word or metaphor for a situation. It was notoriously difficult to surprise him. But he was quick to identify and admit to deficiencies in his own case.

“Unwritten autobiographies are the best,” he told long-time friend and personal lawyer Dr. LM Singhvi who was “pestering” him to write a memoir. Whatever the truth of that statement is, it would hard for anyone to seriously sympathise with him – dispenser and “creator” of anecdotes and a fine lawyer – on this issue.

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