Dhobi Talao English

THE late Justice S.K. Desai, a senior puisne judge of the Bombay High Court in the 1980s, hated bad drafting. And bad drafting in bad English was like pouring fuel into his fire. Then the firing would start!

A well-known activist lawyer who had also been chairman of the Bar Council of Maharashtra and Goa had plenty of ‘filings’ before the Bombay High Court. He dabbled in politics too. He was repeatedly re-elected to the Bar Council, mainly on the strength of votes from his core constituency, viz., the Bar of the Court of Small Causes, Mumbai.

This court had been established under the Presidency Small Cause Court Act, 1882 and even Advocate Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi had practised there.

The main Bench of this court is housed in a heritage structure located in an area known as Dhobi Talao in Mumbai. In those days, this was the only seat of the ‘Small Causes Court’.

There was no suburban branch of the Small Causes Court.

This self-styled ‘King of Small Causes’ had a roaring practice in many subordinate courts. He literally thundered, roared and browbeat judges to get favourable orders.

Since he had good connections with news reporters, he could make any statement to them alleging corruption or bias by a judge and thereby pressurise the judge. He seldom ventured into the high court in those days.

One day he was compelled to move an urgent writ petition on a lodging number before a Bench headed by Justice S.K. Desai. As per his usual style, half a dozen of his juniors and some reporters had accompanied him to the court to watch him perform.

Playing to this gallery, he started giving a speech about the injustice done to some encroachers whom he represented and against whom demolition action had been threatened by the municipal corporation. He sought urgent ad-interim reliefs from the Bench.

Justice Desai cursorily looked at the petition, went through its prayers and with a scowl on his face asked: “In which language is this writ petition drafted?”

Lawyer: “Of course, it is in English.”

Judge: “This is certainly not English.”

Lawyer (perplexed): “I don’t understand.”

Judge: “Neither do we. Are you aware what is the official language of the high court?”

Lawyer: “Yes milord, it is English.”

Judge (throwing the papers down): “Then draft it in English and come back.”

Lawyer: “But this is how we always draft.”

Judge: “Maybe. Where is such language accepted?”

Lawyer: “In the Small Causes Court.”

Judge: “I should have known! So this writ petition is in Dhobi Talao English! Should we reject it as incomprehensible or will you withdraw it and file it in proper English?”

Lawyer (looking chastened): “I will withdraw this writ petition. Lordship may give me liberty.”

Judge: “We will grant you liberty to withdraw but you must promise not to take any liberties with the English language.”

Though this was good enough for all the reporters to report, none of them did, for obvious reasons. But memories such as these, though not reported then, can certainly be fondly recalled now.

Here is another such memory of those enjoyable days.

Those were pre-computer days of handwritten drafts typed out on manual typewriters by professional typists. Numerous typographical errors used to creep in. Some milords did not notice them. Others consciously ignored them. But with Justice S.K. Desai, one could never take any chances.

If a lawyer noticed a typographical error it was best that he himself pointed it out and sought permission to correct the judge’s copy rather than the judge finding it and losing his cool.

In one case, I was representing an employee of the Bombay Municipal Corporation who had been suspended and risked losing his quarters. The writ sought a stay as principles of natural justice had not being followed.

At one place instead of “The petitioner needs funds for the education of his children” it was typed “The petitioner needs funds for the execution of his children”.

I pointed this out at the outset and Justice Desai made a face but allowed me to correct it. I then said that there was one more typo to be corrected.

At one place instead of “Bombay Municipal Corporation” what had inadvertently got typed was “Bombay Municipal Corruption”. I sought leave to make the necessary corrections.

Justice Desai: “Are you sure it is a mistake? For once, a correct thing has been typed by mistake. Let it be.”

Everyone in the courtroom had a good laugh.

But the learned judge did finally allow me to rid my draft of this ‘corruption’ and restore the municipal body’s status as a corporation.

The Leaflet