Guest Post by Prashant Iyengar: A tribute to the late Professor Vepa P. Sarathi

The renowned legal scholar, eminent jurist, former Law Commission member and Senior Advocate of the Supreme Court Vepa P. Sarathi passed away yesterday, four years short of his 100th birthday. There were
portents: this is after all a season in which diminutive titans have been missing centuries. To the generation of his students at NALSAR and elsewhere, this news has come as a shock. I think many of us believed audaciously that he could live forever, or at least that our adoration of him would make it so. We mourn his passing today.

Professor Sarathi was the grandsire of NALSAR and stewarded us through many difficult legal battlefields. At once, Bhisma and Sarathi, he was to us, entirely the stuff of legend. A glance at his eclectic scholarly oeuvre –  including bestselling books on statutory interpretation, property law, evidence, his authorship of law commission reports, and his semi-professional interests in literature, vedic mathematics and astronomy, all attest to his extraordinary erudition. The NALSAR university website lists him as having taught courses in the Indian Penal Code, Criminal Procedure, Transfer of Property, Evidence and the Constitution. He also taught Judicial Process and Company Law and was available for guest talks in many other courses. With him around we had the rare privilege of having eight decades of legal virtuosity at our continuous disposal.  NALSAR will be hard pressed to find five new faculty who could be the equal of one Professor Sarathi. But more than his scholarly attainments, he was also habitually a friend, guide and mentor to almost everyone who crossed his path, and was the affable grandfather-in-law (avus lex) who we all looked up to. He was simply the kindest man we knew. It is this latter avatar that we will miss the most.

In his first satire, the Roman poet Horace pauses to ask rhetorically, “Ridentem dicere verum Quid vetat?” (roughly, “What prevents me/one from speaking the truth in a playful mood/smilingly?”). I think this question quite aptly describes Professor Sarathi’s teaching style, if not his entire mien. He had a rich fund of humour – anecdotes and clever limericks, many of his own coining – which he employed to dilute the viscosity of legal discourse. As a teacher his lectures were always riveting– whether he was discussing arcane principles of
property law or lighter themes like law and literature. He had the magician’s knack of nonchalance. The rabbit of the rule against perpetuities was conjured effortlessly from his top hat of legal knowledge, and presented to us matter-of-factly. Having only recently turned law professor – of property law, at that – I am now more fully able to appreciate the wizardry required to be able to convey nuances of property dogma to a class of indifferent nineteen year olds!

More than an institutional loss, his passing will be felt as a national loss. For over four decades, his books on Property, Evidence and Statutory Interpretation have instructed thousands of law students interested in acquiring more than a mere guidebook education. Moreover, at 96 he was one of the last surviving repositories of a
legal memory that spanned, and could give firsthand accounts of four distinct eras of our legal culture – colonial, national, post-emergency and post liberalization. He could speak of law with the same facility as narrating his own family’s history. He was simultaneously museum, relic, encyclopedia, chronicler, genealogist and exponent of Anglo-Indian law. A true national treasure. 

A friend’s favourite Vepa Sarathi story is about how she once discovered him in his office at NALSAR reclining comfortably in his chair, feet resting on his table, absorbed in a Harry Potter book. This has also become my favourite image of the man. At 95, this is what I aim to be doing. To have accomplished in law even a fraction of
what he did, but also to stretch my legs on a table and read whatever it is the kids are going crazy about. To have authored dense legal commentaries and have read Cicero, but also to retain my curiosity in the fabulous. This ‘passionate curiosity’ will be one of Professor Sarathi’s enduring legacies. It is the thing he has infected us, his grateful students, with.

We will miss your gentleness, you erudition and your humor Professor Sarathi. Thank you for everything.
Written by
Tarunabh Khaitan
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