Musings At Law-XXII
For one entering the hallowed precincts of the Chartered High Court, Madras, with trepidation and the Court Halls with reverence, the introduction was stupefying. The Court Hall was Court Hall No.6 then. The learned Judge presiding was dealing with Company Petitions. A tall gangling gentleman lawyer, resembling a fast bowler that India never had, was on his feet. The Counsel was pursuing a remedy relying on the proposition ‘issue estoppel’.
The learned Judge softly queried, “Counsel, Can you cite some authority in support of your proposition.” With a booming voice, the lawyer responded, “Elementary, Mi Lord. I am unable to oblige because such stupid questions have not been posed before. It is so first principle premised that it needs no props or authorities.”
There was deafening silence in the Court. It seemed as if the Judge was floored by a cunning bouncer. But, it was good and evident that the Judge did not catch the import of what the lawyer said. It turned out that the tall, gangling gentleman was the late, lamented Mr. Vedantham Srinivasan. The Judge shall, however, remain nameless.
Just as the Judge was gathering his wits, having understood that he had been slighted, but not knowing whether it was a yorker or a beamer, a typically orthodox Brahmin attired gentleman, with a Panchakatcham in spotless white and a turban to boot, stood up from the other side and said, “Mi Lord, Welcome to the World of Vedantham, my friend. A difficult man at the best of times, very tough in Company law jurisdiction, where he is par excellence. He assumes that any and every one is steeped in similar league and rarely, if ever, stoops to conquer. We are of course plebians who plod and deliver with difficulty. That is not given to Vedantham. I can, of course, cite an authority to your Lordship vide an article written by none other than Vedantham Srinivasan, on the ‘elementary principle of issue estoppel’ as he calls it, with citations galore, which he alone may be privy to. He cares not to submit it himself. But I care to, as I learned the principle only from that article”.
Vedantham could not resist a riposte across the Bar,” “Dey Sampath, Marunthutenda Madaya”- I forgot, you idiot. Well, Sampath always said, he did not know who that ‘Madaya’- Idiot- was addressed to. Then, Sampath, quietly, as was his wont, turned the tables on facts and got the order he wanted, from the learned Judge, to the chagrin of Mr. Vedantham. But Sampath did not let down his friend Vedantham. He rescued the Judge as well, from embarrassment. Amidst all this, he served the cause of his client. A scientific work of art. I felt at home, in such company.
That was S Sampathkumar, Senior Advocate (given to numerology too, I came to understand, ever since he suffered the mortification of incarceration 1975 during the dark Emergency days and possibly the one and last one Pan India, who got bailed out, thanks to the generosity of the then State Public Prosecutor Habibullah Badshah), doyen of the Bar, who strolled like a colossus on the Original Side. Sampath Kumaar was my Senior in the profession. For one, who was initiated into the profession, at the instigation of V K Thiruvenkatachari, former Advocate General, what a triumvirate they made! VKT was extremely short-tempered and ‘did not suffer fools and particularly intelligent ones’, and very, very successful. Vedantham, extremely well read on first principles, with ready made solutions, for any and every cause, with an anecdotal reference too, (and not the most successful, if bank balance was the criteria). And, Sampath, not in the same league, on erudition, but very, very successful, with a god given streak and ability to ‘think on his feet’.
It takes several shades to make the grade. Let us confine ourselves to one of a kind, Mr. S Sampathkumar. Despite the difference in age, one generation to another, he remained a friend and young friend at that, as he put it. While he accused me of possessing an ‘elephantine memory which posed difficulties to the other’, I responded that he ‘had a fantastic memory to forget’ and that was not an accusation. He concluded the exchange, “Yes, you are right. I have always trained myself to forget everything and particularly law, for it helped me to be fresh all the time.” Sampath and Vedantham made a colourful pair, as their major interests coincided in “Charlie Chaplin and Tom and Jerry”. And that was no joke.
Sampath was so different. A loving and endearing man with child like enthusiasm, (typical of the man, he vied for TV time at home, with his grandson to view Tom and Jerry cartoons). A connoisseur of arts, literature with epicurean delight, but yet steeped in tradition and religion, not only in looks, but in practice and living too. While VKT loved his Gin and tonic, Vedantham his single and double malts, to a fault, Sampath was a teetotaler.
Born on 16/4/1927 (he would have been 93 in these Lockdown times, if he were alive) to ordinary, run off the mill lower middle class parents at Srirangam, he graduated from Madras Law College and got himself enrolled on 14/4/1952. He joined the firm of King & Patridge under the tutelage of the big and large hearted Mr. H M Small. He acquitted himself admirably and rose in the esteem of his colleagues, climbed the ladder in his career, by literally pole vaulting with craft and skill. He always told me, “I am not the most learned advocate. In fact I did not like being addressed as one. I left learning to others and was satisfied by being surrounded by the learned, and drawing upon their reservoirs. And that was easy, as it was effortless, as in no effort. I never ever forgot.” He added, “The big words Small told me. ‘Never teach swimming. Push the candidate into a pool full of sharks. You will get to pick the swimmer from the escapee.’ I learnt to swim very early in the profession and I always followed his example with my colleagues too.”
Within a decade, he began individual practice from 1962. His clients swelled in numbers and in particular, his success rate in ‘resolution of disputes’ rather than a win in litigation, was note worthy. Then he started a firm in the name and style of Sampathkumar, Bhat and Saldhana in 1972, and began an undisputed reign, as the leading practitioner, on the Original Side and a specialist in Admiralty jurisdiction. The briefs began to multiply, and coffers were filling up, if success is measured by it.
Sampath had also taken up an assignment, as part time lecturer at the Madras Law College, to give back to the system, which lent him success, since 1960, which position he occupied till 1976. He was a very popular lecturer in Contracts, Hindu law and was teacher to many a student, who went on to become Judges and Senior Advocates in years to come. Today, Sampathkumar & Associates which was started as a partnership firm, manned by Mr. S Ramanarayanan, his son, and his favourite protégé Mr. A P S Kasturirangan, with himself as Consultant, continues its march, even after his demise on 7/1/2007.
Sampathkumar was not the studious or labourious kind. He ‘thought’ on his feet. He was brilliant on his legs. Fed with appropriate and adequate information, from the side lines, much as a prompter in a stage play, to the main actor, he could match the best in the business. But as I never tired of telling him, ‘he had a brilliant memory to forget’. Meaning, he never carried any illwill or animosity, generated in the heat of the moment. He never once lost his cool on/off court and carried himself with dignity and decorum. He was known for his brisk walk, despite ageing, and his cheery disposition. (Typical Groucho Marx, “Getting old isn’t all that great. Now, getting younger, that would be something”).
The result of the lis rarely, if ever, affected him. He was no walking encyclopaedia at law. He used to say that “All the books in the profession were meant for the Judges, not the lawyers”. He always said, “A good lawyer is one who does not necessarily know law but knows where good law is”. (Borrowed quote of V K T Chari). Then he impishly added, “Since there were others better informed than him, better to know such ‘others’ well, than take the trouble of learning law yourself”. Life is too important to be wasted in trifles like law, he said, while always tucking into the scriptures and his favourite Bhagwad Gita, even during court hearings. (Believe me you, even when the other side would be arguing the case, he would be busy reciting Gita, despite my protests, for he said ‘Sarvam Krishnarpanam’.) Brilliant, as well as crazy, for the conscientious, I always wondered. He relied on innate common sense. His wisdom was practical. He was always crisp and cutting and made fools of the most learned and most times, very well prepared counsel too. There is no better illustration than this one. Here it goes…
(Author is practising advocate in the Madras High Court)