“My Life: Law and Other Things”- Book Review


By Prachi Pandit, GNLU

Editors note: A law student at the beginning of his journey has a reputation of being a champion of lost cases. What everyone seeks to learn is what goes into the making of a good lawyer. A very good and effective way to learn this is through reading Biographies and autobiographies of lawyers who’ve walked the same path and accomplished great things in their lives.

The autobiography that caught my eye was ‘My Life, Law and Other Things’ by Motilal C. Setalvad. Apart from its obvious author the striking feature about this book which led to me selecting it was that it was published in October 1970 and within just three months a reprint edition came out in January 1979. This face bore testimony to the demand of the book and proved its worth.

The book starts with a very touching introduction by Fali S. Nariman who has spoken greatly about Setalvad. He gives the readers a perfect start motivating them to read the book and get inspired by the life of a great man. He ends with his tribute to Setalvad, quoting,” Old soldiers never die, they only fade away. Grand old men only die. But they never fade away”. The most interesting aspect of this book is not the story of the man who has authored it, but the message it carries for everyone associated with Law and the Legal profession. It is less of a biography and more of a historical document recording important events of India’s history.

The book centers less abound Setalvad and more around the contemporaneous events which centered around him. He himself goes on to quote in the preface of the book,” I have always disliked talking about myself, preferring even as an advocate to use the phrase, “it is submitted” to the more usual “I submit”. He finishes with a heart touching line,” I have attempted in this book to set down an account of my life first of all for my own satisfaction and because it might be an encouragement to others”. This, as the book is read, is proved to be totally correct as it encourages the readers to achieve great heights especially in the legal profession and answers the vexing question of how to be a good lawyer.

Motilal Setalvad was the son of a worthy lawyer Mr. Chimanlal Setalvad. He studied Law from the Government Law College, Mumbai. With his forensic ability and his strong mental powers, he rose to the highest rung of the legal ladder. He first became the Advocate General of Bombay and later was appointed as the Advocate General for India under the then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. In his advocacy years and even later he gained huge support from his wife Vimla Setalvad who opted to be a strong patient pillar rather than an obstruction in his journey to success. The book also highlights the encouragement given by the Senior lawyers like Mr. Bhulabhai Desai, Mr. Dinshaw Mulla and Mr. Kanga which helped him evolve into a successful lawyer.

Time and again he refused to hold the seat of a judge, in spite of being asked on more than one occasion. He also had the rare distinction to represent India in the Radcliffe Commission that demarcated the border between India and West Pakistan. He was also a member to the delegation to United Nations General Assembly that questioned the issue of Indian inhabitants in South Africa.

His first big success came when he was appointed as the first Attorney General of India and remarkably held office for 13 years. The first Law Commission, chaired by him (1955-1958) prepared important reports on issues such as- Parliamentary Legislation in Sales Tax, Liability of the State in Tort, Limitation Act, 1908, Registration Act, 1908, Income-tax Act,1922, Contract Act, 1872 etc, he not only advised the government on crucial reforms and legislation but also created a framework for the commissions future. He was also invited to various seminars and conferences from all across the UN and from other countries.

A real gem in the treasury of India’s lawyers, some of the characteristic qualities of his include his stentorian voice which was but however he never used it to cow down an opposing counsel. As Fali S. Nariman quotes, “Those who know and heard Motilal know that his greatest contribution was an advocate and the example he set- putting across the best points in the briefest possible space of time.”

He was invariably full of confidence and never interrupted his opponents. His arguments were crisp and to the point and not loaded with personal reminiscences and anecdotes. He once also went on to say to Seervai who mentioned something personal to him, “these autobiographical references must stop”. He practiced law like an architect and not like a mason or a tradesman.

The most conspicuous trait of his advocacy in court was his clarity of exposition and brevity. He had the most impeccable demeanor in court. Moreover, he laid great emphasis on ethics in the profession and in life in general. He was a constitutionalist who was also a pragmatist. All these traits of his act as an inspiration for the budding lawyers and sets a perfect example of what they should do to achieve great highs like him. He in his writings writes very little about himself and is more or less modest, but however does not fail to convey his strong ethical personality with which he wants to encourage the future generations.

After reading this book, my perspective on law has changed by miles, my information about it has increased fivefold and it has more importantly taught me to dream big and has shown me a path to accomplish those dreams. It teaches one the nuances and intricacies of Law, Ethics and the sanctity of the profession. The book teaches you that in the end all the knowledge learned from books is merely the superficial knowledge gained and it is the intricacies of the subject that matter.

It acts as a source of inspiration for everyone who struggles to achieve success in life. A common man can relate to Setalvad and his struggles in early life and then motivate himself that if Setalvad can do it so can he. Every struggling lawyer who has lost hope can pick this book and re-ignite his lost faith in the subject.

What was also interesting in the book was not only how Setalvad includes his involvement in the events but also gives a clear historical account of its proceedings and consequences. He has similarly highlighted the proceedings in United Nations on questions including Kashmir, The Mundhra scandal leading to the resignation of Mr. T.T Krishnamachari, A description, and an account of the controversies relating to Emergency Legislation and Parliamentary privileges, the problem of Defections and the Statesman controversy.

This to a reader is very appealing as the reader knows what historical event is being mentioned and its importance. To a prospective lawyer, this moreover acts as valuable information seen through the eyes of a former lawyer instead of a textbook or a statute directly. The clarity in the matter is understood in a better manner with higher retention.

The language of the book is simple and can be easily understood by the mass. By his writing, we can clearly see his gentlemanly personality which many have so fondly spoken about. The book has all the essences of an autobiography as it vividly describes his life, his success and his failures in a very organized manner, the reader can easily locate a particular event in his life as all the contents are given and categorized. The book covers three phases in his life which have again been divided very well by Setalvad for easier understanding by the readers.

Setalvad has also included a dictionary of pictures in the book which makes the book more interesting as the readers not only read the incidents but also can see glimpses of them. Moreover, both the introduction and the conclusion are perfect ways to start and end the book. The touching lines by Fali S. Nariman start the book which grasps the attention of the readers immediately, and then ending is a perfect conclusion given by Setalvad himself on his life. He concludes his whole life in three pages leaving a deep impression in the minds of the readers, and makes him almost unforgettable to one who has read this book. He ends the book with a vexing question which leaves the readers probing to learn more.

The only criticism as per me lies that the book in some places gets very descriptive and hence vague. It could be a criticism as well as praise but however for the mass at some places can become dull; he could have concentrated slightly more on himself rather than the vivid descriptions about the historical events he was a part of. Nonetheless, it is a very well written book of which each page is an art beautifully produced by Setalvad.

For a first year law student, there is a lot of learn from the life of Setalvad. His approach to law with honesty and hard-work teaches us that there is no short cut to the ladder of success and satisfaction can only be gained if the success is honestly gained with hard-work and industry. It moreover acts as a fine inspiration for someone who is lost in the maze of law and its intricacies. It taught me a lot and prevented me from making some mistakes I would have otherwise, every step I now take in not only the profession but also life would be influenced somewhere from the life of one the greatest lawyers that India have produced. He beautifully concludes by quoting,” The profession of law is known to be a gamble. So it was in my case. I thought at one time that I was losing the game; but fate willed otherwise. I can never forget the story of my long and continuous rise almost to the crest of the wave where I still seem to tarry.”

Formatted on February 28th, 2019.

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