Wednesdays are special for the Supreme Court judges. They wait for the hour-long lunch break that day with keen anticipation.
All 28 of them rise ten minutes before the clock strikes 1pm, go to their chambers for a quick change and then proceed towards the common dining hall where a delectable three-course meal awaits the “lordships”.
The lip-smacking cuisine from a particular part of the country is not sourced from a restaurant or hotel, but is home-cooked.
A sitting SC judge hosts the weekly common lunch. The dishes are part of the host judge’s home state, prepared at his residence.
A minimum of five food items have to be served in the main course and paan – as per each judge’s choice – is a must to end the lunch. Sources said judges sometimes call cooks from their native place to prepare dishes with the right local flavour.
On other working days judges eat lunch in their own chambers.
This Wednesday the judges tucked into home-made traditional food from Madhya Pradesh that was cooked at Justice Arun Misra’s residence. Pumpkin soup, bharvan bhindi and baingan, malai-kofta and paneer lababdar were on the menu. More than the main course, the dessert was much appreciated. “The roasted kheer, pineapple kesar halwa and maalpua were just to die for,” a judge told HT.
Last week Justice RK Agrawal from Uttar Pradesh was the host. Dry green peas, kadhai paneer and dum aloo flavoured with local spices were laid out at lunch time.
The week before that Justice SA Bobde from Maharashtra treated his fellow judges to sambhar wadi with mircha ka thecha, patal bhazi and arhar ki daal cooked Maharashtrian style. Puran poli (a special dal-stuffed chapatti) with ghee was the delicacy that afternoon.
And before that the judges had Rajasthani delicacies from Justice AK Sikri’s kitchen - bajre ki roti, bajre ki kichidi, dal bati churma and Rajasthani kadi.
Vegetables from Justice Kurien Joseph’s own kitchen garden were used to cook traditional dishes from Kerala such as spicy mushroom laced with gravy, kappa (tapioca), parboiled rice, papad, followed by neatly chopped pineapples. The unusually long ripe bananas from the state were served after the meal.
Justice J Chelameswar, who stirred a controversy with his decision to skip collegium meetings, too was a good host when it was his turn. His lunch treat of spicy sambar, rasam, idli, dosa, salt pongal, avakkai (mango pickle) and gongura (sorrel leaf) pachadi left the judges licking their fingers.
An unwritten rule is strictly followed at these lunches – only vegetarian cuisine is served to respect the sentiments of those who do not eat non-vegetarian food. The host is selected according to the judge’s seniority.
Justice AK Patnaik, who retired in June 2014, fondly remembers how the then Chief Justice Altamas Kabir had added a new rule not to convert the lunch into a competition between judges. “He introduced a penalty for those who exceeded the number of dishes fixed by him,” Justice Patnaik recalls.
“Behind every successful meal is a judge’s wife,” a senior judge told HT. But not for Justice R Banumathi – the lone woman judge – who would have to supervise the lunch herself when her turn comes.
The Wednesday lunch not only gives judges an opportunity to taste a variety of Indian cuisines, but also shows their bonhomie. Work is never discussed and judges leave their differences at the door. Food is the only topic of discussion with some of the judges boasting about their local cuisines.
A senior judge is appointed as the marshall and he penalises any judge who breaks the rules. At present Justice Bobde is the marshall. An argument with the marshall can aggravate the penalty.
“A marshall is like a class monitor to whom a complaint is made if a judge is seen breaching the rules. He is also the one who announces the end of the dinner that follows a standing ovation for the host judge,” a sitting judge told HT on condition of anonymity.
Retired judge Justice Kuldeep Singh who suggested the idea of the weekly lunches in the early Nineties gets nostalgic when asked about what triggered the idea. “Justice Ranganath Misra was the Chief Justice then and he agreed for the weekly lunch so that we could all get together. It gave a personal touch and became an exciting event which everyone looked forward to,” Justice Singh said.
It was an opportunity to unwind and relax over food. “Therefore, the rule that work should never be discussed. When we left our gowns in the chambers, we also left our work behind. I always looked forward to meals from south,” Justice Singh recollects.
Justice GS Singvhi who retired three years ago also has fond memories to share. “Those were the only moments when we never discussed work. The lunch ensured that we brushed up our knowledge related to food cooked in our houses” he told HT.
Nor can he forget the south Indian dishes he had at these lunches. “Home-made paisam (dessert), rasam and brown rice of Kerala were my favourites. I never eat sweets due to my sugar problem, but I could not resist the home-made paisam served by a brother judge from the south,” he says.
“Yes, it was difficult for judges to avoid home-cooked preparations, despite health issues. When it was my turn I got two types of dessert ready, which included a sugar-free dessert. To my surprise nobody touched the sugar-free sweet and I always thought that judges were too old,” muses Justice Patnaik who enjoyed the variety of chutneys his brother judge from the South got for lunch.
A judge recollects how Justice Aftab Alam in his farewell speech on April 18, 2013 described the Wednesday lunch as a congregation of “mini India.” “He said the one thing he would miss post retirement would be the weekly lunch,” the judge recalls.
Former Chief Justice of India RM Lodha holds a similar view. “The Supreme Court is a mini India. You have judges from all over the country. The lunch used to a gastronomical delight of regional cuisine,” he told HT.
Justice Lodha had served dal-bati when it was his turn to host the lunch. “It was soaked in ghee and I remember that after the lunch session all the judges felt so sleepy.” Justice Singhvi, who also got dal-bati, says his preparation was different from Justice Lodha’s family recipe. “Dal-bati is cooked differently in the Jodhpur region and in the Jaipur region of Rajasthan. That is the beauty of Indian food,” he explains.
The lunch is laid out on a large rectangular table presided by the CJI. The host sits on his right and gives a brief introduction about the dishes. The rest sit wherever they like.
However, the seating arrangement keeps changing. During former CJI HL Dattu’s tenure, the judges used to sit around circular tables and places were decided as per the lucky draw. A judge recollects how the present CJI JS Khehar ended up sitting next to Justice Dattu thrice. And when the former CJI asked him what conspiracy he was up to, CJI Khehar said it was the lucky draw’s fault!