Sometimes in the play of diplomacy, there are amusing — even embarrassing — incidents that cannot be anticipated. I recall one such on a trip by the late Prime Minister (PM) Rajiv Gandhi to Islamabad, Pakistan, in July 1989. He had flown there directly from an official visit to an international event in Paris. As a young diplomat, I accompanied him on this tour.
I still vividly remember what an impact Rajiv used to make abroad. I was posted in our mission to the United Nations (UN) in New York when he had come for the General Assembly on an earlier occasion. It was noticeable that there were only two leaders for whom the waitresses in the UN cafes would leave their service and rush to catch a glimpse. One was Libyan President Muammar Gaddafi, and the other, Rajiv Gandhi. Gaddafi aroused curiosity. Unusually tall, he strode across the UN corridors in his flowing robes and headdress, closely straddled on both sides by two black women guards.
Rajiv Gandhi inspired admiration. Young and handsome, his face glowing, impeccably dressed in an elegant bandhgala, he had the most endearing smile. Above all, he was of the lineage of Nehru-Gandhi, renowned across the world, and the elected PM of the world’s largest democracy.
The same enthusiastic anticipation awaited his first visit to Pakistan. That was more than clear from the conversations with Pakistani diplomats whom we met in Paris where Pakistani PM Benazir Bhutto had also come. In fact, on a personal note, at one of the diplomatic receptions, Mushahid Hussain, a well-known journalist and writer who was Pakistan’s minister for information and broadcasting, asked about a “young Indian diplomat” who had written a biography of Ghalib. Mani Shankar Aiyar, with whom he was talking, then said loudly: “Pavan, step forward.” I did so, and Mani announced proudly: “This is that diplomat.” On Mushahid’s request, 100 copies of my book were rushed to Islamabad from Delhi before Rajiv Gandhi arrived.
Benazir Bhutto was a very good-looking lady herself. If Rajiv Gandhi was charming and handsome, she was elegant and statuesque. Both were roughly the same age. They had much in common, including their education in Britain and family backgrounds of entitlement and privilege. If he was the son of a former PM, so was she. They were both exceptionally striking.
The official programme in Islamabad included a one-to-one meeting between Rajiv and Benazir, where no officials were present. After this meeting just between themselves, they were to come out together to hold a joint press conference. The time slot for this exclusive meeting between the two was thirty minutes.
I was — like other officials — in the room where the press conference was to be held. The room was packed with Pakistani journalists — both print and visual — as also the rather large Indian media contingent. As it so happened, the meeting between the two in a closed room, took much longer than the scheduled half an hour.
As time went on the media grew restless. Loaded questions began to be asked: “Kahan hain dono, kya kar rahen hain? Kitna time saath guzarein ge? Kya chal raha hai andar? (Where are the two, what are they doing, how long will they be alone, what is going on?)” There were snide comments galore, in which, quite frankly, the Indian media was also a full participant. The situation had got positively embarrassing.
When the meeting finally got over, Rajiv and Benazir walked into the press conference. To any viewer, they were most fetching. Both were far too intelligent not to anticipate that their long one-to-one meeting would provoke comment. They looked a little sheepish, and visibly blushed when they saw the knowing smiles on the faces of the media.
Both looked so vibrant and full of life. Tragically, destiny is cruel. Both of them fell prey, at the prime of their lives, to assassination.
Macabre pollution humour
A therapeutic way to vent your anger when any situation becomes unbearable is to resort to humour. I saw some striking examples of this syndrome when Delhi was choking under pollution. The most macabre of these was a message which showed road signs as follows: Pollutyens Delhi, Haze Khas, Dhua Kuan and Chandini Choke.
Nevertheless, sales during Diwali did not suffer. People were out in their great multitudes, and shopkeepers took pollution in their stride. That did not prevent the anguished jokes on social media about the pollution in the national Capital. One of them showed a picture of two parrots looking at a third , which looked like them, but was entirely black with soot. The blackened bird set at rest their doubts. “Honestly, guys! I am not a crow. I just arrived from Delhi!”
Pavan K Varma is author, diplomat, and former Member of Parliament (Rajya Sabha).
Just Like That is a weekly column where Varma shares nuggets from the world of history, culture, literature, and personal reminiscences with HT Premium readers
The views expressed are personal