I have deferred saying anything up to now about the purpose for which I went to England, viz. being called to the Bar. It is time to advert to it briefly.
There were two conditions which had to be fulfilled before a student was formally called to the Bar: ‘keeping terms,’ twelve terms equivalent to about three years; and passing examinations. ‘Keeping terms’ meant eating one’s terms, i.e. attending at least six out of about twenty-four dinners in a term. Eating did not mean actually partaking of the dinner; it meant reporting oneself at the fixed hours and remaining present throughout the dinner. Usually of course every one ate and drank the good commons and choice wines provided. A dinner cost from two and six to three and six, that is from two to three rupees. This was considered moderate, inasmuch as one had to pay that same amount for wines alone if one dined at a hotel. To us in India it is a matter for surprise, if we are not ‘civilized’, that the cost of drink should exceed the cost of food. The first revelation gave me a great shock, and I wondered how people had the heart to throw away so much money on drink. Later I came to understand. I often ate nothing at these dinners, for the things that I might eat were only bread, boiled potato and cabbage. In the beginning I did not eat these, as I did not like them; and later, when I began to relish them, I also gained the courage to ask for other dishes.
The dinner provided for the Benchers used to be better than that for the students. A Parsi student, who was also a vegetarian, and I applied, in the interests of vegetarianism, for the vegetarian courses which were served to the Benchers. The application was granted, and we began to get fruits and other vegetables from the Benchers’ table.
Two bottles of wine were allowed to each group of four, and as I did not touch them, I was ever in demand to form a quarter, so that three might empty two bottles. And there was a ‘grand night’ in each term when extra wines, like champagne, in addition to port and sherry, were served. I was in great demand on that ‘grand night’.
I could not see them, nor have I seen since, how these dinners qualified the students better for the Bar. There was once a time when only a few students used to attend these dinners and thus there were opportunities for talks between them and the Benchers, and speeches were also made. These occasions helped to give them knowledge of the world with a sort of polish and refinement, and also improved their power of speaking. No such thing was possible in my time, as the Benchers had a table all to themselves. The institution had gradually lost all its meaning but conservative England retained it nevertheless.
The curriculum of study was easy, barristers being humorously known as ‘dinner barristers’. Everyone knew that the examinations had practically no value. In my time there were two, one in Roman Law and the other in Common Law. There were regular text-books prescribed for these examinations which could be taken in compartments, but scarcely any one read them. I have known many to pass the Roman Law examination by scrambling through notes on Roman Law in a couple of weeks, and the Common Law examination by reading notes on the subject in two or three months. Question papers were easy and examiners were generous. The percentage of passes in the Roman Law examination used to be 95 to 99 and of those in the final examination 75 or even more. There was thus little fear of being plucked, and examinations were held not once but four times in the year. They could not be felt as a difficulty.
But I succeeded in turning them into one. I felt that I should read all the text-books. It was a fraud, I thought, not to read these books. I invested much money in them. I decided to read Roman Law in Latin. The Latin which I had acquired in the London Matriculation stood me in good stead. And all this reading was not without its value later on in South Africa, where Roman Dutch is the common law. The reading of Justinian, therefore, helped me a great deal in understanding the South African law.
It took me nine months of fairly hard labour to read through the Common Law of England. For Broom’s Common Law, a big but interesting volume, took up a good deal of time. Snell’s Equity was full of interest, but a bit hard to understand. White and Tudor’s Leading Cases, from which certain cases were prescribed, was full of interest and instruction. I read also with interest Williams’ and Edwards’ Real Property and Goodeve’s Personal Property. Williams’ book read like a novel. The one book I remember to have read on my return to India, with the same unflagging interest, was Mayne’s Hindu Law. But it is out of place to talk here of Indian law-books.
I passed my examinations, was called to the Bar on the 10th of June 1891, and enrolled in the High Court on the 11th. On the 12th I sailed for home.
But notwithstanding my study there was no end to my helplessness and fear. I did not feel myself qualified to practice law.
It was easy to be called but it was difficult to practice at the Bar. I had read the laws, but not learnt how to practice law. I had read with interest ‘Legal Maxims’, but did not know how to apply them in my profession. ‘Sic utere tuo ut alienum non laedas’ (Use your property in such a way as not to damage that of others) was one of them, but I was at a loss to know how one could employ this maxim for the benefit of one’s client. I had read all the leading cases on this maxim, but they gave me no confidence in the application of it in the practice of law.
Besides, I had learnt nothing at all of Indian law. I had not the slightest idea of Hindu and Mahommedan Law. I had not even learnt how to draft a plaint, and felt completely at sea. I had heard of Sir Pherozeshah Mehta as one who roared like a lion in law courts. How, I wondered, could he have learnt the art in England? It was out of the question for me ever to acquire his legal acumen, but I had serious misgivings as to whether I should be able even to earn a living by the profession.
I was torn with these doubts and anxieties whilst I was studying law. I confided my difficulties to some of my friends. One of them suggested that I should seek Dadabhai Naoroji’s advice. I have already said that, when I went to England, I possessed a note of introduction to Dadabhai. I availed myself of it very late. I thought I had no right to trouble such a great man for an interview. Whenever an address by him was announced, I would attend it, listen to him from a corner of the hall, and go away after having feasted my eyes and ears. In order to come in close touch with the students he had founded an association. I used to attend its meetings and rejoined at Dadabhai’s solicitude for the students, and the latter’s respect for him. In course of time I mustered up courage to present to him the note of introduction. He said: ‘You can come and have my advice whenever you like.’ But I never availed myself of his offer. I thought it wrong to trouble him without the most pressing necessity. Therefore I dared not venture to accept my friend’s advice to submit my difficulties to Dadabhai at that time. I forget now whether it was the same friend or someone else who recommended me to meet Mr. Frederick Pincutt. He was a Conservative, but his affection for Indian students was pure and unselfish. Many students sought his advice and I also applied to him for an appointment, which he granted. I can never forget that interview. He greeted me as a friend. He laughed away my pessimism. ‘Do you think,’ he said, ‘that everyone must be a Pherozeshah Mehta? Pherozeshahs and Badruddins are rare. Rest assured it takes no unusual skill to be an ordinary lawyer. Common honesty and industry are enough to enable him to make a living. All cases are not complicated. Well, let me know the extent of your general reading.’
When I acquainted him with my little stock of reading, he was, as I could see, rather disappointed. But it was only for a moment. Soon his face beamed with a pleasing smile and he said, ‘I understand your trouble. Your general reading is meagre. You have no knowledge of the world, a sine qua non for a vakil. You have not even read the history of India. A vakil should know human nature. He could be able to read a man’s character from his face. And every Indian ought to know Indian history. This has no connection with the practice of law, but you ought to have that knowledge. I see that you have not even read Kaye and Malleson’s History of the Mutiny of 1857. Get hold of that at once and also read two more books to understand human nature.’ These were Lavator’s and Shemmelpennick’s books on physiognomy.
I was extremely grateful to this venerable friend. In his presence I found all my fear gone, but as soon as I left him I began to worry again. ‘To know a man from his face’ was the question that haunted me, as I thought of the two books on my way home. The next day I purchased Lavator’s book. Shemmelpennick’s was not available at the shop. I read Lavator’s book and found it more difficult than Snell’s Equity, and scarcely interesting. I studied Shakespeare’s physiognomy, but did not acquire the knack of finding out the Shakespeares walking up and down the streets of London.
Lavator’s book did not add to my knowledge. Mr. Pincutt’s advice did me very little direct service, but his kindliness stood me in good stead. His smiling open face stayed in my memory, and I trusted his advice that Pherozeshah Mehta’s acumen, memory and ability were not essential to the making of a successful lawyer; honesty and industry were enough. And as I had a fair share of these last I felt somewhat re-assured.
I could not read Kaye and Malleson’s volumes in England, but I did so in South Africa as I had made a point of reading at the first opportunity.
Thus with just a little leaven of hope mixed with my despair, I landed at Bombay from s.s. Assam. The sea was rough in the harbour, and I had to reach the quay in a launch.
Source: An Autobiography, (1959), pp. 56-59