In a recent suo moto case hearing on the vexed subject of the Government of India’s handling, or rather, alleged mishandling of the Covid19 pandemic, the honorable justices of the Supreme Court came down heavily on the central government for the manner in which the dreaded disease and its trail of continuing destruction has, in its judicial and judicious opinion, been handled. ‘We have a strong arm to come down on this,’ one of the judges admonished, threatening strong-arm methods. Be it the vaccine dual pricing or procurement policy, oxygen management, health infrastructure, the alarming escalation of mortalities, the apex court did not appear awfully impressed by the way in which the disease and its aftermath has been tackled. If one were to suggest that the court took a dim view of the whole affair, one would be understating the case. Among several scathing remarks, the Bench exhorted the Solicitor General (SG) representing the government, who the Court felt was divorced from the grim reality of the crisis, to ‘wake up and smell the coffee.’ This caused quite a stir in legal circles. Not least because many of them did not quite get the meaning of the aphorism employed. The SG and his able assistants were unable to grasp what the senior judge was trying to convey. While I cannot confirm this, I understand they sought a 30-minute recess to consider their position. The judge settled for 15 minutes and told them to get on with it. Quite right, too.
Our television news channels were quick to pick up on this. Before you could say ‘What’s happened to Arnab Goswami?’, anchors were falling over themselves asking their panelists to ‘wake up and smell the coffee.’ I kid you not. I distinctly heard at least three well-known anchors saying precisely that to a puzzled set of invited speakers from various political affiliations. ‘What coffee, what smell? I am sitting at home sipping fresh lime soda. Kindly explain yourself, Madam.’ See what I mean? The Supreme Court has started something and it’s catching like Covid19.
This chronicler cannot swear as to what exactly passed between the SG and his bright-eyed, bushy-tailed colleagues during the brief recess, but a smart fly on the wall, blessed with an excellent sense of hearing passed around a scrap of paper with some hurriedly scribbled notes. Some of the writing was indecipherable, probably in Pitman’s shorthand, but we tried our best to fill in the blanks.
‘Smell the coffee? Smell the coffee? What could he possible mean?’ wailed the agitated SG. ‘Any of you have a clue?’
One of the bright sparks piped up. ‘Perhaps he was inviting you to his home, Boss, to have an offline discussion on the subject, and a steaming cup of delicious coffee was on the menu. Filter coffee, mmm. I can smell it even now. Redolent of MTR Bangalore! Could be his way of offering you a peace pipe, to make up for his peremptory remarks without conceding too much ground. And perhaps to ensure that the discussion is maintained at an even keel and not allowed to spiral out of control. I mean, it is the highest court in the land taking on the powerful central government. Decencies of debate and a level of decorum need to be observed.’
Riposted the SG, ‘In your dreams, my fine-feathered friend. You are getting carried away. Judges don’t invite you into their homes, not for all the coffee beans in Brazil. They may invite other judges, but not the likes of us. No, no. There is more to this than meets the eye. I am thinking coded message.’
‘You lost me there, Sir. Coded message? Are you speaking in code, Sir, or do we take your word at face value?’ The junior assistant looked bemused.
‘Look, surely you know what coded messages are. Haven’t you seen any spy films? You have to read between the lines, juggle around with the letters, equate numerals to the position of each letter, hold it up in front of a mirror, then read it in reverse, some of the letters or numerals may even represent morse codes. You know. Dot, dash, dash, dot, dot, dash, dot, that sort of thing. I thought they trained you chaps on all this. Come on fellows, let’s have you.’
‘Wow, Sir. All this was not part of our syllabus. Carlill vs Carbolic Smoke Ball, yes. Morse code, no. Perhaps you could solve this mystery, Sir. What with all your in-depth knowledge of dots and dashes.’
The SG was miffed. ‘Go ahead and laugh at my expense. You’ll be laughing out of the other side of your mouth when your life depended on decoding “how now brown cow.” Now let’s get serious. We have to face this relentless judge in five minutes. And I need to anticipate what more strange words or expressions he is likely to throw at us. I need to be sharpish. Right now, I am at my wit’s end. I refuse to be caught off-guard again. Not another sarcastic, smirky “smell the coffee” with plenty of top spin on it.’
One of the SG’s smart, young lady assistants, fresh out of law school, put forward the interesting and plausible theory that the good judge was probably suggesting that if you can’t smell the coffee, you could be a ripe candidate for Covid, and that you should go and get tested immediately. ‘Deadening of the olfactory senses is one of the symptoms, Sir,’ she added helpfully.
‘Thank you very much, doctor. I am fully aware of what the symptoms of Covid are. I am up to my eyeballs on Covid symptoms. Even our good judge was down with Covid but thankfully, fully recovered. As is clearly evident. Look team, this is taking us nowhere. We are up the creek without a paddle.’
‘Brilliant Sir. You should use that in court. Up the creek without a paddle. Their lordships or justices or whoever, will be foxed. You will have won a psychological blow. The judge who asked you to smell the coffee will be stymied. He will be clearly on the backfoot. He might switch to drinking weak tea.’
‘God, give me strength. Backfoot eh? Now I have to put up with your cricketing similes. This meeting has been about as useful as a one-legged, blindfolded man with severe astigmatism attempting to break the 100 meters world record. The judge will have me for breakfast.’
‘Perfect. It will then be your turn, to ask his lordship to smell the coffee.’ The young assistant was beside himself with his own, corny cleverness.
‘You carry on like this, young man, and the judge will send you down to a place where you will have to smell extremely unpleasant things. You may almost wish you had Covid to deaden your olfactory senses. Ha ha! Right, end of this nonsense. Thanks for nothing. Let’s make tracks to the court where the beaks are awaiting us with their knives out.’
‘Another good one, Sir. Almost Wodehousean. You can hold your own with these “beaks.”’
Back in court, one of the judges addressed the SG. ‘I trust you have had adequate time to consider your position, as you so delicately put it. How soon can we expect the Government to submit to us its detailed nationwide vaccine rollout plan?’
‘With respect your lordship, “adequate time” is a relative concept. I asked for 30 minutes and you gave us a quarter of an hour. How long is a piece of string? It is a metaphysical question worth pondering on. I am sure your lordship will recall Albert Einstein’s quip on time and relativity, “When you are courting a nice girl an hour seems like a second. When you sit on a red-hot cinder a second seems like an hour. That’s relativity.” What a man!
The judge interrupted the SG sharply. ‘Do you plan to come to the point any time soon, Sir?’
‘Sorry judge, if you are put out by my meandering style. Meaning no disrespect, I am sure you are accustomed to long speeches by prosecution and defence counsels. In fact, I well remember on one occasion, 1979 I think it was, when you yourself, Sir, full of youthful energy and enthusiasm, went on for an interminably long…’
‘And now you are getting personal.’ The judge was livid. ‘For the last time, if you continue in this vein, I might have to find you in contempt. Get to the point.’
‘My profuse apologies. But you see, your lordship, I can’t get to the point because, right at this point, I don’t have a point. Can you not find it in your large heart to give us a week and we will come up with a plan to your satisfaction?’
‘The country is in the throes of a monumental medical emergency. I cannot give you a week. I’ll make it four days. That’s it.’
The Solicitor General bowed obsequiously. ‘Take it or leave it? Thank you, your lordship for small mercies. I can see where you’re coming from. Never give a sucker an even break. I can live with that. My philosophy is, what you lose on the swings, you make up on the roundabouts, if you get my drift your lordship. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you, as it says in the Good Book. We shall revert with a subtle but effective plan that should satisfy the courts, the government and above all, the people of India. Speaking of subtle plans, your lordship, I am sure you will indulge me if I shared this quote by that fictional curmudgeon Edmund Blackadder, in that side-splittingly hilarious television series starring Rowan Atkinson. Edmund responds to his goofy, congenital idiot of an assistant Baldrick’s offer to come up with a subtle plan, “Baldrick, you wouldn’t recognise a subtle plan if it painted itself purple and danced naked on a harpsicord singing ‘subtle plans are here again’.” Forgive me judges, these are tears of unrestrained joy. Just wished to end on a light-hearted note. Once again, thank you kindly your lordships, and enjoy the aromatic smell of fresh coffee at home.’
As the judges trooped out of the court, our resident, inquisitive fly on the wall distinctly heard one of them muttering under his breath,‘If I never see this man again, it will be too soon.’
Note: This piece is entirely a work of fiction barring the initial premise based on the Supreme Court’s observations.