(A tribute to Justice George Vadakkel, of the Kerala High Court, whose 10th death anniversary was on August 23, 2008)
By Shevlin Sebastian
One of my most vivid memories of the late Justice George Vadakkel (or Kuttapan Uncle to me) was when I was eight years old. I was playing badminton with my cousins, Joseph and Rita, in the backyard of their house, near Ernakulam General Hospital.
We heard the sound of an Ambassador car enter the garage, which was beside the backyard. Through a gap in the garage door, I saw the future judge, clad in typical lawyer’s attire – black cloak over white shirt and trousers – step out of the car and stride briskly into the house. Even at that young age, I could sense the urgency and purposefulness of the man.
Joseph said, with a raised eyebrow, “Has Appan come?”
“Yes,” I said.
We continued to play, but our voices had become subdued. The only sound was of the racket hitting the shuttle with a ‘twack twack’ sound.
Within minutes, Kuttapan Uncle had finished his tea and was at work at his first-floor office. He worked like a beaver: non-stop, with immense dedication and sincerity to his calling.
I lived in Calcutta at that time. But whenever I came to Kerala, during the many holidays in my teenage years, an enduring image is that of my uncle working relentlessly. I have never seen a man work so hard in my life. His children and I were in awe and we kept our distance because of our respect for him.
Many years would pass before I had a free-flowing conversation with him. By then he had retired and obviously had more time at his disposal. A near-fatal heart attack in 1993 had slowed him down. He was constantly on medicines now and had lost some of the pace that had characterised his earlier years.
But what I noticed was how profoundly religious he was. He went to church every day – a habit he developed from his student days – and sustained till the end of his life. He was also humility personified. He never gave any airs because he was a judge. He took it as a job given to him by God and performed it to the best of his ability. He had an impregnable integrity. As a result, he had a blemish-less career in the judiciary. No one could point an accusing finger at him.
The Chief Justice of Kerala, Om Prakash, while mourning his death on August 23, 1998, said: “Sensitive to the finer nuances of the law, Justice Vadakkel was able to rise above the technicalities of the law and render substantial justice. He was unconventional and unassuming, absolutely free and natural and devoid of official egoism, when moving with others.” In legal circles, his judgements were known for its precision and clarity.
There was no doubt that, because of his career, the family had to go through a tough time. A judge’s income, during those days, was not high. To make things difficult, the family was large. But they managed. In the end, all three sons and four daughters are well-placed and leading successful lives.
Here we should not forget the immense contribution of his wife, Rosy, constantly talking, unafraid to take a stand, efficient in running a big household, as strong a personality as her husband, who stood like a rock behind the family.
As a writer and journalist, there arose in me a desire to capture the essence of this noble man in words. After all, he was one of the most illustrious members of our family.
Every time I came to Kerala for a holiday, I had a keen desire to ask him about his life: how did he get this calling for law? What was the influence of his parents? Who framed his philosophy of life? What sort of a society was Muvattupuzha 60 years ago? What were the high and low points of his career? What was the secret behind a long-lasting marriage? (He had just celebrated his golden wedding anniversary.)
There were so many questions. But, somehow, I never got down to asking him anything. Maybe, there was in me that lingering childhood awe. Maybe, there was a shyness. For so long it had been a formal relationship. Now to become close needed a leap of faith and courage from me. I was not sure I could handle such an intimacy.
Inevitably, on the train to Calcutta, I would tell my wife that on our next visit I would make sure that I would ask my uncle all these questions. But, sadly, life does not wait for anybody who hesitates. On August 23, 1998, soon after attending the Sunday mass at a nearby chapel, my uncle had a massive heart attack and died on the way to Lisie Hospital.
When I heard the news, I felt deep loss and anguish. I realised I had delayed too long. There was an unforgettable lesson that I learnt: time and life does not stop for anybody. So, try to live each day as if it is your last. Be friends with people sooner than later. Do things today, rather than tomorrow. Never put off anything for the future.
I would like to end with the famous quote by Mark Antony at Brutus’ death in Sheakespeare’s Julius Caeser:
‘His life was gentle and the elements
So mixed in him that Nature might stand up
And say to the world
This was a man!’
(This was written in 1998)