Doctor-friend pens the story of India, not just of Jethmalani
“The story of Ram is the story of India.” Susan Adelman, thus, pens not only a biography of Ram Jethmalani, but that of India, in her book aptly titled The Rebel. Susan is a medical doctor by profession, a close friend of the Jethmalanis, and is married to a lawyer: just the right profile for authoring Ram’s life. She very admiringly tells us of his lineage, but soon muddles up the big with the small, the grand with the ordinary. The 1970s do not require any genius of authorship to make an interesting read. Here, in the middle of the excesses wrought on fundamental freedoms, Ram’s initiation into politics, an uninspiring anecdote of toilet humour is thrust upon the reader. One is advised to skip such faux pas, the boring bits about Ram’s changing addresses, contrived details of having to manage two wives, etc, as the doctor eventually learns and improves.
The story evolves into a juggernaut of cases of villains, godmen, politicians, scamsters, cabbages and kings. They were also advocates who made fortunes due to our pre-liberalisation anti-smuggling laws; and why not? Here’s a lovely pearl of wisdom straight from the horse’s mouth: “When I see a man come into my office with his pockets bulging with smuggling money, I consider it my duty to relieve him of his wealth.” Needless to add, Haji Mastan, Jogi, D-Gang, the who’s who of crime world, all make guest appearances. We are told that 90% of Ram’s cases are pro bono. He, obviously, makes a killing defending the remaining 10%, remorselessly. And why shouldn’t his genius be rewarded? But how would you judge a man who has a certain amount of sympathy for a man accused of rape?
In chapter 11, on being quizzed about his diligence in following the case of an engineer charged with statutory rape, Ram’s response was: “Basically the man is a lover. I can’t let him down.” And that’s not all. On being told that the man is a charged with rape, his answer was “Yes… But that is the culmination of love.” Be not too harsh, for he espoused many causes, including that of minorities and women; he is credited with piloting the Women’s Reservation Bill in parliament. His zeal in the opening of the National Law College in Bengaluru, and imparting knowledge to budding lawyers serve as pacifying antidotes after that glaring confession.
The foreword says that the book is recommended to law students. The description of Ram’s cases is fleeting and there are no insights that a student of law can look forward to. However, for an entire generation, born in more prosperous times and unaware of life before that watershed year of 1991, it’s a must read. Along the way, readers may come across trite, yet useful, tips, such as inspecting the scene of crime, holding papers during cross-examination and appearing to consult them, making independent investigations, etc. Ram’s personal trials and tribulations are humanely captured in chapter 30, so much so that it draws a tear. The loss of a child, and the favourite that Rani was, makes the heart ache.
We also learn how India appears to be coming a full circle with raging debates on judicial accountability, government censorship, disappearing reports and the chilling matter of additional district magistrate Vs Shivakant Shukla: the Indira Gandhi years. One figure emerges tall and towering from those times; it is that of Justice HR Khanna. Here’s an extract from the New York Times editorial that lauded Justice Khanna on 30 April 1976: ”If India ever finds its way back to the freedom and democracy that were proud hallmarks of its first eighteen years as an independent nation, someone will surely erect a monument to Justice HR Khanna of the Supreme Court.
It was Justice Khanna who spoke out fearlessly and eloquently for freedom this week in dissenting from the Court’s decision upholding the right of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s Government to imprison political opponents at will and without court hearing… The submission of an independent judiciary to absolutist government is virtually the last step in the destruction of a democratic society; and the Indian Supreme Court’s decision appears close to utter surrender.”
The book is certainly readable and deserves multiple star rating. Sadly, the book starts with sectarian violence in India and ends with one. Let us hope this is not her destiny.