Home | Mailbox

V. L. Ethiraj,
Barrister - at - law


He was a glamorous figure in an unglamorous world of Law and lawyers. A fabulously successful Barrister of Madras, his record of accomplishment as practitioner of Criminal Law is almost unparalleled in Indian Legal History. The number of cases he lost during his illustrious career at the Madras High Court is almost negligible. Such a successful lawyer who contributed to the legal world and social ambience of Madras was V. L. Ethiraj. His name has also been immortalised in the arena of women’s education. The famed Ethiraj College for Women is named after him. Indeed, he founded the college wholly out of his earnings and lifetime savings. Never in the field of Women’s Education in this country was so much owed by so many to a single man.

He was no industrialist or prosperous businessperson, only a mere lawyer! Yet, he donated his last penny to the cause of Women’s Education during 1940s when education for women in this part of the country had not developed yet. Such a visionary was V. L. Ethiraj.

Ethiraj was no legal luminary like Sir Alladi Krishnaswami Iyer or Sreeman S. Srinivasa Ayyangar. Nor was he capable of the forensic brilliance and peroration of the legendary Barristers Eardley Norton, Sir C. P. Ramaswamy Aiyer or S. Duraiswami Iyer. He was not a fiery nut-and-bolts chewing cross –examiner a la another legal legend, Nugent Grant, or another giant of Criminal Law, V. Rajagopalachari. His success was remarkable baffling quite a few. Many commented that ‘Ethiraj smiled his way to success’, but no person ever rose to the top by merely smiling. One of his many assets was his capacity to understand presiding judges and note the chinks in the judicial armour. He made excellent use of commonsense and reaped unprecedented dividends in his career at the bar.

While other lawyers returned to their chambers when work was done, Ethiraj remained in court silently observing, and sizing up the judge. He shaped his arguments in the light of what he had learnt about His Lordship! Smart and different thinking which served him well.

And charisma of which he had plenty. Anyone in his presence soon felt drawn to him. Tall and majestic, he exuded class and charm. Brevity was another weapon in his armoury. Unlike many other lawyers, he did not believe in haranguing, waving hands and jabbing fingers in the air. His arguments were precise, pithy, and extremely effective. In one case where six accused were sentenced to death by the District and Sessions court, they engaged Ethiraj paying a high fee who filed an appeal to the Madras High Court and presented the case in less than ten minutes! The supporters of the accused were understandably upset that their lawyer had taken it easy and gave vent to their anger in a rough and rude manner at the house of his junior, M. Narayanamurthi. The junior, Ethiraj’s grandnephew, pacified and asked them to await the judgement. Soon they were smiling for they were all acquitted. Saved from the gallows, they just could not comprehend how he had done it, arguing merely for six minutes! That was V. L. Ethiraj.

A successful barrister, he was also a Prosecutor and held the high office of the Public Prosecutor of the Madras High Court for thirteen long years from 1937 to 1950. He was the first Indian to be appointed to this responsible office in the history of the Madras High Court. Normally given to British barristers practising in Madras, Ethiraj broke the tradition, and made history. He also held it earlier for a short spell in 1920.

Normally most prosecutors possess a penchant to work for convictions in the cases they handle and some are known to even resort to even unfair methods to achieve their ignoble ends. However, Ethiraj was a happy exception often remarking that he was only a ‘Prosecutor and not a persecutor’!

In this aspect, he was in good company with Nugent Grant. For a short while Grant held the office of the Public Prosecutor of the Madras High Court, and never fought for conviction in the cases. One day he was arguing a criminal appeal as the Prosecutor at the Madras High Court, before a Division Bench of two British judges and one of them told Grant stiffly that as the Public Prosecutor it was his duty to work for a conviction. The celebrated barrister lost his cool and told the judge in down to earth fashion without mincing matters that he was not that type of Prosecutor. That was not all. He threw up the case files, law books et al and walked out of the court hall announcing that he was resigning his office as Prosecutor much to the astonishment of the two British judges!

Although Ethiraj lived a western style of life, he was deeply religious and a devout Hindu. He never smoked or drank and avoided sweets like poison. He used the traditional neem twig to brush his teeth along with neem toothpaste. In bygone decades many Indians used only neem twigs for neem was healthy and had bacteria-destroying properties!

He was fond of the typical Madras style of ‘filter’ coffee with milk, which he loved to brew himself and serve to his friends and guests.

Ethiraj was a devotee of Classical Carnatic Music and was an ardent admirer of famed musicians and top-notch maestros like Ariyakudi Ramanuja Ayyangar, Musiri Subramania Iyer, and M. M. Dhandapani Desikar. They were frequent guests at his palatial bungalow in Victoria Crescent, Egmore, Madras. He loved to dress in the traditional South Indian style of a veshti, jibba and angavastram, and attend classical Carnatic music concerts to the amazement of his lawyer colleagues present who had seen him only in elegantly attired Saville Row style suits.

Like most people, he had his share of quirks and eccentricities. He like many Hindus believed in the inauspicious hours of ‘Rahu Kaalam’, during which he never signed anything of importance. He would never travel on certain days of the Hindu calendar, like Pradhamai, Ashtami or Navami, thought to bring misfortune. He never travelled by air, went only by trains, and took a ship whenever he went to the United Kingdom.

V. L. Ethiraj, a colorful person, an unforgettable man of charm, class and charisma, the likes of whom one may not see again. Another world, another time produced such persons, and both have sadly vanished forever....

To be continued......