In Mumbai, a law firm steno recalls: Sarosh joined us as an office boy

When a wide-eyed Parsi teenager with a slightly unkempt look first arrived at the plush law offices of Behramjee Jeejeebhoy in the Fort area of Mumbai in the early 1960s, stenographer Perin Driver thought he had probably lost his way. The boy, "a petite little thing" as she now recalls, had come to join work as a office help to add to his family's income. Along the way, even before he started to study law, Sarosh Homi Kapadia began harbouring ambitions to become a judge.

Last week, that ambition scaled its peak when the humble Parsi boy from Mumbai took over as the Chief Justice of India.

And among the first things he did was to remember his roots in a letter he wrote to retired Justice V R Krishna Iyer, thanking him for his felicitations. "I come from a poor family. I started my career as a class IV employee and the only asset I possess is integrity..." Kapadia wrote. The new Chief Justice may have stressed on his past only in passing to underline a character that is being increasingly considered as critical for the country's judiciary.

But those who knew him and worked with him in his early days feel Kapadia's journey from South Mumbai to Central Delhi is nothing but remarkable.

"He was a young boy when he joined us as an office boy to help the senior counsels with their heavy case briefs. His self-conscious demeanour would force me to wonder at times what this chap was doing in such a smart law firm," says Driver, now in her 70s.

Over the last week or so, that wonderment has transformed into complete admiration. "Even before Sarosh had started studying law, he was determined to write competitive exams and rise up to becoming a judge one day. It just feels great to have him as the Chief Justice of the country today," Driver told The Sunday Express.

Kapadia was born to a genteel, lower-middle-class Parsi family in the Girgaum area of South Mumbai. His father was a clerk in a defence establishment and his mother a housewife. And a good higher education was a luxury.

"He first ensured that he earned enough to support his father and finance his younger brother's studies before he could start his journey as a lawyer," said his friend Sudhir Talsania. "He applied for his licence to practice law only when he was 27."

Talsania and Kapadia, who did his B.A. (Honours) and LL.B., joined a firebrand and highly respected labour lawyer, Feroze Damania. Kapadia moved to a simple apartment in Andheri, met Shahnaz who worked in a private office in the suburbs, fell in love and married her.

"Sarosh and I had a lot in common. Our love for food and books brought us close. We would travel together by train and would discuss case laws on our way to work and back home," said Talsania. "The train journeys remain the most memorable part of our formative days. We worked together from 1981 to 1989, when Damania passed away and his firm was dissolved." The friends, however, drifted apart after Kapadia was appointed an Additional Judge of the Bombay High Court in October 1991.

Other friends recall Kapadia strongly respected and followed Parsi culture and even represented the the Bombay Parsi Punchayet in land dispute cases.

Senior solicitor Perjor Aatia claims Kapadia sometimes displayed a streak of whimsicalness. "He had a quirky style of argument. A knack to handle revenue laws made him a most wanted lawyer in those days. But he chose to become a judge over a lucrative career," said Aatia, who worked with Kapadia on several cases including in the areas of environment, banking, industrial disputes and tax law. "It was just his single-minded ambition that took him from genteel poverty to the country's apex court."

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