Thursday, January 12, 2012

An obituary for Sailesh Rajan: "Dispossessed ALS Solicitor a force of wilful calm"

Aboriginal Legal Service (NSW/ACT) website | 11 January 2012

This obit was written by Jeremy Styles, Principal Legal Officer, ALS Redfern

Following a diagnosis of Angiosarcoma early November, Sailesh Rajan passed away on the morning of 24 December 2011.

Following a stint as a volunteer with ALS Redfern, Sailesh gained employment as a lawyer in ALS Bourke, then transferred to ALS Dubbo. As he began employment after the amalgamation of all the Aboriginal legal services in NSW in 2006, Sailesh does not - regrettably for some - earn the appellation 'WALS solicitor'.

His close family ties in Sydney encouraged him to seek and gain employment back in ALS Redfern.

Sailesh gave the whole of his practice as a lawyer to the service of Aboriginal people in NSW. He gave a substantial period of his life to the most marginalised in country NSW and in Western Sydney.

With his intellect and analytical capacity he could have walked straight into being a high flying corporate lawyer; or indeed a barrister. He had chosen to contribute for an extended period of time to the Aboriginal Community.

Ruth Chalmers, a Solicitor at ALS Wagga Wagga unearthed a paper written by Sailesh describing his experience of working at the Aboriginal Legal Service (NSW/ACT) in remote and urban areas as a Criminal Solicitor.

"It's a lovely heartfelt paper," says Ruth. "He said he wrote it whilst having a 'Jerry Maguire' moment."

"To those who may not have known him very well, it's a great insight into the kind of person he was," adds Ruth. "To those who did know him well, its a great reminder of the passionate, funny and intelligent person we will remember him as."

Ruth says that perhaps most fitting is his final paragraph which made him a pleasure to work alongside:
Attitude is everything. Your experience of this [legal] profession, like much else in your life depends on the attitude you bring to it. People who are successful in this profession, and by successful, I mean, motivated, competent, empathetic and not cynical even after having done it for many years, are without exception people who approach their work and their life with the right attitude. The world you experience is nothing but an echo of your thoughts, feelings and emotions. If you want to see despair and bleakness everywhere, whinge about everything, and ultimately burn out, you can. If you want to see hope and potential everywhere, get on with it cheerfully, and have a fulfilling experience, you can do that too. The choice is yours.
Sailesh's commitment was marked. It can be demonstrated through his recent work on a major co-accused Grievous Bodily Harm hearing for a young man. He prepared and prepared, consulted and workshopped with his usual ringing interruption, "Hey XXXX; [diminutive form of name - or - barrister style last name], what do you think about this? ...". Rarely, as a courtesy, he would add, "Do you have a minute?" before filibustering through any objection. He enthusiastically harassed lawyers and colleagues about cultural communication models and community background. With characteristic delight, borne of analytical intensity, he interrupted many of us with his ideas for cross examination and objections (and, indeed, trash talking the police prosecutor). His illness took him from the second part heard sitting - but his extensive work contributed to the young man's acquittal.

Many of the worst things about Sailesh may be sketched out with toungue in cheek. For him - legal ideas were more interesting than the sometime courtesy of not discussing them; and on occasion more interesting than the drudgery of filenotes. Sailesh's interruptions by phone at all hours and over weekends were the norm; almost exclusively about very interesting but time un-critical legal issues. Superficially, Sailesh sometimes gave the impression of selfishness (he was an only child...). From time to time he could lack patience for those who did not understand. He would doggedly pursue a point - sometimes to the point of annoyance. He could be mercurial in argument.

And yet Sailesh could be patient with his clients - and they loved his fight (particularly with prosecutors, police, Magistrates and Judges [read "everyone else"]). He loved the fight. He could have sought more for himself - but instead, he fought for the clients; fought for their rights; and fought against the oppression of the police. In an application for work in a city office he described himself as "keenly interested in argumentation as a field unto itself". He didn't take the greater money at other organisations. He had travelled to country NSW to live and work - and loved his time there.

Sailesh was delighted by legal, philosophical and religious ideas. He could be ebullient in discussion about ideas, sometimes drifting quickly into deeply serious modes of discussion and debate - with a sparkle in his eyes. Within an office, he shared all of his ideas willingly and openly and was available to discuss the dilemmas, case theories, and legal problems of others. He gave his time and intellectual energy generously. Much of this is representative of the fiercely intellectual debator and rhetorician that he was; the balance representative of an underlying generosity.

On a quick tour of his office - a few facts reveal themselves from some of the material he kept around him. He loved the country and the Aboriginal management of the organisation - he had the obituary of Tombo Winters, WALS manager, on his office wall. He had a sense of humour; about himself, his colleagues and the profession. In the 'gallows' way well known to ALS and other defence lawyers - he had a transcript of a friend and colleague who had erroneously tendered sentence notes on the back of an exhibit in a hearing then lost. [Paraphrasing from memory] LC Magistrate: "Guilty. I appear to have your instructions... ". Solicitor: "Yes I do have instructions..." LC Magistrate: "No. I do - on the back of this exhibit...". He had a printed copy of the Local Court listing for a notable jurist with whom some defence lawyers took issue. He had an obligatory Redfern issue painting by our client Emmanuel Pitt - more for the dash than the artistic merit (i think). He also had on his door a printed, unidentified aphorism about the nature of love - being a learned experience.

Truly ironically, and deeply sadly as it turns out, he had as a memento a large yellow sticky next to his computer on which some wag had written (with border):
* Sailesh Rajan *
* Dispossessed Advocate *
* *
There is a story behind this that is not known at the time of writing. It has now been superseded.

Sailesh Rajan loved the law, his work and his colleagues. His love of family was obvious. He was intelligent, ambitious and analytical. He was a skilled advocate and knowledgeable lawyer; And, he was generous with his time and capacity. He could have done any job successfully in the law; and would have. He had much ahead of him professionally; there was much yet to do.

Before his diagnosis in November 2011, Sailesh was at his most frustrated. He was short tempered, unsettled, and indivertible, being furious at the failures of diagnosis so far. All the significant power of his analysis and reasoning was levelled at the process and the imprecision of diagnosis. He had researched his problem and - whilst trusting and taking the advice of his doctors - he expressed that he would not want himself as a patient. This was his only levity of the day. He "would become a better client service lawyer after being dealt with that way" by doctors. He was confident in his anger at the world.

This was, to be frank, unsurprising. The cusp of a horrible diagnosis may be as unsettling as the diagnosis itself. The unknown can be a horror; not knowing is hard.

After diagnosis - Sailesh was a force of wilful calm (a contrast of no small measure). He was settled and committed to a course of action in treatment. He had a developing understanding of his prospects and future. He was strong and calm while his family were understandably distraught to the point of incapacity. It was a privilege (if dubious) to see his strength and resolve in the face of a known terror.

Through the process, of necessity, he focussed increasingly on his treatment, his beliefs and his family; he was unusually distant from his colleagues, friends and work. He was not the all hours correspondent he had been in times past. He was, reportedly, buoyed by the messages and email from his friends and colleagues (many of which went without response): Family members were assiduously reading the messages out to him in hospital; Everyone's thoughts, comments and best wishes were appreciated.

By all accounts, it was a noble, careful and considerate death. At the end, all Sailesh's energies were devoted to the comfort and spiritual accommodation of his family - those closest to him - in the idea of his death. He had a considered, committed understanding of the spiritual consequences of the death that was approaching. He had accepted his ineluctable death. He was confident in his departure from this world.

I have said this directly - as my grief, along with many I've spoken too - was assisted by the acceptance Sailesh had for his situation and by his interest in easing the way for others.

On behalf of the ALS, I offer particular thanks and condolences to James Jeffery - who was a close friend and mentor to Sailesh. He provided much comfort and support to Sailesh and his family during his illness; And provided much information and support to ALS staff despite being on leave. James went well beyond any responsibility he may have held as a staff member or friend.

Sailesh was cremated in a ceremony on the day of his death. Despite the ceremony being in the Blue Mountains - and having only hours notice - a significant number of ALS staff made it to the ceremony.

The ceremony was presided over by Sailesh's spiritual teacher who had been assisting him in the last weeks of his life, and who had guided him for a number of years. As a practicing Hindu it was not unusual (as I understand it) for the cremation ceremony to be held on the day of the death. The ceremony discussed directly Sailesh's acceptance of his own mortality and his engagement with his faith.

Sailesh is survived by his father Ranga, his mother Sivitri and a very large extended family of aunts, uncles and cousins in Australia and India.

Remember Sailesh well. And keep his parents in your thoughts.

Jeremy Styles

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