A Commentary on the Biography ‘Cornelia Sorabjee: India’s Pioneer Woman Lawyer’

By Sandhya Shyamsundar, WBNUJS, Kolkata.

On reading the biography ‘Cornelia Sorabjee: India’s Pioneer Woman Lawyer‘, one is bound to fall in love with Suparna Gooptu’s take on the legal luminary Cornelia Sorabji who was the first woman to study law in Oxford and, India’s second woman advocate.

Cornelia, though being a pioneer in multiple ways at a time when the colonial professional world was marked by a strong racial and gender bias, failed to occupy the centre stage in colonial India, either as a professional, or in politics, or even in social reform. The book analyzes the political, social and cultural milieu in which she spent her childhood and youth, charts out the implications of her birth in an Indian Christian family, examines the circumstances that made her the first Indian woman to study law, documents her experience in the legal profession and colonial bureaucracy, and understands why and with what consequences she remained a firm loyalist of the British Empire and a critic of mainstream Indian nationalist politics. The author succeeds in doing so by placing great reliance on Cornelia’s private papers, correspondence, autobiography, childhood experiences and various other source materials. This biography is essentially a story of a pathfinder who desired to attain the twin objectives of economic self sufficiency and protecting the interests of the purdahnashins (upper caste Hindu women who lived a life of seclusion) but failed to see any legitimacy in the democratic and nationalist aspirations of the Indian society and thus was labelled as an ‘imperial surrogate’.

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The book is neatly detailed and narrates to the reader about Cornelia’s childhood, educational and professional experiences as well as her search for an alternative public space. While reading through it, the chapter that caught my attention and got me heavily engrossed was one that described her practice at the Calcutta High Court and her fight against male bias in the legal profession.  Having retired from colonial bureaucracy in 1912, Cornelia enrolled herself as an advocate of the Calcutta High Court at the age of 58. It was at this time that the legal profession had become associated with such evils as undercutting, touting and fierce competition and, prejudice against women in the profession was still strong. It was a sheer fight to get enrolled at the court as unlike her male counterparts, she was a marginal figure in Calcutta’s social life, with no connections and absence of local roots. She was frequently discriminated by other barristers as well as vakils who were juniors to her. She was given restricted access to the Bar Library which ultimately deprived her of important case briefs and other sources. Due to this, her male colleagues in the library would deliberately spread rumours that she did not want work and even if she did work, she did so for ‘paupers’. When she failed to win a case, her male clients would abuse her on gender lines, alleging that the case was lost because she was a mere woman and when she did in fact win one, her performance in the court went under-represented in the media due to fear that favourable reporting could get her more work. She was also underpaid and in order to supplement her earnings from the bar, she contributed articles to many magazines and composed music verses. She was subject to constant jeering of her male colleagues during court hearings and adverse comments on her professional aspirations by the women of the upper social echelon.

Such insensitivity deeply affected her and she realized the harsh truth that the legal world essentially saw her more as a woman than a fellow barrister. She regretted that she was being denied the opportunity to prove her worth and at times, she even thought of abandoning her practice to settle down in London to a life of socialising and writing. However, she remained firm and determined and refused to give up. She convinced herself to keep a stout heart believing that depression in this profession was an obstacle that could be overcome if she relied on ‘patience, courage and hope’ to meet daily challenges. With an unflinching faith, she dedicated her work towards the upliftment of women. Her expertise in drafting legal opinions relating to women was widely acknowledged. She could have succeeded in the profession by indulging in unscrupulous professional practices. Instead, she stood rooted in upholding principles of high morality in her professional life.

Her sincere belief in the profession, strong moral standing, and grit to overcome gender bias in a profession where she was solely singled out, serves as a great inspiration for a law student such as myself. Law being a professional course demands certain qualities such as fierce competitive mentality, acute professionalism, steady patience and aggressive postures to win the race and Cornelia served as a model for these. Her life at the High Court where she was not only disadvantaged on grounds of gender but also handicapped by her failing health, and lack of sufficient financial and social support never backed her down from remaining resolute in her work and profession. She represents the lawyer that I aspire to be – one who is unflinching in her cause, hardworking and loyal to professional ethics, sensitive to client’s problems and prepared to face any hardships that may arise from the career.

In a nutshell, the biography in question depicts numerous aspects of Cornelia Sorabji’s life but with a biased point of view. The biographer writes the book in a way that releases her from many established stereotypes about her and allows the reader to focus only on the aspirations and frustrations of a pioneer Indian Parsee-Christian woman lawyer who remained pro- British in a period of anti-colonial struggle. This is evident from the preface, wherein the author writes “…perhaps added a personal flavour to my work and made me refer to Cornelia Sorabji as Cornelia and not Sorabji, representing a closer and intimate identification with any subject…”. However, Gooptu does manage to lay down the facts tinged with a sentimental narrative notwithstanding the debate about biographies being a mix of fact and fiction.

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