Without a privileged background, without a god-father in the legal profession, without a degree from Oxford or Cambridge or any foreign university, without being a barrister (as was fashionable at that time), handicapped by a severe stammer in his childhood, Palkhivala reached the very pinnacle of success in the legal profession in less than 20 years.
What was the story of his stupendous success at the Bar?
He is commonly referred to as a ‘Courtroom Genius’.
Nani Palkhivala was a studious child who loved reading more than anything else. He was a diligent (quietly and steadily continuing a task despite any difficulties), conscientious (guided by or in accordance with conscience or sense of right and wrong) student. Apart from studies, he was good in music – playing the violin and the piano, palmistry, photography, sketching, painting and carpentary but he never pursued these hobbies after college.
A voracious reader from childhood, Palkhivala invested all his savings in buying second hand books. Palkhivala would spend hours reading the latest arrivals in biography, history and literature in a book shop on Grant Road in Bombay and Shri Bhatkal, the Proprietor, allowed him to use the bookshop late into the evening.
Little wonder that he developed an abiding love for literature and wanted to be a teacher in English.
Palkhivala’s stammer has often been commented upon. A man who kept 100,000 people spell bound at a cricket stadium, would, as a child, struggle to say even few words. He got stuck with words and was unable to complete a sentence. It was a terrible sight. His father made him run on the beach with an almond under his tongue. Perhaps, he took the cue from Demosthenes [ Athenian statesman and orator (circa 385-322 BC)], who placed pebbles in his mouth and practiced shouting at the waves to clear his stammer. Despite his stammer, Palkhivala took part in several debates and elocution contests. He was determined to get over this handicap and it is tempting to speculate that he may not have been such a great speaker if he did not have the stammer.
Great achievements have often come from men/women driven to overcome insurmountable odds.
His love and extensive reading of the classics, biographies and history proved useful in debates and elocutions which he frequently won.
Palkhivala’s debating skills and clear thinking led his father to frequently advise him to become a lawyer. He said
‘My son – you are cut out for law– become a lawyer‘. But Palkhivala wanted to be a lecturer in English and did not follow his father’s suggestion.
After completing his matriculation, Palkhivala joined the St. Xavier’s College in 1940, and completed his B.A with Honours in English Literature.
But he was not selected for the post of lecturer in the local college.
He then went on to do his M.A in English literature. Even at this time, he did not pursue a career in law although he could have taken up law immediately after the B.A examination. Thus, two more years were spent in getting his M.A degree.
His wife Nargesh wanted Palkhivala to become a member of the Indian Civil Service (ICS). This was the ultimate dream for many young Indians at that time. The ICS entrance examination was held in New Delhi but a severe epidemic broke out that year resulting in several deaths. His parents were extremely worried and requested him not to go to Delhi. Palkhivala, as a devoted son, did not submit his application from and the last date was over. By another twist of fate, which must have seemed cruel at that time, the Government later declared that the examination would be held at Bombay because of the epidemic. By this time, it was too late to submit application form and Palkhivala never attempted the examination again.
Having failed in his attempt to become an English lecturer and to write the ICS exam, Palkhivala finally took up law and joined the Government Law College in 1942.
It is supremely ironical that India’s greatest lawyer became one by accident.
If he had become a English lecturer, he may have retired as a Vice-Chancellor. As an ICS officer, he would have eventually retired as a Secretary to the Government. One eventually gets what one deserves.
He was a Professor of Law at the Government Law College, Bombay, and was appointed the Tagore Professor of Law at the Calcutta University.
In 1975 he was elected an Honorary member of The Academy of Political Science, New York,
and in 1977, he was appointed Ambassador of India to the United States of America.
In June 1978, the Princeton University, New Jersey, U.S.A, conferred on him the Honorary Degree of Doctor of Laws, describing him as “defender of constitutional liberties, champion of human rights, teacher, author and economic developer.”
In April 1979, the Lawrence University, Wisconsin, U.S.A, conferred on him the Honorary Degree of Doctor of Laws.
Nani Palkhivala has argued a number of historical cases in the courts of India and abroad. He was also associated with several industrial and business houses as Chairman, Vice-Chairman and Director.
What makes one person reach unbelievable levels of achievement in his chosen field?
Are there any lessons to be learnt from such success?
Is there a formula that can be replicated by anyone – like ingredients of a recipe of a master chef that can be merely repeated?
There is a theory that success leaves clues. If a person has succeeded in doing certain things, it is possible to do the same thing and achieve similar, if not the same, success.
Is achievement the result of innate talent?
What role do hard work and preparation play?
Does the particular working environment play an important role?
The answers to the above questions differs from person to person, but one thing is for sure
“One always achieves, what one deserves, in one form or the other, now or later; such are the laws of existence”
1. Nani Palkhivala: The Courtroom Genius.
2. We, the Nation: The Lost Decades by Nani Palkhivala.