SOLI SORABJEE: THE BRIDGE-BUILDER
I remember Soli Sorabjee’s birthday as if it was yesterday. It was his ninety-first but this one was special. Last year, because of the pandemic, he couldn’t celebrate his ninetieth. In 2021 he was determined to make up.
Soli was seated in the centre of the room. He had on a beige jacket and a beaming smile. When I went up to wish him he did what he always does, pull my leg and laugh at my response.
“I’ve been watching your interviews and you’re going to get yourself into trouble with the government”. He grinned from ear to ear. In fact, his eyes twinkled. “But don’t worry. I’ve told you I’ll get you out of jail. So carry on making life difficult for them!”
Soli thought of me as a pugilist rather than a journalist. He knew I enjoy tripping up people. I think he liked seeing them fall! He never actually said so but he would often call to comment on the denouement and chortle.
However, there was an occasion when initially I was certain Soli was out to arrange an incident in his own drawing room. It was June 2019, the year before the pandemic. He invited me to dinner and asked me to come early. “I’d like a little word before the others come”, he said and laughed.
Soli made me sit beside him when I arrived. “I’ve got two of your best friends coming this evening”. The look in his eyes seemed to suggest mischief. “Can you guess who they are?”
I couldn’t and he wouldn’t tell me either. But I didn’t have long to wait! Soon Law Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad and Textile Minister Smriti Irani walked in. Frankly, this wasn’t what I expected.
I could tell the two ministers were equally taken back. There weren’t many others. Three, maybe four. So it didn’t take them long to register my presence. When they did their smiles froze. Meanwhile, I glanced at Soli. He was, of course, grinning, He was enjoying the situation he had so artfully, if secretively, crafted.
Actually, it turned out to be a rather pleasant evening. The ministers and I were on our best behaviour. Initially, we didn’t speak to each other but when we sat down to dinner the atmosphere relaxed. Soli keeps a scrumptious table and the delicious flavours of his food must have relaxed the mood.
Soli waited for the evening to end before saying anything but then he whispered: “Did you enjoy meeting your friends?” I assumed this was his normal teasing. It took a couple of phone calls in the days that followed to realize he was, in fact, trying to repair relations between the government and me. He was creating an opportunity where that might happen.
“I thought you were committed to getting me out of jail”, I ribbed when he explained his strategy. “Have you changed your mind?” “Not at all”, he said. “But I thought it might be better if you don’t go there to start with!”
The subject didn’t come up again till Soli’s comments on his birthday. Both he and I knew there was little prospect of this or any other government sending me to jail. But it’s comforting to be told by one of the country’s foremost lawyers he’d bail me out. In fact, Soli said it so often I suspect – no, I’m sure – there was a message in the humor. He wasn’t the sort who repeated his jokes again and again.
The Soli I will always remember was a steadfast champion of human rights who would not hesitate to tell governments they are wrong. But he never did it hurtfully. Yet his politeness revealed a steely resolve far stronger than any message conveyed with belligerence and shrillness. Perhaps that also explains the dinner in 2019. It might just have been his way of warning people Karan is a friend.
Thank you, Soli. I never said that properly whilst you were alive.
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