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Sir Thomas Andrew Strange,
Chief Justice,
Supreme Court, Madras (1801-1817)

Lawyers at least in India especially those at the top of the profession do not normally retire, unless for very valid reasons like setback in health. In most cases practice retires from lawyers leaving them high and dry! An outstanding example of a lawyer of Madras who threw up his extremely lucrative practice one eventful evening and walked out for ever of the corridors of the Madras High Court never to step into it was S. Duraiswami Iyer. A man known for his brilliance, legal acumen, forensic talents and skills, and above all human values, the drive and dynamism to fight for them was Duraiswami Iyer. More than eighty years ago his income was over half a lakh of rupees per mensem…

He was one of the legendary figures on the Original Side of the Madras High Court, ranking equally with legends like V. V. Srinivasa Ayyangar, Sir C. P. Ramaswamy Aiyer and Nugent Grant.

After completing his legal studies Duraiswami Iyer joined the chambers of Sreeman S. Srinivasa Iyengar, described as the greatest Roman of them all. As a young man Duraiswami Iyer also jumped into the Indian Freedom Movement like his guru, but unlike him he was an extremist. Those were the stirring days when the Congress Party had leaders like Gopala Krishna Gokhale, Rash Bihar Ghosh, Sir Phirozeshah Mehta, Pundit Motile Nehru, Pundit Madanmohan Malaviya, V. Krishnaswami Iyer, V. S. Srinivasa Sastri, Bal Gangadhar Tilak, Lela Lappet Ray, Bain Chandra Pal and others. Mahatma Gandhi was not yet into the Congress Party and was still in South Africa fighting his cause.

During those decades there were two sections in the Congress Party, ‘Extremists’ and ‘Moderates’. The extremists consisted of Bal Gangadhar Tilak, Bain Chandra Pal and Lala Lajpat Rai. These three brilliant men were popularly known as ‘Bal-Pal-Lal’; Duraiswami Iyer was an ardent follower of this trio.

Another south Indian who threw his lot with the extremists was the Revolutionary Poet Subramania Bharathiar, who was not yet known as he later came to be.

Among the moderates were Krishnaswami Iyer, Gopalakrishna Gokhale, Madanmohan Malaviya and Sir Phirozeshah Mehta. The extremists had a vibrant political stand that the British should be kicked out using extreme methods and by following the letter of lawyer nothing could be achieved. The moderates believed otherwise and felt that to attain freedom one should move step by step within the four corners of the Law. They believed in the British political philosophy known as Fabianism, the principle of which was, ‘the Inevitability of Gradualness’. Duraiswami Iyer and such others felt it was just hot air!

1907 Surat session of the Indian National Congress, was a historic event not only in the history of the party but history of India. Nearly 1800 delegates and more than 6000 visitors who bought tickets attended the conference which was presided over by Rash Behari Ghosh, one of the eminent sons of Bengal. The extremists prevented him from delivering his presidential address by constant interruptions, booing and catcalls. The leader of such interruptions was Bal Gangadhar Tilak encouraged by Lajpat Rai and others. Duraiswami Iyer contributed in his own way to such protest. Phirozeshah Mehta found it impossible to continue the meeting and adjourned it to the next morning when the situation became worse.

Before Rash Behari Ghosh could commence his interrupted address Bal Gangadhar Tilak leapt onto the stage and began to speak at the top of his voice and demanded a resolution supporting the extremists view.

V. Krishnaswami Iyer, a legal luminary objected that Tilak had no ‘locus stand’ to speak before the president and he and his supporters rushed towards the dais. Shouts, screams filled the air and then out of the blue it began to rain leather slippers on the leaders seated on the dais who ran helter smelter trying to save their skins! Some of the slippers thrown were of a particular variety and design known as’ Kolhapur Slippers’ which proved that those missiles came from the Marati section of the protesters lead by Bal Gangadhar Tilak.

One extremist lifted his chair over his head and rushed toward the dais accompanied by equally armed colleagues. When he was about to knock down a moderate he suddenly exclaimed in Tamil “neengala saar?” (Is that you?) and backed out. The leader who escaped the chair bashing was the silver tongued orator V. S. Srinivasa Sastri and the chair wielder was an old student of his in Triplicane!

The crowd including onlookers and delegates rushed to the exits to save their lives and the Surat Congress witnessed the party splitting vertically into two, Extremists and Moderates.

Many thought that it was the end of the Congress Party but Krishnaswami Iyer merged them together one year later during the Congress session in Madras.

Duraiswami Iyer revered Tilak as God and hated the moderates who he thought were all successful lawyers and rich men who had really no interest in the country becoming free fast. Thanks to his aggressive role in the turbulent session he came to be known as ‘Surat’ Duraiswami Iyer. Even today old timers refer to him by that name.

Understandably disappointed with the Indian political scene Duraiswami Iyer bade goodbye and all that to politics and went back to his practice and soon scaled the peaks of success. Besides his many sided talents, Duraiswami Iyer always believed that law should succeed and justice should be established at any cost if society were to survive.

During those decades on the Original Side there was a spate of litigation popularly known as ‘Periamet Suits’. Periamet is an area in Madras in Park Town which was and still continues to be the centre of hides and skins business. During that period due to the impact of the First World War and later there were many suits of breach of contract in the supply of hides and skins. In such Original suits the entire work was shared by V. V. Srinivasa Ayyangar and S. Duraiswami Iyer. A European judge wisecracked that it is ironical that these two orthodox Brahmins who have never seen the hide or skin of a dead animal should be earning a fortune in cases built around such stuff!

Duraiswami Iyer enjoyed an unviable reputation for his opening of the case. In a trial the lawyer appearing for the plaintiff will open the case stating the facts, indicating the evidence, stressing the legal provisions, mixing them all in an impressive manner and presenting them almost like telling a story. This is known as ‘opening of the case’ in which Duraiswami Iyer had few equals. Very often his opening was so effective that invariably it laid a strong foundation for his winning the case. Noted lawyers like V. C. Gopalratnam used to tell their apprentices and juniors that one should learn how to open a case like Duraiswami Iyer.

He always fought for truth and justice come what may. A stirring example… a poor Brahmin priest in Chettinad area was performing pujas in a dilapidated temple and was understandably anxious to rebuild it. But he had no financial backing and approached many rich Nattukottai Nagarathars who were then involved in business in Far East countries like Burma, Malaya, and others.

Seeking their help he traveled and knocked on the doors of many such bankers in Rangoon, Mandalay, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur and others. Some of the devotees of the temple paid for his travel expenses and he was able to collect a sizable sum as donations from the rich Nagarathars. He had only a cloth bag and little else and scared of keeping the collected cash in such a bag he approached a well known firm of bankers who for obvious reasons shall remain anonymous, for help. They asked him to pay the amount into their account and collect it whenever he needed it on returning to India. Accordingly he deposited all the collected funds with the Rangoon office of the bankers.

Shock hit him when he returned and asked for the money in Chettinad, the bankers told him that he had only gone as their agent and they would not hand over the cash to him and would give it to him whenever the construction work was on. Heartbroken and crushed, the poor Brahmin met local lawyers but nobody put out a helping hand. An exception was a well known Madras City attorney K. S. Rajagopala Iyengar who promised to help him and also paid for expenses to Madras. Rajagopala Iyengar sent his junior R. V. R. Thathachari, later a corporate management expert and director in many public sector companies, who took the priest’s problem to Duraiswami Iyer. The great lawyer and humanist hit the ceiling when he heard what had happened and told his young junior to send a notice of demand and refusal without elaborating on the evidence. He also told him, ‘if this case does not succeed, it means there is no justice in this world.’ That was Duraiswami Iyer.

The rich bankers expectedly denied the claims and a suit was filed on the Original Side of the Madras High Court by Duraiswami Iyer and Thathachari and the case soon came up for hearing before the Honourable Mr. Justice R. S. Gentle (later he became the Chief Justice). For the rich family, many top lawyers of the Madras Bar appeared.

In his characteristic style and brilliance Duraiswami Iyer made the opening of the case which impressed Gentle so much that he lost his cool and gentleness. Luckily the strong evidence of the priest was the receipts signed by the banking firm for the amounts received.

Armed with these receipts Duraiswami Iyer tore the defendants to shreds. Fuming Gentle gave his judgment decreeing the suit in favour of the poor priest for the entire amount with interest up to date.

When the grateful priest called on Duraiswami Iyer and offered him a fee the great man virtually kicked him out of his office.

Regretfully a family tragedy concerning his son proved too much to bear for Duraiswami Iyer and by around the mid 1930s he retired from practice When Rajaji became the Premier of the Madras Presidency after the 1937 General Elections he wrote to Duraiswami Iyer offering him the high office of the Advocate-General of the Madras High Court. The man of values replied, “I am a retired lawyer who gave up practice many years ago. It is not correct to ask such a man to be the Advocate-General. Thank you for the offer.”

As an extremist Duraiswami Iyer was drawn to the philosophy of Aurobindo Ghosh who was an extremist in his younger days. Following his footsteps Duraiswami Iyer relocated in Pondicherry joining the Aurobindo Ashram where he lived for many years. After his demise Duraiswami Iyer returned to Madras and lived his last years in the ashram at Thirumullaivayol established by S. Parthasarathy (son of S. Srinivasa Iyengar and founder of Prithvi Insurance Company and also a brilliant legal mind).

He lived in a palatial mansion in Mylapore which he donated to the Kesari High School where it functions today.

‘Life is an illusion and we should not disillusion ourselves by seeking mindless pleasures,’ he told his friends always,

Men of his caliber, values and outlook on life have vanished today. Here was a man, when comes such another……..

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