The untold life story of Former Deputy Chief Justice Kalpana Rawal

Kalpana Rawal [Photo: Wilberforce Okwiri]

I am now rediscovering my inner social butterfly, reading more and advancing my spirituality,” she says in a calm expressive voice. Her eyes, clear and bright, are only dulled when they cloud over intermittently.  

She is in pain but you wouldn’t know it. The only tell-tale sign is a soft groan mid-interview that is quickly replaced by a smile.

She is recovering from an abdominal surgery due to an intestinal obstruction and even that isn’t enough reason to slacken her pace. When I called her up for the interview, she graciously agreed and calmly enquired why we were interested in her.  

Diminutive in frame and with her trademark jet black hair tied up in a bun, she cuts a picture of quiet elegance. After a quick greeting, she ushers me into a mini conference room in her grand home in Nairobi’s Muthaiga estate.

She offers me a seat before taking one at the head of the table. Looking regal and alert in the rather large seat, she reminds me of a little fireball that refuses to die out.

Losing a fight

She is retired now, but if she would have it her way, she would still be donning the judicial robes and delivering judgments. Kalpana Rawal has had a career spanning 49 years, and the last bit of the impressive run saw her fighting it out in court.

Former deputy chief justice Kalpana Rawal [Photo: Wilberforce Okwiri]

She had been served with a retirement notice by the Judicial Service Commission, requiring her to retire at 70 as per the new constitution, rather than at age 74 as stipulated by the old one.

She lost the fight, and this she considers the most difficult moment of her long career.

“I accepted the judgment, and I have made my peace with it. The same day the judgment came, I cleaned out my office. However, the way I was asked to go was not very justified. That is because all judges had till age 74 under the old constitution, so it was not that it was a law or something which could be erased by a new constitution.  But the court decided that we all had to go at 70.”

And that is why, she explains, she fought to stay on while many would have quickly given in.   “I was fighting for what I felt was my right and that of 35 others like me. It was a matter of principle. I always believe that a right which has been granted cannot be taken away without good reason.

Laws can be amended, but the law cannot be used retrospectively. For example, if an amendment makes something a crime now, and it was not before, you cannot be charged if you did it before the amendment was made.”

And while her typical day now is filled with lots of rest and recreation, she still fits in work, but now instead of legal mumbo jumbo, she is penning her memoirs.

Former deputy chief justice Kalpana Rawal

“I wake up early and head towards the temple in my house. I do my morning prayers, followed by some physical workouts, then head out for a walk. When I get back to the house, I do some reading, work on my memoirs then write and reply to any emails I need to. After that, I switch off the work mode and go shopping or meet up with friends.”

Little girl done good

Growing up in a middle class family in the state of Gujarat in India where her father was a judge and her grandfather a deputy law minister in the State of Kutch, a law career was definitely in the cards for Kalpana.

 “I was the little girl with a bleeding heart. Whenever I saw someone I felt was treated unfairly, I would rush to their defence. I would almost always be part of the winning debate team. I knew what my dad did for a living. I wanted to do just that,” she says with a smile.

And so the young girl buckled down to studies, getting scholarships all through.

“Dad did not have a big salary, and because we were five girls with no brother, he wanted all of us to be professionals. In our Indian culture, dowry is paid by the father of the bride, so he would jokingly tell suitors, ‘I am not giving you money but I am giving you a highly educated girl who will bring money to you every month’,” she says laughing.

Her hard work paid off and she won a full scholarship to St Xaviers College to study Law.

Former deputy chief justice Kalpana Rawal

“I was admitted to the Bar in 1968. My early career days were exciting. I remember the former Chief Justice of India, Justice P.N Bhagwati inviting me to his chambers for words of guidance and encouragement.

He said, ‘If you want to be a good judge or a good lawyer, do not take in everything. Be like a sieve. Whatever is real, keep that.’ That is why I have a reputation for always getting straight to the point, rather than dwelling on unnecessary things.”

The happily ever after

At this juncture, her husband, a tall distinguished looking gentleman, enters the room, says a quick hello to me and smiles warmly at Kalpana before taking a seat close to her.

Dr Hasmukh K. Rawal, an educationist and philanthropist, is content to blend into the background as the interview continues.

They have been married for 45 years and their love story, while not the stuff of rainbows and fireworks, has worked beautifully for the illustrious couple.

“I was living in India then, and back then, young Indian men would travel from Kenya to India to look for wives. So when Rawal came to India, he met with one of my uncles who thought that the fine young man would make a great husband for me.”

Former deputy chief justice Kalpana Rawal with her husband [Photo: Wilberforce Okwiri]

And he was right.

“When I met him, everything felt right. We clicked. I was about 26 or 27 when we got married.”

 And so in 1973, Kalpana moved to Kenya to be with her husband.

Finding her Kenyan footing

While awaiting admission to the Kenya Bar, the young lawyer taught law to senior police officers at the Kenya Institute of Administration.

In 1974, Kalpana got pregnant and on the very day they welcomed their first baby boy Vivek in 1975, she received her Certificate of Entrance to the Kenya Bar and soon became the first sole lady lawyer to set up a private practice in Kenya.

She eventually established a law practice, the K.H. Rawal Advocates firm. That marked the beginning of a successful law career and she acquired a reputation as a lawyer with a stellar work ethic. 

 A young family and a growing career

Establishing a reputation for excellence while managing a young family is no easy feat. And this came with a price for Kalpana.

 “It meant a total sacrifice of my social life. I was always in the office by 7am and home by 5.30 pm to be with the family. My family has always appreciated that and they always encouraged me to keep going.”

Their second son Kunal arrived in the year 1982.

So how did she do it?

“I have had great help around the house. That is my secret. I have an amazing housekeeper who has been with us for 45 years and our security man has been with us for 20 years. I have one who stayed with us till he died. I am grateful to them. They are like family and we make them feel at home.”

Her two sons are all grown up now and reside in London. Vivek is a lawyer while Kunal works in finance. Kalpana is a grandmother of three.

The interview is winding up, and before she lets us leave, she asks to show me one of her favourite parts of the house. The library. Two walls are lined top to bottom with books, and comfortable couches make for the perfect reading nook.

A cursory glance at the titles reveals many legal and political reads. But her favourite reading material, she says, are the spiritual books.

Parting shot?

Having lived for 72 years, what are her biggest life lessons?

 “Whatever you intend to do, do it with integrity, competence and with all your heart.”

Doing this is perhaps the reason she has no regrets.

 “I do not have any regrets in life, because I did what I was supposed to do to my utmost capacity. I may have made mistakes but I did the best I could, and did not do anything I should not have either as a human being, a lawyer or a judge.”