There is one autobiography which is suggested by almost all lawyers, professors, and law school seniors in India – M. C. Chagla’s Roses In December. Justice Chagla is one of the most celebrated judges of Independent India. He was the first Indian and the longest serving Chief justice of the Bombay High court. He is one of the few Indians to have served in all 3 branches of government. He wrote his memoirs in his twilight years after undergoing eye surgery. He was assisted by his son, Iqbal Chagla, who typed out his father’s dictation on a typewriter.
Chagla’s Roses In December is one of the few autobiographies written by judges which is celebrated across India and has been a timeless read for senior legal luminaries and law students alike. The autobiography consists of 17 detailed chapters in which Chagla explores various stages of his life in detail. Chagla’s autobiography begins with the iconic words, “God gave us the memory that we might have roses in December.” Much like the events of his life, the words are not only poetic but also carry a deep meaning to them.
To read Roses in December is to read the history of the author’s times. Chagla’s autobiography starts off by describing his childhood in Bombay and goes on to his days at Oxford, his time at the Bar, his appointment to the bench and his elevation as Chief Justice of Bombay High Court. He also explores in great detail his time at the International Court of Justice, his assignments as Ambassador, his time as a Union Minister, and his practice at the Supreme Court in his post retirement years.
Unlike most autobiographies, Roses in December does not fixate solely on the author but also explores the various other actors who played an important role in the author’s life. True to his reputation for being industrious and meticulous, Chagla records the most minute details while narrating the story of his life, and the lives of those around him. This is seen quite clearly when he speaks about his mentor and long-time idol Jinnah, his colleagues on the bench, as well as his friends at the bar. He recalls specific incidents, the key actors in such incidents, as well as the outcomes and the reactions that the outcomes solicited. Chagla had an eye for detail, and that is evident throughout the book.
One of the most unique qualities about Chagla’s writing is his honesty. He writes candidly, often reproducing other people’s critical opinions of him. He attempts to the best of his ability to provide context to events and ensures that he does not pass judgement on people who have passed away and therefore cannot defend themselves. He also speaks freely of his own shortcomings and failures in life.
Through his autobiography, Chagla also shares his manifesto of secularism. A die-hard secularist, Chagla champions for interreligious relations and communal harmony. His secularism wasn’t rooted in politics, but rather in his deep patriotism, for he believed that India as a nation had a secular fabric since time immemorial, and those who divided the nation into communal lines had done a great disservice to their birth land. His knowledge of various faiths and their evolution is evident from his detailed writings in the autobiography.
What I personally found interesting was Chagla’s relationship with his mentor and childhood idol Jinnah. Chagla first met Jinnah in his adolescent years and continued to meet him whenever he could – both in India and in the UK. After joining the bar, Chagla joined Jinnah’s chamber. Jinnah was a heartless boss who didn’t lift a finger to help Chagla build his practice, but Chagla remembers this was gratitude, claiming that it allowed him to build his practice from scratch. Even after Chagla cut ties with Jinnah over the latter’s communal stand regarding the partition of India, Chagla spoke of him quite respectfully.
Chagla goes into great detail to tell stories about his time in practice. He describes his struggles and remembers those who struggled with him. Most importantly, he remembers to pay homage to those who helped in his time of struggle – for without them Chagla would’ve quit the law and would have accepted a job. His humility exceeds his greatness – a recurring aspect of his life.
He describes his time appointment to the bench and how he feared receiving Kinghood (the thought of accepting any award from the Crown was anathema to the nationalist that Chagla was). He narrates his illustrious time as a puisne judge, and then Chief Justice of the Bombay High Court. Through his account, one learns about the culture and practices that the Court followed at the time. What I personally found interesting was the feeling of brotherhood and mutual respect the English and Indian judges on the bench shared. His time as Ambassador and Union Minister is filled with interesting stories and bring a unique perspective to many famous historic events. He served as the ambassador to the United States and the United Kingdom. He also served as the Education Minister, and then as the Minister for External Affairs. He was also an elected Member of the Rajya Sabha from Maharashtra. He was a favourite in many political circles and had friends across the aisle.
If there is one thing about the book that is my personal favourite, it is the bits of wisdom that Chagla has sprinkled throughout. Unlike most old souls, Chagla refrains from rambling about life. Instead, he critically examines his own time and shares what he has learned. To read his thoughts is like listening to a friend in casual conversation.
Roses in December is not just an ordinary autobiography, but rather a timeless account of what a well lived life can be. Chagla was not born into royalty, nor did he die rich. His life was one filled with struggle – something that many young readers relate to. His gratitude for the opportunity, commitment to hard work, and adherence to principles are evident throughout and help understand his approach to the various events of his life.
By no means is this a one time read. This is a book that one must revisit. To a young student, this may be the life of a Chief Justice, but for someone who understands and studies the past, this is one of the finest accounts of Indian history, recorded by one of the most remarkable and consequential Indians of all time.
[The writer is an aspiring litigator, researcher, and writer from Mumbai. He studied Journalism at Mumbai University and is currently pursuing his LL.B. at Kishinchand Chellaram Law College, Mumbai. He tweets at @hamzamlakdawala]