Shall we start from your childhood?
I was a very shy child, probably because I was born late. I have a sister who is 14 years elder. My teachers advised my parents to get a pet dog to help me overcome my shyness. I got a pair―we had a male and a female. I am not sure whether that helped. In that sense, I was a combination of contradictions as a child. I had no stage fright, and I could perform on stage―recite a poem, participate in debates―but when it came to talking to people at a personal level, I had an element of shyness which, to an extent, continues even today. I don’t socialise much. I keep to myself and the family. It is also a product of my work. I completely dedicated myself to the profession of law, and that left very little time for anything else.
My sister and I went to an English medium school, which was a new thing in our family. Both my parents went to Marathi medium schools, and they learnt whatever English they learnt only after standard seven or eight. Going to an English school in Mumbai was a very different cultural experience from what home was like. Home was always associated with our family culture and traditions.
We had our properties, but the family lost its land [after the Maharashtra Agricultural Lands (Ceiling and Holdings) Act]. Eventually, everyone had to depend upon a profession to sustain their livelihood. My father took to law, following his uncle and grandfather. My parents settled down in Mumbai to earn their livelihood. My father came here with very little family support. He would stay in a small tenement in Mumbai. My mother would carry clothes on her head to wash at the nearest tap. Though my father did very well as a lawyer, he always had this feeling that he had succeeded on his own. And he wanted to give us the benefit of a good education. When I went to school, it was very different from our parental upbringing.
I moved to Delhi when I was still in school, and my father was appointed a judge of the Supreme Court of India. We stayed in a house just opposite this one, at 13 Tughlak Road. I did not realise then that one day I was going to occupy the house just across. My school and college life in Delhi were much more egalitarian. School comprised of children from all strata of society. At St. Stephen’s, that feeling of economic elitism was not there. If there was a feeling of privilege, it was because the students were such great scholars―we had scholars, sportspersons, people who were good in the arts.
A seminal incident in your childhood that shaped you as an adult?
The one person who had a very big impact on my life was someone who worked for us for close to 40 years. She came before I was born, from Ratnagiri. She gave me an insight into rural Maharashtra, which was in so many ways representative of rural India. She would tell me about the aspirations of people in the villages, though she was completely illiterate. She learnt to read and write in our house. My sister, mother and I would teach her. But otherwise, she had no formal education. But you would be amazed at her values.
What she taught me was something which an educated person those days might not have. She was extremely liberal and very rights-conscious. She made it a point that my friends in school should be people from the class of society which she represented. So, my best friends were children who lived either in our staff quarters or in the buildings in which we stayed. My parents would encourage me to go to their homes and play with them. Those were the days of rationing of food. I would go to friends’ houses whose daily fare consisted of food drawn from the ration shops. I would spend weekends eating and playing with them.
My parents never brought me up in an elitist way. They were extremely liberal, although they were very traditional in some ways. They brought up my sister and me on an absolutely even platform. One of my pet grievances was that my sister had far greater freedom at home in terms of her friends and lifestyle than what I was allowed, because I was much younger. I was the kid brother. My sister is now based in Indiana. She did law and topped Bombay University. After her marriage in 1971, she settled down in the US.
Did you know you wanted to do law from a young age?
I was fascinated with law as a child. I would go to my father’s court once a week. Every day I would come home by the usual transport, but once a week when we had games at school, I would walk across to the High Court and get a lift from my father. I would always peer at the courts from the floor above. Through the latticed windows on the third floor, you could see the proceedings on the second floor. This was one of those old British buildings with high ceilings.
That changed over time. When I joined college in Delhi, I realised that there was life beyond law. After I studied economics at St. Stephen’s, I was seriously interested in pursuing a career in economics and took admission at the Delhi School of Economics, but the law college started earlier, so I went there for a few weeks. After that I felt there was no going back from law.
Before my grandfather, my family was predominantly agricultural. By and by, the family came to law and some of my uncles studied medicine. My great-grandmother came with her nine children from the village to Pune. She mortgaged her jewellery so that her children could do higher education. We have a tradition of being a family with very strong women. We have all grown to respect the women in the family who have been the guiding lights for succeeding generations. I still have in my prayer room a picture of this great-grandmother before whom I bow every morning, because I feel she was a person who brought the family from a predominantly agricultural livelihood into the bigger city that Pune was in those days, and set the family on the path of education.
Your mother, Prabha, was a classical musician. Did you learn music as a child?
Yes. My mother was a trained musician, and a disciple of one of the most distinguished classical singers of our time―Kishori Amonkar, who was an exponent of the Jaipur gharana. My father had learnt music at Gandharva Mahavidyalaya. They were related to each other, but they did not have an arranged marriage. They got married in 1943, and it was a big thing then not to have a marriage settled by the elders in the family. My mother and father encouraged me to learn music. I learnt to play the harmonium and the tabla as a child. I played the tabla rather well. At some point my father started telling my mother: ‘There is a danger that he is going to become a tabla player’, which in those days was a matter of some anxiety for parents. They were very orthodox in wanting you to become either a doctor, lawyer, or engineer. So that was the end of my tabla-playing.
My mother’s guru, Kishori Amonkar, used to come to our house almost every week. I would sit behind the curtains when she was doing her riyaz and listen to her practising music. I would go with my mother every Saturday to her home and we would spend the whole morning there. I would be playing with her little children, but more often than not listening to the music that was being sung in the next room. Music used to move me so much that I would start crying. My mother used to wonder why her child cried so much after listening to music, but I think she never figured out why.
As a college student, I worked as a disc jockey for All India Radio. When someone told me that AIR was recruiting people to do programmes for them, I went and auditioned. Interestingly, I used to do programmes in Hindi and English―the more serious genre of programmes in Hindi and the western music programmes in English. The Hindi gave me an insight into the language which I love and have been very closely associated with. Very often I would go to AIR at 5am to do my recordings and head to college after that. Sometimes I would come back after college and be there till 9pm until the programmes got over.
What was your relationship with your father like?
He was a fun person and very fond of sports. One of his pet grievances was that I had become much too serious for his liking. But my father and I have had an evolving relationship. When I was young, he was to me a parent keen on grooming his child. As time went on, we became great friends. He was extremely open in his thoughts. He was willing to change. When I grew up, if I had a different point of view and I placed it before him, he would be more than willing to accept it. Our relationship was of a certain degree of equality and friendship. With my mother, of course, it was unconditional love. She was very loving, but she had to have her way, because she was a very powerful person in the family.
My father never placed an overbearing importance on his own status as a CJI or even later, as an elder in the family. Even when he was CJI, he always had time at the end of the day to sit with me and ask me what happened in college that day. When I was in St. Stephen’s, he knew about all the gossip that I brought home in the evening about my teachers and friends. When I was a law student, if I was learning something in contract law, he would tell me just a small concept of contract law while I was sitting with him for a few minutes in the morning or evening, and he would open up a whole universe on that aspect of law. In that sense he was very involved with the family.
Coming to your family, can you tell us a bit about your marriage?
We got married in 2008, and Kalpana has been an enormous source of strength. We continue to be great friends. She is one of my greatest confidantes. One thing we both decided right from the inception of our relationship was that we should have the utmost confidence in each other. There is nothing about our lives that we have not spoken to each other about. In so many ways, Kalpana has helped me change. She is deeply concerned about societal values. She has very strong ideas on issues like gender equality, which is very close to her heart. She has helped me fine-tune my values and develop my own thoughts on gender and equality.
We travel a great deal together, to the most rustic of places. We have travelled and trekked in Ladakh, the most inaccessible parts of Sikkim, Himachal Pradesh, Lakshadweep, the Andaman and Nicobar Islands―you just name the place in India and we have been there. But just as we have travelled together, we engage in very serious conversations. My association with her has helped me to evolve as a person. She has helped me find a mirror to my own soul. Sometimes what Kalpana says may not be very nice at that moment, but over time I have come to realise the value of it.
When I proposed to her, Kalpana was a confirmed single woman. Amongst her group of friends, she was the least likely to get married, because she was so happy being single. She was working, and she was based in Delhi, while I was in Mumbai. We met through a fair bit of coincidence. When I asked her whether she would get married, she said, “Marry? Me?” She was absolutely aghast at the idea of somebody popping the question. She had never given a serious thought to getting married to me.
She later told me that her close friends who knew we were seeing each other had told her that this relationship was going to end in marriage. She would ridicule the idea and tell them that I was just a great friend. “He’s in a different city, and we have our own lives we are leading,” she would tell them. I had to talk to her and she had concerns.
When you get married when you are very young, you feel the world is very rosy and you are very optimistic with your life. When you get married a little later, you have a broader perspective in life, and that was what was worrying her. I was a judge and judges live very constricted lives. Your whole life revolves around your profession. You don’t socialise or mix that much. Judges traditionally are believed to be reclusive. Not that Kalpana is very sociable herself.
One of the things that made us come together is that if we have some spare time, we love to be at home. Give us an opportunity and we would never opt to go to a party. Even today, we share the same space, but we are doing our own thing. I might be reading a book or listening to music, Kalpana might be watching a documentary or looking after our two lovely girls. We have made it a point in the last almost 15 years to ensure that we give each other adequate space. Kalpana knows that I need that time alone to reflect or sometimes digest what has happened through my day.
What about your foster daughters?
Priyanka and Mahi have been with us since 2015. They first came into our lives when I was Chief Justice of the Allahabad High Court. They are both special needs children. They moved with us from Allahabad to Delhi. There was virtually no school for these children in the village in Uttarakhand where they originally grew up. In Allahabad I got somebody locally to come and teach them alphabets and numbers. In Delhi, we were looking for a school for them. And we found this lovely school called Tamana, started by Shayama Chona. She always told us that these children had to be mainstreamed in a regular school. Though they are special needs children, their minds are razor sharp. Eventually, after a few years, they joined Sanskriti. We had some of the most amazing teachers in Sanskriti. They dealt with these children with so much of empathy and sensitivity, bringing out the best in them. We never imagined that these girls would come into our lives, but I feel that they have reshaped our lives in so many ways.
What do you like to do in your free time?
I love music, and when it comes to music, I am still now at the point where I was when I was eight or nine years old. I have a very eclectic taste. I love Indian classical music. I also listen to western classical music. Even rock and pop―Bob Dylan, Abba, Dire Straits, Adele. These little girls (referring to his daughters) keep loading music on my phone which I listen to on my way to court and back. Then there are days when you just want to listen to some nice piano. Today I was listening to Philip Glass and his etude while going and coming back from work. My music preferences change with my mood, based on what kind of work I am doing in court. Also based on my experiences in my personal life at that particular moment. There are times when you want to listen to music that is soothing, other times when you want to listen to music that is uplifting.
I love reading, too. At any given point of time, I read multiple books. I get tired of reading just one book. Right now, I have a collection of books on my bedside table. Kalpana always warns me that this mountain of books is going to fall over me if I touch it in my sleep. I read a lot of history and economics books. I have also been following a little bit of Urdu poetry. I am not very good at it, but I enjoy reading it. Since I became chief justice, however, I don’t have enough time. Earlier I could read 30 pages a night, now it has come down to 10.
One book that has deeply influenced you?
I have been deeply influenced by this book by Alan Paton called Cry, the Beloved Country, written in the backdrop of the apartheid in South Africa. I read it in school, when I was very impressionable. I have read it so many times that there are pages of it that I [know by heart]. It made a big impact in terms of what it means to live in an era of apartheid and social oppression. I have been impacted by other writers as well, like Somerset Maugham and his books Of Human Bondage, The Moon and Sixpence, and The Razor’s Edge. I have been mostly influenced by people who lived their life in pursuit of a dream. That is something I have tried to imbibe in my life by pursuing issues that I feel strongly about.
I fully believe that there is a message or reason why all of us are where we are as human beings. I always ask myself: What is the purpose of human existence? Why am I here? I ask myself every day. Why is it that I am the Chief Justice of India in this country of 1.4 billion people? I always try and find the deeper meaning behind life every day, by trying to do things that will make some little contribution to the world around me, because I believe that it is not in the big things that you can make a contribution. Of course you can do that, but for all of us ordinary human beings, it is the little things you do every day that contributes to making the world around you better.
Are you very religious or spiritual?
I am very spiritual. My father was also spiritual―he used to meditate. He was an acute insomniac, so he would not sleep for days on end. And he used to survive only because of meditation. I named my younger son Chintan, in acknowledgment of my father’s own life in meditation, because chinta means reflection.
I have this wonderful yoga teacher in Pune, who is now in his 90s. He used to always tell me: “I am here to teach yoga as exercise. What you get out of yoga in terms of your own spiritual evolution is for you personally. I will teach you the physical aspects of yoga, but be sure that there is something more than that.” I never forgot that. Yoga has been a very important source of my own spiritual evolution as a human being.
Apart from that I spend a considerable amount of time in prayer every day. I don’t leave home without praying. Possibly the reason for that is my own background―my former wife passed away due to cancer. She was a cancer patient for almost a decade. We were trying to bring up our children who were very little, so that required me to bring out a lot of my own mental reserves. I feel religion gave me that―a sense of inner strength.
Going beyond that, [it has helped] my life as a lawyer and judge. Most lawyers and judges live their working lives among hordes of people. Our courts are so crowded. There is a heavy volume of cases. You have to be emotionally stable to handle your job as a judge. You have to decide as a judge, but you cannot become part of the conflict. You have to step away from it. So, in many ways, the time I spend in solitude very early in the morning gives me a sense of calm for the rest of the day.
Do you believe in a particular god?
Of course, I have my family deities. I have my family puja room, which is very typical of Maharashtra to which I belong. But when I pray, I have this perception of an eternal supreme being who governs the order of the universe, and therefore human destiny. But I don’t impose my religious beliefs on anyone. They are deeply personal to me. I do my work committed to the Constitution and its values. When I work as a judge, I am wedded to implementing the values of the Constitution. I don’t impose my idea of spirituality on anyone around me in my family. For instance, my wife finds a reflection of the supreme being in the beauty of the mountains, rivers, trees and birds. She is that kind of a person. My parents did not impose their religious beliefs on me, and I don’t impose my beliefs on anyone.
What is the biggest struggle you have faced in life?
There have been multiple struggles at different stages of life. At a personal level, it was when I was the caregiver for my former wife. We had two young children. They have grown up beautifully, and I am so proud of both of my sons for what they have achieved in life. But that was a very difficult period. I had to hold on to my profession as a judge. That was all I had. If someone were to take away my job in those days, there was nothing else for me to fall back upon. There was no family wealth to sustain me. That is all I had―my work and my role as a judge. So, I had to ensure that I did not allow my work to suffer. I could not have turned down people who came to our courts seeking justice saying that I was going through a bad phase in life, because they were going through a bad phase in life as well. Handling home and work and so many different fronts, and ensuring that you maintained a balance, was a big challenge.
There were other low points as well. I was very attached to my parents. I lost my former wife and my father in the space of a year. She passed away in July 2007 and my father passed away in July 2008. But when you work for others, you realise that the problems you face are not as big. I think that working for others is a great solace for a judge. Even when my former wife was in and out of hospital, particularly towards the end, I would make it a point to go back to court, sit there for a few hours and do my assigned work for the day, and then go in the morning to the hospital and back to court, then go back again to the hospital, spend time with her, and then go home to prepare for the next day. My work has been a great stabilising influence.
Ever been disillusioned with your work?
I have never been disillusioned with my work, which is not to say I have not had problems. I have had setbacks in my professional life. I don’t want to speak about them now, because they are behind me. There are of course challenges you face in your work. People would ask me when are you going higher as a judge. And then you ask yourself, why did I take this job? I did not take it to attain a particular position. I took it for the love of what that job entails, which is really public service. If you focus on that, you won’t get disillusioned.
You get disillusioned when you look beyond the purpose of your job, or the purpose of your existence. Sometimes when you aspire for things you cannot achieve, that’s when the disillusionment creeps in. Steer clear of that, focus on what’s happening in the present, and that’s one way of not getting disillusioned with so much that you see around you.
The most urgent reform needed in the judiciary today?
I am not in Parliament. So I can’t speak about the reform that the legislature should bring about. The reform that we can bring about as judges is to make our processes much more efficient, more responsible, responsive, and accountable to our citizens. That change in the processes of the Indian judiciary is something that is required. We have inherited a colonial system. Our systems have changed. We don’t today operate the colonial processes. But our inheritance of what is essentially a colonial regime has to now completely give way to a more service-oriented regime that is more responsive to the needs of the people, to deliver more efficient and timely justice to citizens.
Men and women you admire as great judges and jurists of India?
That’s a tough one. Many of them are still around today, so I don’t want to embarrass them by referring to them by name. But talking about the greats of the past, I have been deeply impacted by some judges like Justice B.K. Mukherjea, Justice Subba Rao and Justice Patanjali Sastri. They were judges who really fashioned the law at a time when the Constitution was still unfolding. They had a vision in those times of what the Constitution should look like. I am also a great admirer of judges outside India. One of my icons is Ruth Bader Ginsburg, for the work she has done for gender equality.