The Tribune - Spectrum


Sunday, August 5, 2001
Time Off

High-profile parties and protocol
Manohar Malgonkar

Don’t let it be forgot/ That there once was a spot. For one brief shining moment/ That was known as Camelot.

THE light of that shining Camelot was provided by its fairytale couple, John F. Kennedy and his wife, Jackie; both lively, fun-loving, young.

So, imagine the pair attending a dinner party at the White House in Washington when it was occupied by Dwight D. Eisenhower, and his wife, Mamie.

There was, of course, no way they could have declined to attend, because Jack Kennedy, already a Senator and with his eyes firmly fixed on the Presidency itself, could not afford to do anything that might have been seen as politically incorrect. A White House dinner invitation was good as a summons.

So they put on formal evening attire and showed up, motivated by a sense of duty, Jackie herself has later described one of these presidential dinner parties.

"You see, we just had to come... when Jack was a Senator. It was just unbearable. There would be Mamie in one chair and Ike in another. And on Mamie’s right would be the guest of the evening, male; and on Ike’s right, would be the guest of honour, female. And everybody stood and there was nothing to drink. During that regime, there was never anything served to drink, and we made up our minds, when we came to the White House, that nobody was ever going to be as bored as that. We do try to make it a good party."

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It could not have been easy, because it is in the nature of such affairs that they’re stiff with protocol. Most people are there only because their jobs or occupations require them to be there. The hosts rarely know even the names of the invited guests. You’re invited only because your name has come up on a list prepared by clerks in the protocol department. You have to be formally dressed, on your best behaviour, and indeed submit to discipline; stand in line, wear a smile, simper, not register boredom.

The Kennedys, while they lived in the White House did their best to make their parties less dreary. The writer Diana Trilling, who was at one of these parties has described how they had even transformed the Oval Office into a drawing room for informal entertaining. They had put in one or two sofas in the centre of the room and lots of occasional chairs with little tables and lamps. "And flowers everywhere". And as soon as Ms Trilling was comfortably seated in one of those chairs, "there appeared before (her) as if out of the ground, a waiter with a tray full of champagne glasses."

John F. Kennedy was killed by a rifle bullet on November 22, 1963, and with that Camelot too became history. The Oval Office quickly reverted to its traditional role, as a place of work, not fun; and after the Kennedys, no occupants of the White House could have bothered much about making official parties enjoyable affairs. For all their rhetoric, Americans seem to be just as protocol-ridden as the British were in India, when Viceroys and their wives were ‘at home’ to their subjects who had signed up the visitor’s book kept in the gatekeeper’s lodge.

You and your wife became a part of a slow-moving line inching forward to the hallowed spot where their excellencies stood flanked by ADCs in dazzling white uniforms. When your turn came to be introduced, an ADC read out your name, excellencies mumbled polite nothings and shook hands, and you were through; to mingle with the others and forage among tables stacked with plates of fruitcake and cucumber sandwiches.

If you were any sort of an ‘officer’ civil or military and posted in Delhi, you got invitation to a garden party, but sit-down dinners were for the highest ranks. I, alas, was among the lowlies. My own experience of a ‘presidential’ reception came, of all places, in Jakarta, Indonesia.The Indonesians had only recently got rid of their Dutch masters and Sukarno who, only a year or so earlier, had been a rebel commander, had become President and moved into the Dutch Governor-General’s palace. Our own Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, who had played a less than passive role in Indonesia’s ferocious freedom struggle, was on a visit to Indonesia carried there by a squadron of our Navy, and I happened to be one of those detailed by the Army to go as a passenger on one of the destroyers.

Sukarno’s garden party had the air of a free-for-all, and so far as I could see, there was no dress code. There were speeches, rather long, but rousing and they had to be translated and thus each flourish was wildly cheered at least twice. When they were over, we were allowed to eat and drink. I remember there were very zesty shrimp papads coloured a deep pink and beer by the gallon, unless you wanted orangeade. It was a hot afternoon.

In those early years of self-rule, some of the Raj’s rituals lingered, otherwise I cannot imagine why, when some of us in the Army HQ who were to proceed on a mission to Nepal were to be given a briefing by the Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, we should have been served coffee and snacks.

This was in the early fifties. There was trouble in Nepal, which only a year or two earlier, had broken out of the mould of dictatorial rule by its hierarchy of Ranas and become a monarchy. The King Tribhuvan Bir Bikram who, all these years, had been kept in a state of political quarantine, was having a shot at ruling the country and had appointed his most loyal courtiers as his advisors. And barely had they started when a major crisis erupted: A unit of Nepal’s standing army, called The Raksha Dal had rebelled. They had broken out of their barracks, helped themselves to a few rifles and ammunition, and made tracks for the high mountains in the north.

No one seemed to know what to do, and King Tribhuvan had sought India’s help. India quickly sent out a team to determine what form the help should take and I happened to be a part of that team. After that briefing by Pandit Nehru, we were flown to Kathmandu in an Air Force plane.

Luckily, the crisis had already subsided and there were no further alarms. We had meetings with Nepalese officials and some prominent local leaders that our ambassador believed would help us, and on our second night in Kathmandu, we were invited to a session of the reigning council to be followed by dinner.

The palace was vast and we must have walked a couple of hundred yards before being led into a small conference room where sat the King and his advisors. It was midwinter and everything was icy to the touch.

Questions were asked, doubts raised, but decisions left in the air.... or in the hands of fate, or the Gods that reside in the hills overlooking Kathmandu.

It went on for an hour and more, and then we were led into an adjoining room where enormous piles of food had been set out hours earlier and lay congealing.

That insight into the workings of hothouse feudalism was a bewildering experience for an outsider; like being rolled back into medieval times when outside influences such as fate or magic were the real decision-makers and one of the prerogatives of monarchs was to avoid the need to act, has ever since seemed a little unreal except that I still possess the heavy brass Buddha head I bought from an antique dealer in Kathmandu whom our Military Attache there, Colonel I.S. Katoch, seemed to know.

That handsome Buddha with his mysterious smile, also serves as a reminder of a memorable repast containing exotic dishes which none of those who partook of it could have relished.


This feature was published on July 22, 2001