The lamp case - I

Berjis Desai

Two mohollas away from Seervai Vad, in a largish house, resided a tall gentleman called Meherjibhai Vakil, whose surname announced his calling. The Legal Practitioners Act, 1846 had attempted to regulate the mukhtars, pleaders and vakils in the mofussil (semi urban, rural) areas. Not much legal training was required; a character certificate from a local court generally sufficed. Of course, some went to England, to read law at one of the Inns and returned as barristers to practice in the high courts, then dominated by the English.
Meherjibhai was a bright lad in the local Tata boys’ school in Navsari; he worked with an old and experienced vakil for a few years and thereafter managed to obtain from the Office of the Divan at Baroda, some sort of a certificate to practice as a pleader before the local courts.

  Illustration by Farzana Cooper


Loud and articulate, Meherjibhai could be sugary sweet with rich or powerful clients. He fancied himself as a learned practitioner of the law, though his knowledge was rather cursory. Property disputes and minor crimes were argued and decided by common sense and applying the principles of justice and equity. The local courts were manned by persons who knew even less than Meherjibhai and his ilk. Meherjibhai had a standard modus operandi — if his client’s facts looked bad, praise the judge or magistrate in poetic terms (all of whom were grateful for the Parsi delicacies which Meherji’s corpulent wife cooked and sent to their homes as a culinary bribe), and managed to obtain a satisfying order. On Sunday afternoons, he drank toddy from a small clay pot with the judges and regaled them with bawdy tales.
Navsari residents called him siplo (closest translation, a smooth, sweet talker) and did not much like him. He built a substantial practice and Bombay law firms recommended his name to clients for cases in Navsari and Surat. In the course of his practice, he had occasion to meet the great Sir Pherozeshah Mehta, co-founder of the Indian National Congress and a leading lawyer in Bombay who was widely regarded as the father of the Bombay Municipal Corporation (BMC). Sir Pherozeshah’s ancestors hailed from Navsari and he had a soft corner for the town.
Meherjibhai’s principal client was a rich childless widow, we shall call her Dosibai, who resided alone in a splendid mansion (by the standards of 1895 Navsari) displaying antiques, including vases and lamps from China, where her father-in-law had sold opium and spices. The lady, in her mid-50s, was lonely and bored. She adored the witty and clever (in her perception) Meherji Vakil. Together, they won several cases against her wretched tenants. What began as a professional relationship turned personal. The lady appreciated that Meherji’s proficiency was not restricted only to the courtroom. Nothing ever remained secret in inquisitive Navsari and this dalliance was widely known. Earlier, Meherjibhai only sold his mind, whispered his envious competitors.
Then, one steamy afternoon, at the height of passion (feigned, so far as Meherji was concerned), the lady gifted him a beautiful Chinese lamp, which Meherji had greatly coveted. The lamp was proudly displayed in Meherjibhai’s "hall” (as the living room was then called) and all visitors would stoop in awe to appreciate the lamp.
Meherji’s fame grew exponentially and he began to ignore his one-time client and lover. She was not exactly amused and after a major showdown she marched to the local police post where she registered a complaint against Meherjibhai for theft of the lamp.
The whole of Navsari knew that whatever else Meherjibhai was, he was not a thief. The matter went up to the Gaekwad in Baroda. Despite several interventions by community elders, the complainant lady remained adamant. Meherjibhai had to suffer the humiliation of standing as an accused in the dock in a packed courtroom. Dozens of witnesses testified about the gift and the lady’s case collapsed in no time. The lawyer was acquitted and the presiding judge passed severe strictures against the complainant as he was most distressed to see his toddy buddy in the dock as an accused. Even though his honor had been quickly upheld, Meherji was most upset and livid.
He filed a case of defamation against Dosibai, claiming damages of "Rupee One,” for slandering his reputation. To ask for such "token” damages was a time honored convention in defamation suits. The widow refused to apologize and engaged an eminent Parsi barrister, who had eaten dinners at Lincoln’s Inn, to defend her. Not to be outdone, Meherji ran to Sir Pherozeshah and begged him to appear for him. In 1906, the 61-year-old Pherozeshah (already three times municipal commissioner of BMC) was an extremely busy man. He was in the process of founding a newspaper called The Bombay Chronicle. Sir Pherozeshah was Meherjibhai’s secret weapon to be unleashed against the bitter Dosibai.
"Much as I would like to clear your name, Meherji, I cannot visit Navsari so often to fight your case,” stated Sir Pherozeshah.
Meherji prostrated himself at the great man’s feet and sobbed violently (being an accomplished dramatist).
Sir Pherozeshah relented and agreed. When Dosibai heard the news, she blandly said, "Let Jarthosth Saheb come to Navsari, I won’t apologize to this scoundrel.”
The stage was thus set for a battle royalé in what came to be known in Navsari as the Lamp Case.              To be continued

Berjis Desai, author of Oh! Those Parsis and The Bawaji, occasionally practices law.