On receiving the two volumes of Eardley Norton: A Biography I, not unnaturally perhaps, wondered what had led Suresh Balakrishnan to embark on this thousand page plus project. Norton today would be barely known outside a small set with knowledge about the history of the legal profession in Chennai. Evidently this erasure of memory is what spurred the author, himself an advocate in Chennai, to dig deep and spread a wide net to resurrect the life and times of Norton. The result is a biography, which succeeds in this aim very ably and has returned to public knowledge a remarkable lawyer of colonial India.
Eardley Norton (1852-1931) was in his time a celebrated lawyer of Madras, and also later in Calcutta. He was also, alongside a number of other enlightened Englishmen, active in the early years of the Indian National Congress and may well have been one of its Presidents but for a scandal associated with a marriage on the rocks and an extra-marital affair. Finally, Norton was also an inspired journalist. Balakrishnan has recounted all these different facets with narrative zest, admirable patience and energy. He has also gone to considerable effort to dig out details of the Norton family history in India going back to Eardley’s grandfather who was a judge in the then Supreme Court of Madras in the 1840s. Similarly along with details of growing up in Madras we are also given a comprehensive account of a still young Eardley being sent to boarding school in England—common practice for English families living in India then.
Norton returned to India by the end of the 1870s somewhat reluctantly, having failed in his attempts to establish himself at the English bar. His legal career in India was however spectacular despite major mishaps from time to time. He was at difficult times Coroner of Madras (and his activism in that office was a contributory factor in its being wound up), Municipal Commissioner, Member of the Madras Legislative Council and of the Central Legislative Assembly. He was also a brilliant and well-known socialite. His residence in Dunmore House in Chennai was the venue of a large number of fabulous parties and a reception he hosted for the delegates to the 1887 Congress session held in Madras was much commented upon. As mentioned earlier he may well have been President of the Indian National Congress but for a scandal that eroded his standing amongst the more conservative sections in that still nascent political platform. The bulk of this two-volume biography however relates to Norton at the bar for it was at the bar that he excelled. Through this book you can track Norton’s legal biography and the political history of India on much the same graph through the range of litigation he was at the centre of.