Thursday, March 28, 2019

Pratap Chatterjee, Senior Advocate, Barrister-at-law.

Pratapda. My husband’s senior. 
An imposing figure, I heard stories about him from my soon-to-be husband. I even had the occasion to work with him and I found him frightening. I will not hesitate to admit it. His booming voice and quick questions almost had me hiding under his large cavernous desk which seemed to be filled with every conceivable thing ranging from churan to bottles of palm-candy to books on medicine and homeopathy and computers. He came for my “ashirbad” to bless me and I dared not look up to see his face. I was a shy bride-to-be, made more shy because of the strangeness of the proceedings combined with the amount of strangers in the room.  And trust Vaishali to start laughing and giggling because he wore a wig. I later came to know he suffered from a rare disease that ensured he lost all his hair and hence the wig. 
Over the years, I slowly came to know him better. He was the rock solid senior we could depend upon in a heavy case. He would ensure he was there at the cost of other matters if he sensed that you were nervous and wanted him there. He never let down his juniors. But that never stopped him from letting you come into your own. I remember this one time there was a serious case and he and my own senior were leading me. On the other side was a heavyweight Barrister. My own senior (another gentleman and a different story altogether) was out of town (as usual) and I was (as usual) tongue-tied. When the case was called, there was no sign of Pratapda. I fumbled, I hummed, I hawed, I started arguing. And miraculously, we won. I ran to Pratapda to tell him. "see, you were ready," he said. That was that.
BUT, if Pratapda was on the other side (speaking for myself), I was mortified and feeling thoroughly rattled and unprepared. I wished the earth would swallow me...
I saw his humane side a few years into my marriage when my husband had broken his leg and Pratapda himself came to our house for a conference. It was unheard of, that such a senior man would visit the Chamber of a junior. But Pratapda was just not any other senior. He was gregarious and loud, he had a heart that he tried too hard to conceal, he was a diamond in the rough: he regaled us with stories that made us laugh and he openly announced that women should never be educated, or be allowed to join the profession! Don’t get me wrong. He came from a very erudite and renowned family and both his sisters are highly educated. His wife too was a member of the legal profession. It’s just that he said it to get a reaction from the women advocates around him! He used to be a mite disappointed when I refused to react saying that then he better ensure he found his sons illiterate wives from the villages … those days, (in the 90s) such conversations were not politically incorrect and we got away with it.
If you go around court and chat with people, you will find that everyone has a story to say about Pratapda. I agree that not all of them may be to your liking but everyone will have something to say. Because Pratapda was larger than life, he was the one with the wisecracks, the asides in the audible hearing of the judges and even the oft scornful laugh that he barely concealed. He sometimes used to complain that work wasn’t challenging enough. He grasped matters quickly and got bored. There’s this story where a client, a solicitor and a junior went for a conference to Pratapda. They spent three minutes discussing the case and forty minutes gossiping about everything under the sun. Pratapda told the client that he was dishonest and nothing could save him. The client went home most distraught despite the assurances of the junior and the solicitor. That night and the next day, the client was wondering if he had chosen the wrong lawyer for his case. Pratapda appeared in Court and argued the client’s case and it seemed like he could do no wrong. He came away smelling of roses, he went away happy, having gotten the orders he wanted and shaking his head out of bewilderment. There are many such stories of Pratapda. He was quick, he was witty, he bailed you out of trouble. What could be more important?
Personally, we knew Pratapda a little better. His father, Somnath Chatterjee (yes, the ex-speaker of the Lok Sabha) had been my father-in-law’s senior, so the families went back a long way. Pratapda loved good food and he didn’t need an excuse to call us out for lunch or dinner. He always claimed that the food at his place was lousy. Once he served tea (or was it coffee?) and asked everyone what it was. Trust me, even now we are not sure! I cannot keep count of the number of times we have gone out with him and over the years I found myself becoming comfortable around him, even daring to tell him, only a few weeks ago that I had been scared of him because he used to bully us. I still can hear his resounding laughter ringing in my ears. He loved it!
Pratapda lost his sister about a year or so ago. I still remember his aghast face as he returned to work, he was heart-broken. Cruelly, he lost his father soon thereafter; last August. I was laid in bed with a slipped disc and could not attend, so I really did not feel the loss. But Pratapda never got over it. He abandoned his wig and seemed more than a little lost. He also hadn’t been keeping well and had to undergo many dietary restrictions, inter alia. Often he would make his way over to our table and we would talk, I would tell him recipes and suggest meals and he would get me to pass on instructions to his cook! He bought every single book that I wrote and read them and complimented me. He teased me about hammering away at my computer in the busy Bar Library and not paying attention to him. He still joked and told his stories but a little light was missing. It was as if he never could get away from that cloak of grief that he wore. 
For my part, I would everyday make my way to his table at some point of time and chatter with him for a few moments. Share something, ask him a legal point that was troubling me, anything. My biggest regret is that on the day of his stroke, I did not go to him. I had been busy and had a headache. I left early, even skipping a rather important meeting because I really wasn’t feeling well. Less than an hour later I heard of the stroke he suffered in the Bar Library. At our table, where he often used to come and sit. I wish I had been there. I don’t know what would have turned differently, but I just wish I was there. 
For when I saw Pratapda again, after his operation, in the ICU, on a ventilator, it wasn’t our Pratapda. It wasn’t the man who laughed and joked and told us innumerable stories in that loud imposing voice. It was a man I sadly barely recognised, on a ventilator: something I am sure he never would have wanted. I was leaving town the next day….I heard what the doctors said, I wondered if I would see him again. 
Sure enough, he passed away a day after I left. My husband rushed back to be with the family as they performed the last rites. I didn’t because I had other unavoidable obligations. I still am away and have not returned home. I still haven’t returned to the Bar Library. I still cannot believe that Pratapda will not come and sit across me and tell me to stop typing. 
The shradh is on Sunday. I will be there. I know I need to pay my last respects to the most unlikely figure that has come to mean so much to me. 
But the Courts will be that much emptier because we shall not hear his booming voice. The Bar Library will fall silent because we will not hear his familiar tread. And I know that out of the corner of my eye, I will always be wondering if Pratapda is somewhere nearby. Maybe the door to the Courtroom will open and he will be rushing in … Or maybe if I look around just one more time again, surely, he will be at his seat?
For I cannot imagine that I will not see him again. 
It hurts to have to say goodbye.