Hiralal Sibal lived a full life as a perceptive witness-participant of the history of India

“That day itself I requested the court, through my lawyer, Mr. Hiralal Sibal, to excuse my presence in the subsequent hearings…”

-Saadat Hasan Manto in “Adab-e-Jadeed”

My introduction to Hiralalji was through Manto and Ismat Chughtai, two of my favourite authors whom he defended in the Lahore court of law in cases slapped on them for obscenity in their short stories. When much later, just about a year ago, I learnt that the same Hiralalji lived in Chandigarh, I impatiently looked for an opportunity to talk to him about Manto and Ismat. At 98, he was after all one of the very last ones surviving from amongst those who had been a contemporary of the writers so popular in the 1940s. A few months ago in August 2012, when finally I established contact with him for a video-recording, he readily consented and we recorded a good one-hour long dialogue at his residence in Chandigarh. This was done for the Institute of Life-Long Learning of the University of Delhi.

In no way did his appearance come close to what I had imagined. I had been told that he was ailing and was in and out of hospitals. But I saw him bright, healthy and cheery with a wrinkle–free face, his voice emerging as though from a deep tunnel of time, fresh and energetic. The nearly century old gentleman talked of times – nearly seven decades back– “like yesterday”.

He narrated an interesting snippet from one of the court scenes: “Let me tell you a joke…you know, Lala Nanakchand Naaz, the chief witness for the prosecutor, accused Ismat of using many ‘dirty’ (obscene) words in her story “Lihaaf”…When I insisted that he identify the dirty words, he fumbled and searched the text for a while and then muttered ‘Aashik’ (lover)! I asked him to suggest an alternative word …when he couldn’t, I suggested, ‘How about ‘Yaar’ (friend)?’... Everybody in the court broke into a hearty laugh!”

In his deep and impressive voice, Hiralalji described how literary luminaries such as Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Rajendra Singh Bedi, Ahmed Nadeem Qasmi and others presented themselves as witnesses to defend Manto and Ismat. “Manto was such a pleasant and handsome man, always cheerful!” chirped the charming old Hiralalji when I said how Manto’s stories indicated that he must have been a truly sardonic personality.

Soon, during this conversation, I grasped the fact that I was talking to someone who had actually witnessed a long turbulent history of India that included, among other things, the Partition of India, as also the trial of Mahatma Gandhi’s killer, Nathuram Godse, in Shimla after Partition.

“Godse argued very well,” …he said in a dispassionate voice, as a lawyer, all in admiration of someone he hated for what he did but one who demonstrated the art of debating so skilfully.

Now, Hiralal Sibal is no more. His trial of life is over…a fulsome life that played itself out so well for a perceptive witness-participant of the history of India through a century. I do hope he was able to complete the memoirs he was putting together a few months ago!

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