The Tribune - Spectrum

Sunday, May 7, 2000
Time Off

The lingering memory
By Manohar Malgonkar

SO, Bill Clinton has come and gone. That his visit took place during Holi was a happy coincidence — unless it was a feat of inspired planning — the timing could not have been more perfect.

Holi is an aberration, a time for going off the rails, when people do things which they would not do at other times. "Don’t take offence —-just put it down to Holi," they say to their friends and enemies.

Bill Clinton looked Holi in the eye, greeted it warmly, and then just fell into its mood.

Leaders of the world’s nations must dread the thought of having to make state visits to other nations. The world is watching. During every minute of the visit, they must be on their best behaviour, and is not always possible, particularly during state banquets.

The hosts are determined to stun the visitor with their country’s best food, best liquor. How do you tell your opposite number in Moscow, say, "But Mr President, our Surgeon General has determined that more than half a kilo of caviar at one sitting can be a health hazard — sorry." Or again, in Tokyo: "Sir, in our land we eat only cooked fish and our wines are not served boiling hot."

  Remember how Clinton’s predecessor in office, Grorge Bush, just passed out during a banquet given in his honour in China? That, so I feared, was surely what Bill Clinton was heading for, here, because the meal they were going to serve him was surely not meant to be eaten so much as admired from a respectful distance.

A soup of creamed almonds flavoured with saffron, prawns smothered in a spicy sauce, leg of lamb as the Moghuls made it, Rampuri korma, sabz-biryani, daal makhani, a dry curry of paneer and green vegetables, a wet curry of onions and potatoes, raita, chutnies, pickles, relays of hot mini-tandoor roties and ‘baby’ parathas. Then to round of the feast, kulfi, and after that, to round of the kulfi, the season’s first Alphonso mangoes from Mumbai.

O.K., Because of the veg-non-veg guest-list, the hosts had to provide two separate meals. But, for the chief guest to have refused to at least sample any of those dishes might have been seen as an error of protocol.

Watch it Bill!—- I wanted to say to Clinton. You can say no with impunity to at least half of those things so long as you do it with a smile and say: "Don’t take it amiss—-after all, this is Holi." That kulfi ——it’s pure buffalo milk cream—-the weight-watcher’s waterloo. Follow the advice of your own anti-drugs campaign: Just say no!

But Bill Clinton took it in his stride — ‘baby’ parathas, ‘baba’ naans and all — made appreciative remarks and grinned widely and then demanded what was not even on the menu: mango ice cream.

O.K.If that off-the-script order for ice cream during the course of a state banquet does not, by itself, stand as the core of a citation for the Purple Heart, there are other performances too, of fortitude beyond the call of duty.

As a sample, just think of the number of handshakes that Bill Clinton went through during those five days. Five thousand, shall we say? Surely, by rights, he should have been waring his arm in a sling, if not in a cast, by the time the visit ended. But there he was, standing in the doorway of the plane that was to whisk him away to Pakistan, grinning widely and waving away with the same right hand.

In Indian eyes, that Bill Clinton, who stood in the plane’s entrance door on the tarmac at Mumbai, was a bigger, taller, friendlier man than the Bill Clinton who had landed on their soil only five days earlier. Whether or not President Clinton of America accomplished the purposes of his state visit to India; whether or not, the Indian Government was pleased with the results of the American President’s visit; the people of India had taken to the person Bill Clinton as to no other foreign visitor in living memory.

All very well. But what will Bill Clinton himself remember of his whirlwind tour of India? Bill Clinton the man — not Bill Clinton, the President.

Perhaps it was inevitable that excess should have been the keynote of the visit: too many things had been crammed into those five days. In our small ways, most of us have gone through similar experiences, highlighted by that film called If it’s Tuesday, this must be Rome. Why, I myself ‘did’ Rome in a single coach-tour day. I was shown all the major sights. The only one I remember vividly is the Forum, and that, only because I thought that the ruins resembled those of Hampi.

So, one is tempted to ask. What will Bill Clinton remember of his hectic Indian tour ten years from now or tell his grandchildren later?

It just so happened that, even during the ‘official’ meaning orchestrated, part of his tour, there were odd incidents that must have been emotionally rewarding, and thus worth remembering. That time when our Prime Minister, in his address in Parliament, assured the visiting President that India for its part would remember his visit for a long time and that he hoped that Mr Clinton, too, would remember us, Clinton’s assurance that he would, and the manner of his saying it, broke through the stiffness of protocol. As evidence of which, there was that somewhat unruly stampede among the ranks of our MPs to shake Bill Clinton by the hand. That moment must surely remain long with Clinton; a triumph that will be savoured again and again.

And then there was that even headier spree that nearly didn’t come off—-Bill Clinton in the village of Nayli, being adopted by the villagers, serenaded by its women, Bill Clinton wearing a bindi and garlands.

Legislators of other democracies lining up to shake you by the hand, jostling for positions so as not to miss their chance; village women veiled in ghungats putting chains of flowers around your neck and their menfolk solemnly making you a card-holder in their milk co-op: For a professional politician, these are moments of triumph, to be treasured in memory, to be savoured in later life. And yet of no interest to a grandchild of twentyfirst century America, when he or she can touch a button to command the wildest synthetic fantasies on a bedside screen? These kids who are daily put through security checks at school because they’re known to pack pistols — they who have made their pilgrimages to Disneyland and seen it all.

But even Disneyland cannot match the thrill of seeing a tiger in the jungles, and that was what his Indian hosts had laid on for Bill Clinton on his trip to Rajasthan, in a time frame just enough to run through a Hollywood film.

The man who acted a guide, Fateh Singh Rathore, takes his job as the custodian of wild animals with almost religious fervour, and for those couple of hours in which he took Bill Clinton and his daughter Chelsea in an open jeep on a lonely road through the wildlife preserve of Ranthambor, the gods of the jungles must have been ranged solidly on Rathore’s side. For everything that Rathore had planned — may have prayed for — happened. Only twenty minutes of daylight still left, but what a light ! — a rose-pink glow for which Rajasthan’s sunsets are justly renowned. And there, as though on cue, the sanctuary’s star tiger sprang out from the roadside bushes, to stand blinking for a minute or so at the jeep’s passengers and then, even as they watched, spellbound and silent, slid back into the undergrowth.

Still barely on the verge of middle age but also in his twilight year as the most powerful person in the world, Bill Clinton has lived a life packed with varied incidents. Like the rest of us, he, too, must often wish that some of those incidents had never happened and are thus best put out of mind. But that sunset glimpse of Rajasthan’s tiger which he shared with his only child, is something that will remain with him for the rest of his years.

Well done, Rajasthan — well done, Fateh Singh Rathore ! Now one hopes that other states in our nation, and their game wardens will take note of what you have done for your wild animals and for your forests !

This feature was published on April 30, 2000