Wednesday, 24 August 2011

Book Review: “Mota Seth” by M. Rishi Kumar

One of the first things that strike you even before you cross the tenth page of Mota Seth is the refreshing enthusiasm and optimism of the protagonist Roshan Kumar. Roshan hails from a family which, from the various descriptions given to the reader, appears to be well-to-do, but is yet to produce a lawyer. Determined to be the first legal eagle from the House of Kumar, Roshan lands in gritty Mumbai from cozy Bengaluru (where he did his law degree) and starts working for Mistry & Mistry and Michael & Button, one of the leading law firms in Mumbai. Roshan’s attitude is not unlike that of a twelve year old boy-scout – very diligent, very trusting and highly optimistic. Almost exactly when one reaches the middle of the book, one hears Roshan tell his colleagues at Mistry and Mistry of his ambition to make it as a partner. By this time, Roshan has completed more than a year at the firm. ‘Are you mad? they ask him. The reasons rattled out by his colleagues as to why Roshan will not make Partner - nepotism, unwillingness to make changes etc. – hit him hard. Roshan is suddenly devoid of all enthusiasm for working at Mistry and Mistry!

The blurb tells us that Mota Seth is ‘a tale of Roshan Kumar’s journey to become a Mota Seth – Senior Partner of a law firm. It depicts a true story (albeit fictionalised) of the aspirations of a novice in the field of law to become a Senior Partner in a prestigious law firm. Unlike others Roshan has no godfather in the profession.’ The blurb goes on to say that 'Roshan’s experiences are often derived from the author’s own experiences while he was working in two of India’s finest law firms – Mulla & Mulla and Craigie Blunt & Caroe, Mumbai, which is one of the oldest and the largest law firms and AZB & Partners, Mumbai, the fastest growing law firm in India. In this tale the author has tried to amalgamate reality with the lives of several fictional and semi- fictional characters.

Author Kumar has not made any great effort to disguise the names of his characters and those familiar with the leading corporate law firms and senior counsel in Mumbai will immediately recognise many of the firms and senior lawyers who find a place in Kumar’s tale. They are many, starting with firms like Mistry & Mistry and Michael & Button, where Roshan starts his life as a lawyer, the Chambers of Zeenath Tody where Roshan moves to after leaving Mistry & Mistry, Horniman & Gandhi, Tirothamdas, Fakirchand & Sheriff etc. and individuals like Zeenath Tody, Akash Ahuja (a lawyer who works for Horniman & Gandhi and goes trekking on weekends) and the like. One of the best things about Mota Seth is that it is, to a large extent, an authentic description of the life of a junior lawyer in one of Mumbai’s corporate law firms. Since Roshan works for the antique, old world (charm included) Mistry & Mistry (where clerks have unions and get pensions) as well the modern Chambers of Zeenath Tody, which later becomes ZAB & Partners, one gets to know both worlds.

Another very good thing about Mota Seth, especially for non-lawyers, is that many of the minutiae of legal jargon are explained. ‘What’s this Kacha Board, Sarvesh?’ ‘What does this GMS stand for Sarvesh?’ Questions such as these are asked by Roshan (in his usual boy-scout style) and patient answers are given by kind souls nearby.

If you thought Mota Seth was all about law and lawyers, you would be dead wrong. Roshan meets pretty damsel Shobana, shortly after he fights off a couple of drunks who attack him outside a pub. Rather, Shobana pulls up alongside him in a black Merc – yes, she is rich as well. Soon one finds Roshan making love to Shobana. They host a Holi party (bhang and all), go trekking with Roshan’s friends and soon it is time for Shobana to go off to Seattle. Roshan misses Shobana and takes to heavy drinking. His work suffers as a result. Do Roshan and Shobana get back together? Do read this book to find out.

Roshan does very well at the Chambers of Zeenath Tody, which later expands to become a partnership and is named ZAB & Partners. However, he isn’t too happy with certain things there and moves to Chennai where he joins the Chambers of Senior Advocate Anand Karkare. Once again, Roshan is found to be reliable and hardworking and good work flows his way. Old friends in Mumbai send him transactional work, which he takes on in addition to his court appearances. He starts making good money, as much as he made at ZAB & Partners. Finally, Roshan sets up his own law firm, in Chennai, which he calls the intellectual capital of India. I haven’t heard anyone else refer to Chennai thus, but a google search did lead me to this website which does.

A champagne coloured BMW series 7 pulls out of bungalow No. 204 opposite the Besant Nagar Beach in Chennai and wades into the city traffic on Sardar Patel Road. The occupant is wearing a grey pinstripe Versace suit, a crisp white shirt, a dark navy blue printed tie with Hugo Boss shoes and black Oakley shades. He is checking his email on his Blackberry while glancing at his Omega black dial chronograph, before making a call to his secretary to check his appointments for the day.’ No prizes for guessing who we are talking about. Yes, Roshan has arrived as a Mota Seth. His services are so much in demand that his former boss Zeenath Tody calls him up to request him to make time to meet a client since ‘the only lawyer who could save them was Roshan.

There are a few things I didn’t like about Mota Seth. My most pressing grumble is that I expected a story where a lawyer without the right connections fights his way to the top of a prestigious law firm in Mumbai and becomes a Mota Seth. A law firm in Mumbai it had to be and it could not be any other city. After all, when Roshan asks in the beginning of the book ‘what does Mota Seth mean?’ in his innocent boy-scout style, he is told ‘Among the Solicitor fraternity in Mumbai, normally a senior partner is addressed as Mota Seth.’ I sort of felt cheated when it turns out that Roshan becomes a Mota Seth, albeit by setting up his own firm in Chennai. I doubt if a Partner in any Chennai law firm is called a Mota Seth. Also, Roshan Kumar is not a fighter, a quality one would expect in a Mota Seth. Articled clerks at Mistry and Mistry are entitled to take six months’ study leave to prepare for the Solicitors exams held by the Bombay Incorporated Law Society (a non-statutory body, more like a guild, a hangover from the British era where the three Presidency towns had Barristers and Solicitors. Currently Bombay is the only Presidency town which continues this tradition. To call oneself a Solicitor in Bombay, one needs to pass the very tough exams held by this society). More Catholic than the Pope, Roshan opts to take only three months off. When he flunks his ‘Sols’ for the first time, as many do, he doesn’t take them again. Kumar doesn’t tell us if Roshan messed up because he had taken only three months to prepare instead of the normal six months. Roshan runs away from Mistry & Mistry as soon as he finds out that he wouldn’t easily make Partner there. Roshan runs away from ZAB & Partners too, though ZAB & Partners is a firm which is shown to have a number of partners who rose up without godfathers or connections by sheer dint of their hard work, solely because he does not like the politics there. In the last twenty pages of the book, Roshan quits ZAB & Partners, moves to Chennai, works for Senior Advocate Karkare, makes a name for himself and sets up his own firm. Too easy and too fast, I thought, as if Kumar suddenly realised after 165 pages that Roshan was nowhere close to becoming a Mota Seth and he had to quickly do something about it.

Another big drawback in this book is that Kumar does not flesh out any of his characters other than Roshan. For example, there’s Bhawick who chews paan during office breaks and goes pub-hopping with his girlfriend in the evenings. Even Roshan Kumar as a character is not consistent. Most of the time, he is diligent, hardworking, sober and unquestioningly obedient, putting up with very, very late nights (which usually end at six in the morning) and still finds time to go jogging in the mornings. He too chews paan during office breaks – presumably to give Bhawick some company. Then he does a sudden flip-flop and one sees him getting drunk, making love and shirking work. The two facets of Roshan presented by Kumar just don’t gel.

Kumar writes in simple English, the sort used by the average Mumbaikar. At times, he switches from past tense to the present. Many of the phrases used are quaint and not necessarily grammatically correct – sentences like ‘keep a check on your wallet and the file’, ‘take Sarvesh with you and take an orientation of the High Court building,’ ‘nobody is a born learned’– but these only add to the ‘context’ and ‘character’ of the book as a whole. Kumar doesn’t hesitate to make his characters, especially Roshan, speak in Hindi (sans any translation in English), which in a way enhances the ‘atmosphere.’ There are a number of typographical errors and even more grammatical ones. However, for these, I’ll lay the blame at the door of the editors at Pustak Mahal, the publisher.

On the whole, a good book, one worth spending time and money (Rs. 125) on.