Poetic Justice? The Literary Musings of Justice Gautam Patel
Neha Joshi (Bar  and  Bench) 17 May 2024
Justice Gautam Patel bid farewell to the Bombay High Court on April 25, leaving behind a legacy of eloquently written judgments which were sometimes witty, and sometimes, a bit theatrical.
In his ‘final act’ as a judge, during the first ever held full court reference for a farewell, the judge expressed his thoughts on his tenure in poetic terms. He weaved a vivid description of his judicial chambers and the two trees outside, a testament to his literary prowess.
Through his term, he earned a reputation for penning down sarcastic yet hard-hitting orders. Laden with literary devices and references to film, literature, history and other subjects, Justice Patel’s orders offered relief from the mundane. Perhaps a post-retirement career in creative writing beckons.
What is interesting is that in one of the farewell events, Justice Patel candidly said that he found judgment writing to be torturous.
In ten such rulings passed during his tenure, Justice Patel donned many hats - from that of a food critic to a screenplay writer - all in a bid to bring some levity to otherwise morose courtrooms.
1. A favourable order and a gushing review on the side
Justice Patel in 2015 gave a nuanced description of ‘Café Madras’, an iconic restaurant in Mumbai, which had approached the High Court against infringement of its registered name by other eateries. The judge not only granted relief to the café, but also gave it a rave review. After beginning his order like a food critic starts a review, the judge went on to state,
“It is by no means a five-star establishment, and has no such pretensions. There is no fancy dinnerware (everyone has clean stainless steel) or table linen (paper napkins must do), but the service is quick and the food arrives fresh and there are long lines at its door every morning...
...There are in addition write ups extolling the quality of the food and the service at the Kamaths’ Café Madras eatery in Matunga. There is at least one international encomium, and it comes from an internationally renowned and highly regarded master chef, Mr. Gordon Ramsay. This is a tribute not in the context of western cuisine but a decidedly uncompromising local cuisine that claims to have remained true to its roots."
2. Ogling the web
Justice Patel recorded a sarcastic reaction to a plea by Go Airlines challenging the use of the prefix ‘Go’ in the domain name of ‘GoIndigo.in’ owned by Indigo Airlines.
“GoAir believes that Indigo should not use the domain name GoIndigo.in; it has intellectual property issues with Indigo’s chosen prefix ‘Go’ in its domain name (though apparently not with the trailing go; a small mercy as it happens, for that might be a demand that Indigo should be rechristened Indi.)”, the judge said.
When he was informed why Google was made a party to the suit, in his inimitable way, he said,
“This is not because the word Go is also part of Google’s corporate and domain name (and much else besides). That is all to the good, for the alternative is unthinkable — we might otherwise be forced to ‘ogle’ the Web.”
3. A tourism advert for Goa
When Justice Patel was sitting at the Goa bench of the High Court in 2017, he passed a judgment in a bunch of petitions challenging the Central government’s decision to bring State of Goa under the National Green Tribunal in Delhi. While quashing the notification, Justice Patel wrote a description of the State that the tourism department would be proud of:
“This is an extraordinary state, a place where sky, sea and earth meet. From horizon to horizon, it is a land of abundant richness. Its greatest asset is one: its environment and its ecology — its rivers and riverbanks, its beaches, its lakes and clear streams."
One of the submissions by the Central government was that litigants might get better representation in Delhi. However, Justice Patel had nothing but praise for the Bar Association in Goa.
“It is quiet, discrete, good-natured, respectful without being subservient, and unfailingly courteous. Its civility should not be mistaken for weakness. If ever any evidence was needed of a ‘strong NGT Bar’ , it was here, before us in this very Court."
4. The Nature Poet
Reiterating his love for the natural beauty of Goa, the High Court judge passed an order on August 21, 2017 which showed his passion for environmental preservation. In a description that had a touch of Robert Frost in it, he said,
“For the past several weeks, the Miramar beach (in North Goa) is marred by the sight of a large vessel MV Lucky Seven that has run aground on it. She will leave before the monsoons end. Casinos will come and go. They are replaceable. Our beaches are not. History will judge us all not by the way we care for things we can replace, but how we protect the things we cannot.”
5. Lights, camera, action
While hearing a case challenging an order of the customs department, the judge described the facts like a screenplay writer pitching a scene to a director.
“A daredevil customs officer, allegations of gold smuggling, dinghies arriving on a deserted south Goa beach and offloading cargo said to contain contraband gold, a group of men alleged to be smugglers, some with political connections, one a former Chief Minister of Goa, a high-speed car-and-motorcycle chase along narrow village roads in south Goa, a knife fight, accusations of murder, silent villagers and bystanders, and three separate but interlinked courtroom dramas that travelled twice to the Supreme Court. There is more than a touch of magic realism in all this, and the whole of it sometimes feels like a piece of fiction, a hybrid of Marquez, Ludlum and Grisham. It could only happen in Goa.”
6. Self-review
Amidst all the wit and humour, Justice Patel was not one to shy away from admitting his own mistakes. The judge reopened an old case in which he had wrongly interpreted provisions of law in an application for returning of plaint. Mindful of the damage the old order could have done, he said,
“I was wrong. It is for this reason that I have listed the matter today. It is sometimes said that a ‘foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds’. That might be true. But an obstinate adherence to a demonstrably incorrect position in law, even — or, worse, especially — if that pronouncement is one’s own, is perhaps infinitely worse, for it would result in the perpetuation of wrong law,” the order of March 16, 2018 reads.
7. You can't handle the truth
In his split verdict of January 31, 2024, Justice Patel set aside the rule which gave powers to the Central government to form Fact Check Units (FCUs) for flagging ‘fake’, ‘false’ and ‘misleading’ content concerning government business.
The judge drew parallels to Akira Kurosawa's 1950 cult classic Rashomon to elaborate on the blurred lines between facts and untruths.
“The film is acclaimed for a plot device and structure by which various characters provide subjective, alternative, conflicting and contradictory versions of the same incident — the alleged rape of a woman and the murder of her samurai warrior husband. Four contradictory narratives are present. The fourth character claims all three other stories are ‘falsehoods’. Which version is the ‘truth’?”
He emphasised that to arrive at the truth, courts adjudicated as “arbiters of neutrality” after considering evidence and the determining factors set out in law. While rejecting the government's arguments, he referred to Nobel laureate Doris Lessing.
“As Lessing said, perhaps only God (at least to a believer) knows what the absolute truth is. The burden of humankind is to forever be in search of it, though it may, like the cup of Tantalus, remain always just out of reach."
8. Who's watching whom?
More recently, the judge asked the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) for an update on the repairs on the century-old DG Chambers building in Mumbai, where a lawyers' haunt named Dwarka Restaurant is situated.
The judge noted that the petitioner lawyer seemed “personally peeved” on an issue which seemed to be the cause of his “post-prandial ire,” as lawyers could not eat at their beloved restaurant.
Justice Patel also took note of a submission by a lawyer made in a lighter vein. In an acknowledgment to those who tirelessly cover the courts with a critical eye, the judge recorded,
“This is not, Mr Deshmukh (lawyer) says, just a matter between Bar and Bench. There is indeed, as he puts it, a question of Live Law.”
9. Spinning a tale
Justice Patel drew inspiration from Lewis Caroll’s The Walrus and the Carpenter in a judgment of March 22, 2024, while granting relief to a defunct cotton textile mill.
The mill had challenged a decision of the Maharashtra government to demolish its spindle unit.
“This is the story of a defunct cotton textile mill and its lands; of a city zoo expansion that never was; of a radical change in city planning; of spindles unlike any in children’s fairy tales; of the relentless pursuit of profits by a developer; and the fates and livelihoods of the textile mill’s erstwhile workmen and their families. Or, to badly paraphrase Lewis Carroll, the time has come (as the walrus might have said), to speak of many things: of mills and zoos and city plans, of workers and developer kings,” the preface by Justice Patel stated.
10. The final act
Justice Patel’s last judgment on April 23, 2024, was in a nine-year-old suit challenging the incumbent leadership of the 53rd Dail of the Dawoodi Bohra community. Things came full circle for the judge at the High Court, as he recorded,
“In our court, this case is perhaps unique that it began and ended with one judge (and, to put it more piquantly, of the judgeship itself almost beginning and certainly ending with the case) rather than passing from one judge to another."
The judge also commented on the nature of the suit while dismissing it.
“It wholly escapes me what it is the Plaintiff has come to court seeking — that a judge of the High Court should function as some sort of super-Dai and prescriptively pronounce on scripture and doctrine? That cannot possibly be the frame of a civil law suit of this kind.”
2 months ago
This article is a great learning. I am reminded of M.C. Setelwad who was also known for his excellent literary fare while delivering judgments.
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