PESI GINWALA (1918-2008)

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  • Published 3.07.08

There was no “moaning of the Bar” (apologies to Tennyson) when Pesi Ginwala “put out to sea” earlier this week. But that was because of his written instructions “not to declare the Bar Library Club closed and not to request the Court to rise” out of respect to him. Peston Padamji Ginwala, probably Calcutta’s seniormost barrister, chose to go gentle into the night in his 90th year so that no one noticed an age had passed.

It used to be a High Court joke that it was just as well Pesi did not smoke. Otherwise, he would have insisted on paying the paanwallah by crossed account payee cheque. There was nothing “dui-nombori” (to lapse into Bengali slang) about him, as I knew to my cost. Pesi was my adviser once on delicate quasi-legal negotiations on which hung a lot. I was anxious to close the matter as quickly as possible as I had an assignment abroad, but the other party dragged things out interminably. “I can’t understand why he’s doing this!” Pesi exclaimed impatiently over the Scotch and akoori-on-toast that always accompanied the sessions for which he didn’t charge a paise. “I told him explicitly you wanted to finish things because you have this attractive offer abroad!” For all his 50 years then as a barrister, he could not comprehend the cunning of an adversary who would use that information to play for time. Pesi played clean; he played straight.

Whether this made him a good lawyer I don’t know. He conscientiously resigned a retainership because the company never sought the advice for which it paid him. He was outraged at losing a case not because his corporate client became liable for a tidy sum in back pay and compensation but because the successful ex-employee, a senior engineer, had invoked a law meant to protect blue-collar workers. It was for him a travesty of justice. A close friend who needed an opinion concerning a non-government organization was told to approach him through a solicitor. His finickiness won respect: judges descended from the bench and went to him towards the end when his voice no longer carried.

It would be inaccurate as well as an affront to the egalitarian spirit to explain Pesi’s rectitude only in terms of background. But his distinguished father, Sir Padamji Ginwala, ceased dabbling in politics, fearing that the Civil Disobedience Movement would encourage disrespect for the law. The nine-year-old Pesi was bitterly disappointed when Sir Padamji did not emerge from Buckingham Palace in clanking armour and brandishing a sword after being knighted by George V.

Pesi won the top entrance scholarship to an august public school, Charterhouse, and a Domus Classical Scholarship to Balliol where he got first class honours in Mods and started on Greats. When World War II broke out he abandoned Oxford and returned to India because university was no fun without the intellectual interaction of fellow students who had been called up. However, having already eaten his dinners at Inner Temple, he was called to the Bar in India and served his pupillage under Sachin Chaudhuri.

Somehow, the stories about him concern alcohol. Upbraided by Sir Padamji for lacking public spirit, the young Pesi retorted he had plenty of private spirit. When I mentioned South Africa’s Speaker, Frene Ginwala, he said her name celebrated the right kind of gin: his commemorated cotton ginning. There’s also the famous tale of his pug being fed a teaspoon of cognac every night. Staying at a fashionable hotel in Kashmir, Hilla, his vivacious wife, asked the maître’d to give the pug its nightcap. The man did so and the dog spat it out. It was Beehive brandy instead of Rémy Martin.

Six years ago, already suffering from Parkinson’s Disease, Pesi sent me a 13-page handwritten letter — typed letters were strictly for business — describing the sudden death of the young Bengali cook he had taken to his retirement in Bombay. He had sent for the cook’s father and siblings for the funeral, naturally bearing all costs though saying so would have been vulgar. Such particularities denoted the understated noblesse oblige that was England’s gift to India until chicken tikka masala and swaggering NRIs altered the tone of the relationship.