Parsa Mukhi: More than a brother, much more than a judge

Jai Mukhi

(An article written by my father's brother Mr Jai Mukhi, published in the Indian Express soon after my father passed away in September 1976.)

In 1937, Parsa was 19 and I was nine. That was the year of the Jubilee celebrations at the D.J. Sind College, Karachi, at that time affiliated to the University of Bombay - Sind itself was attached to the Presidency of Bombay for nearly a century. I was an avid spectator, and I have a vivid memory of Parsa in his straw hat and striped blazer acting Maurice Chevalier and belting out his songs and gags. What a lively person he was! Full of banter, witticism, leg-pulling and endless argument on matters of no consequence; full of grandiose plans, the building of castles in Spain and villas on Greek Islands; always sure of a visiting professorship at Harvard or Berkeley; all of which did no one any harm but served only to boost his morale and keep him in good cheer.

A pampered child in a once too-rich family, he loved gadgets and toys; he loved elegance in all things and always strived after perfection - in clothes, book-bindings, hi-fi equipment, dictaphones. At St. Xavier's College he got addicted to music, Prom music to begin with. A clean man to the end, his only escapades were finding a good seat at Sir Cowasji Jehangir Hall. Those were the days when Mehli Mehta was the foremost violinist in Bombay. Much of his allowance went into gramophone records, and it was he who introduced me and my younger brother to the pleasures of Western music. For me it is impossible to listen to Drigo's serenade, Les Millions d' Arlequin, or any of the Johann Strauss waltzes without a wrench at the heart-strings. He once admitted having seen The Great Waltz no less than 11 times ! He got his first heart attack in 1961, 15 years ago. In Breach Candy Hospital he had barely recovered - the oxygen cylinder was still in the room - when he persuaded the matron to let him have his beloved Sony tape recorder by his side.

That attack could have easily crippled him. But he went on with great gusto; improved his law practice considerably; continued his sea cruises year after year. His natural inquisitiveness and regular visits to the engine-room brought him rich dividends in marine collision cases. He led a fuller life than before and became Mr. Justice P.M. Mukhi of the Bombay High Court in 1972.

What kept him going was his zest for life; and immense courage. Not that he was entirely free of fear. There were times when I had seen him urge himself on and sing out a tune with feeling "Haariye na himmat, bisariye na Ram". But he had an ingrained and effortless sense of honour. He loved to think that he had inherited a trait or two from his ancestor Mukhi Hiranand Tarachand of Hyderabad (Sind) who in the year 1843 or thereabouts had declined a jagir from Sir Charles Napier on a point of principle. In 1926 when Parsa was about eight and the family was in Egypt, Father sent him to the well-known Victoria College at Alexandria. He was the only Indian there. An English boy had insulted one of Parsa's Arab friends. Parsa, small and skinny, and dark like a Sudanese, had plucked up courage to have a fist fight with the much larger boy, rolled over with him in the dust and emerged bloodied but victorious. He was an instant hero. Soon after he shook hands with the English boy he had felled and made great friends with him. This typified Parsa's courage, a burning sense of fair-play and total lack of rancour.

As a lawyer Parsa was very sound and more careful than the client. He believed in meticulous and conscientious preparation. A rare client escaped his lectures. The straight and narrow path and "abundant caution" were his cardinal principles. He would insist that his family and close friends put their affairs in complete order. His gratuitous and repeated advice and admonition must have saved many from shipwreck.

What made him appear irascible was his inability to understand why people did not think logically. He thought in straight lines, no corners, no rounding off of the edges, no ulterior motive, no desire to flatter or please, no play at all in the joints. A spade was a spade. This, of course, made him unpopular with quite a few. It was thus that those who liked him did so in spite of the bitter pills that he administered and for his deeper qualities. The friends who surrounded him and kept with him till the end, were, without exception, genuine parties. They liked him for what he was - a simple, well-meaning man, without guile, gregarious, compassionate by nature, and generous with his time and talk. To strangers or to the undiscerning he often gave the impression of being a cold and self-centered person. But he was intensely emotional and a very great helper. His heart bled for the underdog. He never gave thought to the consequence of doing justice. It would never have occurred to him that the doing of justice should ever be resented or disapproved of or bring punishment in time.

There was one judgement of his of which I am very proud: Hamida Begum v. Rangachari. It was cited in Dalmia's case before Mr. Justice Kerr of the Queen's Bench Division. I think I saw a glint of admiration in Mr. Justice Kerr's eyes. There were obviously judges in India who were just and fearless in the extreme. Parsa had written more than a hundred page judgement in favour of a Pakistani lady sitting miles away in another country, a lady whom he had never known, who had never appeared before him in person. (And he was a refugee from Pakistan, our family having lost all our fortune there ! ) A building worth about Rs.16 lakhs in 1975 had been sold away for about Rs. 80,000 on the plea that in spite of a notice the municipal taxes had not been paid. The Indian Custodian of Enemy Property, one Rangachari, who had approved of the sale, took the plea that there was a "state of war" between India and Pakistan, that Hamida Begum was an enemy alien, and that she had no locus standi to file a writ petition under Article 226 of the Constitution. Parsa was aghast, a "state of war" in 1975 when both the Governments were straining every nerve to implement the Simla Agreement? Had Rangachari the permission of the Ministry of External Affairs to take this plea? Rangachari said that no notice had been sent to Hamida Begum as no one knew her address in Pakistan. A piece of paper had been pasted on a wall of the building, that is all, and the building had been knocked down for a song to one of the tenants. With his characteristic thoroughness, Parsa sent for and went through the official files. He discovered that Rangachari had with him in Hamida Begum's account nearly twice the amount needed to pay the municipal taxes. Parsa also ferreted out a letter which Rangachari had himself written to Hamida Begum at her Karachi address only a year before the auction. Of course, Parsa set aside the fraudulent sale and ordered Rangachari to preserve the property in trust for Hamida Begum till a settlement was reached between India and Pakistan. He ordered Rangachari to pay the costs of the case from his own pocket, and he forbade the Central Government from contributing to them. He also ordered the issue of notice to Rangachari to show cause why he should not be prosecuted for making a false affidavit and committing perjury. I am inclined to think that it was the quality of justice in this case that morally inclined the English Judge towards us and earned for an Indian national a judgement for nearly 4 million pounds sterling against a Pakistani bank. If a puisne judge of an Indian High Court was capable of this quality of objectivity, the evidence of a former Chief Justice of India would certainly be worth a great deal of credence. Almost each word uttered by Mr. Justice Sikri on the true content of Indian law was accepted by the English Judge with respect bordering on reverence.

I had repeatedly asked my brother to give up his judgeship, come to Delhi and set up a retired practice. The Supreme Court Bar Room is the last refuge of former judges, ministers, ambassadors, civil servants - a noisy place with a shabby tea-room but all the same a good club and productive of sufficient income. But Parsa liked Delhi only in the cold weather when the flowers were out or when there was the International Law Association's conference or a similar jaunt. Otherwise he was deeply in love with Bombay and his friends there. He had gathered around him friends who were generally 10 or 15 years younger than him. He had a special rapport with young minds. They too found him very modern and out-going. His physical arteries might have got clogged up with cholesterol, but his mental bloodstream bubbled and ran freely. The news of his transfer, the thought of his being exiled from his friends, tore him apart.

A well-meaning friend, in fact a patron, and a highly placed one, advised Parsa to bend with the times. After he left, Parsa who had been ailing and reeling under the shock of the transfer padded in his slippers to see off at the lift. "Bend with the times?" he asked in wonderment. "How can I bend? Haven't I taken an oath? I cannot and shall not bend. I shall be true to my oath. Ever."

Sir Percy, as his sons Anil and Sunil called him, was in high spirits even in the intensive care unit at Jaslok Hospital. He had started dousing the nurses with his famous eau-de-cologne spray, much in evidence when he was at the Bar. He had not shaved, and when Anil or Sunil, I forget who, commented on his moustache, he said he had an idea. He would trim it and dye it and present himself to the Chief Justice and say "Chief, I am not Justice Mukhi, I am Justice Mukherjee, transferred from Calcutta to Bombay !" Even after three cardiac arrests he bounced back. He went on to attend Court and to visit his Club. And on the last day of his life he personally supervised the fixing of a TV antenna.

One of Parsa's minor disappointments was that Father did not send him to University in England, but those were the years of the war, and it was just not possible. By the end of the war in Europe, in 1945, Parsa had already put in three years of law practice. But one of the great things Father did for him was to get him married outside our community, an almost unlettered merchant community, and that too with great eclat, to his college sweetheart, Sarla Mallik. She brought into Parsa's life a grandeur of the spirit. Cast in the mould of her uncle, Gurdial Mallik, the saint of Shantiniketan, she taught him to read widely, to love and admire the greatness of a simple life, and she gave him total companionship and support in matters of conscience, fearlesness and integrity.

Parsa had a special bond with my sister, Gopi, who was nearest his age, and with her husband, Manna Gauba. Without Gopi he would not have found his way to Sarla. But perhaps the greatest gift Gopi made to him was an introduction in his last month or two to Sathya Sai Baba. Parsa had always been pure of spirit, he hardly needed religion. But it pleased me no end to know that night after, sometimes for hours on end, Parsa would listen not to Mantovani but to bhajans , and some of these had moved him to his depths.

Did Parsa leave anything for posterity? What does a fragrant flower leave? It leaves behind for some the memory of its beauty and its fragrance. He left an example of boundless courage, of incorrigible zest, of sterling goodness, of fairness, even forgiveness, towards all, including those who he well knew had wished him ill. In his death, it was Parsa who had triumphed and not the sparrow with the bow and arrow. When he went, he had on his face, and we all saw it, the most beautiful smile.

I am most grateful to my uncle, Jai Mukhi, for offering to let me post this article on this website. - Sunil Mukhi

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