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Sarosh Zaiwalla peers deeply into his phone. It pings at him.
His kitchen-sitting-dining room is several shades of white; sunlight beams through large modern windows. Beyond the garden, the English Channel laps the beach.
Ping! “Financial Times wants a quote from me on this lifting of sanctions.” His tones are dulcet.
Emails ping on. “I just finish this,” he says, nose pinned to screen. Pause. In fact, this room — in a roomy part of West Sussex near Littlehampton — is not merely white. It is a white canvas with dashes of colour: a pink orchid bends on the mantelpiece; green tartan blinds; a turquoise armchair. Chinese artefacts occupy corners and windowsills — a pair of slim blue vases; a fat, laughing Buddha, arms aloft. We sit at a round table with a glass top. White, upholstered dining-room chairs.
At a guess — the interviewee is tied up — the FT wants a quote on Iran. Zaiwalla, 65, is senior partner at a firm of solicitors that bears his name. His firm is acting on behalf of Bank Mellat, a large, private Iranian bank in dispute with Her Majesty’s Treasury.
It is quite a case. In 2009, Bank Mellat was alleged to have ties with Tehran’s nuclear programme; the UK and the EU imposed sanctions. In 2013, the UK Supreme Court deemed those sanctions to be unlawful. The bank is now suing the Treasury. It claims $4bn.
It is a case to make a man fret. Yet this man — who has very mild manners — is not, I suspect, daunted by daunting cases. In time, he has been of help to Benazir Bhutto and Sonia Gandhi, sheikhs, banks and billionaires, the odd superpower, the Dalai Lama and boxing legend Chris Eubank to name a few. He also tried to halt the second Iraq war.
Zaiwalla suspends his emails.
“We are the first law firm started in the City of London [ . . .] by an English solicitor born outside Europe,” he says smiling. “And Tony Blair worked [for] my firm as a barrister.” True. Zaiwalla instructed Blair in the early 1980s; and he fired the future prime minister for poorly preparing a case.
Zaiwalla arrived in England from India in 1975. He was advised not to join the big City firms because he was not part of “the old boys’ network”: no matter how well he did, they said, he would not advance because the “old boys” — Britain’s ruling caste — would keep him down. So he struck out solo, establishing Zaiwalla & Co in 1982. Today, it is an international commercial law firm, with 11 lawyers and annual turnover of about £4m. His seaside home looks modest beside these figures, but Zaiwalla has two others, too: a flat on the Côte d’Azur and one in London with views of the Houses of Parliament.
In 1982, how did the “old boys” view the pioneering Zaiwalla? “Some of them were very supportive, some of them were very, very rude and aggressive.” Because of race? “It was more of, to put it politely, more of a superiority complex.” He met a judge who “turned red to see me — a brown skin — and he thought that I would not be able to speak English, so he was speaking slowly.” Zaiwalla glints with seasoned charm. “I spoke English as my mother tongue in India.”
He was born in Mumbai. His family is Parsi. On a windowsill nearby, a family photo taken more than 60 years ago overlooks the glass-top table. “It must be the Navjote ceremony — initiation into the Parsi community,” he says. In the centre, a small Zaiwalla is being held by his eldest brother.
Was he a brilliant schoolboy? He calls himself a “dark horse”: he “wanted to change the world”, to be prime minister — “I was a socialist in those days” — he wanted to make Indian society more “egalitarian”. He was a “dark horse” who tended to win his races.
New to London, Zaiwalla retained his identity. “I was never ashamed to call myself an Indian,” he says. “I kept my Indian name, I kept my Indian accent.” By contrast, many of his Indian peers picked anglophone names for their newborn firms “and they did not survive. At least everybody knew who I was.”
Zaiwalla is full of warmth for British justice — why? “For example, we won the Bank Mellat case against the British government. Six out of nine Supreme Court judges had the courage to say that the government of their own country had acted unlawfully and irrationally — and that says a lot about the independence of our judges.”
His case will go before the UK’s Commercial Court in October, when a judge will assess the bank’s losses. Is he confident of winning $4bn for his client? “I am confident we will succeed substantially . . . How much is for the judge to decide.” He measures his statements with surgical spoons.
His tales are sprinkled with A-List names: Tony Blair and Saddam Hussein star in one. With the second Iraq war brewing, Zaiwalla might have played a pivotal role in scotching it. “We had a good chance of saving a million lives and almost $3.5tn,” he says.
In 2001 — two years before Operation Iraqi Freedom — Saddam’s regime contacted Zaiwalla. They wished to challenge the no-fly zone imposed since 1991. It was no longer legal, they said — and Zaiwalla agreed. He advised his clients to make their case at the International Court of Justice. Had they taken the advice, “the British and the Americans would have had to file a defence”. Amusement creeps into his voice. With legal proceedings pending, this could have delayed the US war machine, he says.
Yet the case never went ahead. Why?
“Because I could not convince [the regime] they would get justice.”
Later, Zaiwalla was given a message for Tony Blair: his clients were “prepared to sit down with Britain and discuss resolution of the situation. All options were open.”
Options such as?
“Getting rid of Saddam Hussein . . . They knew the war was coming and they knew they had no chance.” In the lawyer’s view, a deal should have been struck: send Saddam “to one of the islands with a few million dollars”, and be done with it.
Why no dice?
“Tony Blair told me to write to him and I wrote to him and I got a letter back: ‘Forget it’ [to paraphrase] . . . He had already made up his mind.”
Who is to blame for the mayhem?
“Whoever took the decision for the war.”
George W Bush and Tony Blair?
“Whoever started the war.” Bush and Blair, by my memory, but Zaiwalla will not agree out loud.
How does he cope with stress? “I meditate and I pray. To stay calm.” His house is populated with statues of Buddha, yet Zaiwalla is no Buddhist. “I believe in the universe and I believe in one world, one mankind.” Is this a Parsi universe? “No, universe is universe.” He takes a breather, making cups of milkless tea in a kitchen that is more grey than white and so bare it looks unused. “I’m just going to respond to my few emails.”
His house is 40-odd years old and Zaiwalla has been here for 25. His daughter Freya named it Neptune “because Neptune is a sea god”. Freya has a brother, Varun. Both children are lawyers. Zaiwalla was divorced “many years ago”.
We do a tour. In Zaiwalla’s bedroom — light, modest, spruce — he keeps a photo of his late father. In 1925, Ratanshaw Zaiwalla was, possibly, the first Indian to qualify as a solicitor in London. He keeps photos of his children, too. “This is in a horse carriage in Bombay.” From Varun’s frill-free bedroom, you can see the sea. A bright, petite office is tucked downstairs. “Bit of a mess,” Zaiwalla murmurs. It looks spotless.
Horses stand about in a paddock outside, looking docile and melancholic. He shows me a cricket bat, signed by John Major and his cabinet in the 1990s. “I love cricket,” he says. Right now, there is a match between England and South Africa. “I’m supporting England,” says Zaiwalla.
Is it OK to take a few portraits? It is. Zaiwalla switches on the TV. His team is batting like a dream and his mood — always bright — brightens further. Emails off, he invites me to join him. The photographer clicks away.
Alexander Gilmour is deputy editor of House & Home
Photographs: Victoria Birkinshaw