Vepa: An Inspiring Teacher & Good Human Being – Prof.Madabhushi Sridhar

Whenever an elder person was disappointed with advanced age I used to say ‘come and see 95 year old Vepa P Sarathi, he travels by ordinary bus to NALSAR, teaches and writes regularly”. He was always introduced as youngest member of NALSAR faculty, truly young in thinking and inspiring in teaching. There are just two solutions to the vexed problems of India: abolish religion and impose compulsory birth control measures. This was the firm belief of Professor Vepa Partha Sarathi, who was active in NALSAR class room till 48 hours before he breathed last on 25th January 2012. With his death at 96, the legal community in general and NALSAR in particular lost a father figure of legal education and practice. As a lawyer, teacher and writer Vepa was firm in his belief and clear in his concept which made his communication perfect and absorbing whether in court or class.

Vepa was born on July 17, 1916. He started practicing in 1942, after taking his Law Degree from Madras University. From 1951 to 1960 he was arguing Government cases allotted to him, till 1954 by the Advocate General of Madras and thereafter by the Advocate General of Andhra at Guntur. From 1960-61 he was also lecturing in the Osmania University. Later in 1962 he shifted to the Supreme Court. During all this time, he was reporting cases in the Madras Law Journal, Indian Law Reporter (Andhra Series) and the Supreme Court Reports. His head notes were appreciated by the judges for their accuracy and brevity. In 1988-89 he represented the Union of India in the Bhopal Gas Leak case at Bhopal district court, High Court of Madhya Pradesh at Jabalpur and Supreme Court. As part of law of Torts, Professor Vepa explained why the Supreme Court preferred a settlement of 475 million dollars in Bhopal gas leak litigation rather than adjudicating it. The way he justified the negotiated settlement was very convincing and students were benefitted to understand certain ground realities and legal problems in that unprecedented events. He was designated as Senior Advocate by the Supreme Court of India in 1976 and was a member of the Law Commission under Justice K. K. Mathew (retd.) between 1983-85 where “he richly contributed for the development of law especially in Consumer Law, Promissory Estoppel and Contract ‘d’adhesion (Adhesive Contracts)”. Prof.Sarathi was also the Advocate General for Sikkim twice (from January 1990 to October 1994 and from October 1994 to 31st December 1994).

He has numerous books to his credit and most of them are authentic text books for law students. His book on “Law of Evidence” (1962) is a classicabout which the In 1964 Modern Law Review, London reviewed his book on Law of Evidence (1962): “The English Reader will sadly reflect on the dearth of comparable work in his own country.” In another review Lionel Horwitz, a former judge of the Madras High Court stated,“You have succeeded in making the rules appear reasonable, ingenious, and stimulating. You have avoided the dullness of so many text books on the subject by enlivening your commentary by a bright and colourful style. I am sure that students and others will find your book of the greatest help in their studies.”  Great Judge who lived for hundred years, Lord Denning himself appreciated scholarly work “Interpretation of Statutes”, in a letter to Dr. Sarathi.

A complete human being Vepa made all to laugh with his spontaneous humour and apt anecdotes to suit the context and the subject in class room. It is no wonder that he has carried that eternal smile beyond the life up to cremation. His loving students projected his smiling image on screen during a condolence meeting and vowed that they never forget that smile. He lived a simple life with two idlies for breakfast, one papad and a cup of curds for lunch and a glass of complan for dinner. His contribution was phenomenal.

Vepa could be easily identified and located, his address was the place from where resounding laughs were emanating. Whether lecture or usual conversation, it is laced with anecdotes in accurate phrases and sentences, with minute details of names and dates. He perfected the art of quotations with complete grammar and punctuation mentioning the source making it very authentic. His student Aloke said: To us, his students at NALSAR, he will always be our “Vepa-Sir” — easy going, a little hard of hearing perhaps, mentally sharp as a razor’s edge honed to the width of a molecule, with a memory that astounded us on a daily basis, and always full of good cheer and warmth. A firm believer in the uselessness of all testing and examination in the life of a student, it was impossible to dislike the man…. Few scholars can claim to have authored a book on Ancient Indian Mathematics and Astronomy and a classic on the law of evidence, the transfer of property and the interpretation of Statutes. Fewer still perhaps can claim felicity with the paint-brush or the ability to quote Gilbert & Sullivan operettas just as easily as Shakespeare; declaim from the King James Bible as easily as recite profoundly dirty limericks…. Vepa went beyond being a mere polymath and could genuinely be called a true “Renaissance Man” – someone who respected individual freedoms, supported the pursuit of truth unburdened by religious dogma, and always brought a scientific and rational approach to the problems of humanity.” It is a great tribute indeed.

Vepa Sir inspired more than ten batches of students and the colleagues at NALSAR. Mr. Mohan Rao, judicial officer recalled his perfect knowledge of text of law saying “he never looked into a book to explain the Evidence Act or Transfer of Property Act, his memory is phenomenal as he renders exact text of any section. During one session at AP Judicial Academy a judge has disputed text, but has to agree with Vepa after referring to the bare Act of that law”.

Looking at his active and healthy attitude at nineties, some asked him “what is the secret of your health?” His answer was: “I have no secrets. I always look for humorous examples to explain any context, which keeps me happy and make others to laugh”. It was one hundred per cent truth. As he has already mastered the subjects he was teaching, his preparation was collecting relevant quotations and hilarious episodes. His hobbies included mathematics, painting with water colours and collection of jokes and classic anecdotes. I remember his beaming face when NALSAR very appropriately conferred Honoris Cause LL.D on Vepa for his scholarly publications.

His nephew, Vepa Kamesam, former Deputy Governor of Reserve Bank of India, says, “He along with his father, Sir Vepa Ramesam (His father was former Chief Justice of Madras High Court and was knighted by the British) wrote a book on Elementary Geometry without using the Euclidean axioms.”

The nonagenarian professor saw demise of his daughter and later, his son in law. His daughter entrusted him with care of a family who helped her. Professor Vepa has started teaching and writing books to maintain that family and got three girls educated. One of them graduated from NALSAR. This speaks volumes of his humaneness and willingness to do hard work at his eighties and nineties.

During my prolonged conversations with him in NALSAR bus, he was always expressing that we need to make good lawyers and good human beings. He tried his best to do so in law school. If NALSAR could produce good lawyers, it might be because of teachers like Vepa. It is appropriate to quote our student Alok in this context again. “A good lawyer, according to Vepa-Sir was not one who had just mastered the concepts of law, its practice and procedure, and its intricate jargon. All of those are of course necessary but definitely not sufficient to produce a good lawyer. A good lawyer had to be someone with more than a passing familiarity of literature, who appreciated the arts, who engaged freely in thoughtful debates, and engaged with the great public questions of the day. A lawyer was not just anyone with an opinion, but someone whose opinions are informed by facts, by an understanding of the issues, and by a willingness to listen to and appreciate the merits of another’s point of view. These, and these alone, stand out as the hallmark of a good lawyer”.

His commitment to duty was great. Due to illness he could not attend for two days before his death. He exchanged his classes with his colleagues and said that he would definitely come to NALSAR and take those classes. On 20th January he told in his last class: “Even if I die physically, (he died on January 25, 2012) I don’t want to die intellectually.” Those were the last words. Professor Amita Dhanda said, he taught us how to live and die in peace and happiness.

Vepa was an efficient teacher, lawyer and great author. He stood for human values, never valued his writings in terms of money, which factor was exploited by publishers. His book on Interpretation of Statutes is worth prescribing as must for the students, teachers, lawyers and more so for the judges. It is full of anecdotes from classic texts and literature reflecting the need to learn life from different experience rather than confining to texts of law only. His books are original with conceptual clarity and fearless analysis of judgments. He writes how right to property was wrongly handled in judgments of Supreme Court, and how authors confused the concept of culpable homicide and its kinds in criminal law. Vepa defended the logical reasoning of Evidence Act, especially Sections 24 to 27 making confessions to police irrelevant. If the persons who matter read his books Vepa should have become the director of National Judicial Academy teaching these nuances of law to judges, which could have helped in achieving justice for generations to come. Vepa got very less than what he deserved and society drew much less than what he could have given.

Author is the Professor and Head Center for Media Law and Policy, NALSAR University of Law

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  1. Beyniaz Edulji says:

    Very nice article. He never believed in heaven or an after-life but those who knew him and knew of his love for NALSAR are hoping that he is having a hearty chuckle in the corridors of his beloved law school.

  2. yasha says:

    Thank you for writing such an honest and true article about Mr Sarathi. He was an example to everyone who knew him!may his soul rest in peace.we will miss him a lot.

  3. Akshay Kumar says:

    My salute to that great person.

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