Prof. Nigam Nuggehalli graduated from NLSIU in 1997, and later returned to teach here as a Visiting Professor. He is currently Dean of BML Munjal University Law School. Prof. Nigam regularly writes a heartwarming series – ‘Letters to Law Students’, where he captures various facets of the law school experience. In this piece, he writes about the idea of chutzpah and how it makes a Lawschoolite stand out.
The illustration was designed by Anshita Agrawal (Batch of 2023).
What makes a Lawschoolite different? I am a Lawschoolite from the Palaeolithic era (1992-97), when Nagarbhavi actually had snakes in abundance and we used to have our lunch among Eucalyptus trees in the space where the NAAC building now stands proudly in its glassy splendour. But I have also taught at the Law School for some time and spent time with other Lawschoolites. So let me take a shot at what makes a typical Lawschoolite stand out. I call it chutzpah. I wanted to call it sheer bloodymindedness but chutzpah sounds better.
My teaching years at NLS have brought me in touch with very many wonderful students, and my fondest memories are from my time in the classroom, jostling with some of the most brilliant minds of our generation. While I found them distracted in class sometimes, I realised distraction was a way of life for them, not anything specific to my class. I tend to walk around a bit when I am teaching and I noticed one of the students playing a video game of unknown origin and another watching my favourite Amitabh movie, Deewar, whilst I was teaching my favourite sections of income tax law. But here’s the thing: Both these students were also participating in my class at the same time, and were responding sincerely to my questions; so I didn’t have the heart to be upset with them. Besides, anyone from the current generation that watches Deewar ought not to be discouraged. These instances don’t make a Lawschoolite though; that requires chutzpah.
Law School chutzpah can drive one to despair or ecstasy. I have been driven to both. I remember conducting a tax viva some years ago with a student who sat there looking a bit bored. “I would be too”, I thought to myself if I had to read and write on some arcane area of tax law that no one other than the tax professor will ever read again. I congratulated myself on being in sync with the current generation’s angst and plodded on through the project. Somewhere in the middle of the essay I eyed a couple of paragraphs that looked a little out of place. The writing was nothing great, in fact quite ordinary, with some pedestrian comments on the state of current tax law. But that was not what bothered me about these paragraphs. They just looked out of place in the project, like the words had been parachuted in there for no reason. I racked my brains to remember where I had seen these passages before.
Gradually the realisation dawned on me that the writing was my own. The student had copied passages from my article and passed it off as his writing in a project in my course in which he was sure to be in a viva conducted by me. This was Law School chutzpah as it was meant to be.
I don’t want to give the impression that Law School chutzpah is all doom and gloom. I have been witness, as a student, to Law School chutzpah of another kind. Way back in 1995, I was a researcher for the NLS Jessup team preparing for the national rounds. The two speakers were Vikram Raghavan and Menaka Guruswamy. We were all in our fourth year, and not accustomed yet to the demands of high tension oral arguments. Today, Vikram makes eclectic presentations at the World Bank on history, economic development, and public sector contracts. Menaka makes complex arguments on human rights and the constitution before Supreme Court judges. But back then we were all trying to figure out whether the coffee in the canteen came from Colombia or Kalasipalya.
We ended up in Chennai for the Indian rounds at the redoubtable Madras Law College. International law principles had been conceived in the cool environs of Europe and baptized in the antiseptic ecosystem of The Hague, where I am sure people just whisper international law principles to each other in hushed tones. Nothing could be further from this template when we came to Chennai. At Madras Law College, the atmosphere was a bit more raucous and sweltry. The right to self determination in international law paled in comparison to the claustrophobic atmosphere in the main auditorium where we were hanging on for dear life in a space with more people than even the most liberal fire safety standards would allow.
Things reverted to a more scholarly ambience in the finals when we encountered a Law Professor called David Ambrose (if my memory serves me right). He was a character straight out of central casting. With a moustache that quivered with every arcane principle of international law that had even been propounded by Lauterpacht, he fired one question after another at our team. The moot court problem was merely a prop in his performance; he was more interested in figuring out if we knew as much international law as Brownlie. This is where things got interesting. It was already late evening. The usually noisy room had become very quiet suddenly. Vikram, who had started somberly, appeared more and more animated by Prof Ambrose’s questions. I was petrified. I didn’t know the answers to most of the questions that Prof Ambrose was asking. The only person in the room who looked nonchalant was Menaka. But the world could come to an end and Menaka will continue to look nonchalant, so this was of small consolation to me. Vikram was drawing on his general background knowledge in international law to answer his questions. We were fourth years with one course in public international law in our kitty, and here we were in the denouement of a tough competition, answering questions that we were not really equipped to answer, from a professor who clearly knew his stuff.
After some time, Vikram stopped referring to his notes, stopped even looking at us or the others in the room. It was just him and Ambrose, locked in a mental battle to which we were all mute spectators. Vikram and Menaka displayed tremendous mental fortitude in facing down some pretty intimidating interrogations of their knowledge. We made it to the US rounds and reached the semifinals but for me that hot, suffocating evening in a packed Roman Colosseum of an auditorium was a tougher challenge, one that required not just knowledge or skills but also a bit of chutzpah.
My two examples have this much in common: we Lawschoolites hardly know the difference between courage and foolhardiness; in fact we believe there isn’t much of a difference between the two. That’s our chutzpah; we boldly go where no person has gone before, often to our advantage, and occasionally to our detriment.
 The illustration depicts the famous cartoon character – Courage the cowardly dog. He’s in space, on his way to Mars, going where no person has ever gone before. We don’t know if that’s courage or foolhardiness- thus symbolizing Chutzpah.