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  • Three men in a boat

    Posted On March 4, 2002

    By Karan Thapar

    Occasionally television interviewers meet interesting people. It’s one of the advantages of the job. Last week I met three. For good or ill, they left a lasting impression. Two were Nobel laureates, the third a spiritual guru. Each in his own way said or did things that are difficult to forget.

    Amartya Sen was a guest on one of our shows. But it wasn’t what he said on air so much as his casual comments in the car that linger in my memory. They were made to my colleague Vishal Pant.

    Sen was talking about the present day Trimurti of Indian politics – Vajpayee, Advani and Sonia. He met them in 1999 when he came to receive the Bharat Ratna.

    “He was looking forward to the meetings with Vajpayee and Sonia” Vishal reported. “They’re people he wanted to meet. But he said he was apprehensive about Advani. He thought they would clash.”

    It turned out very differently. The meeting with Vajpayee lasted an hour but felt like three or four.

    “Apparently Vajpayee said absolutely nothing” Vishal told me. But that was not all. Sen’s comments went further. “He added that Vajpayee probably had nothing to say. He was simply filling time. Their meeting was a failure.”

    “What about Sonia?” I asked.

    “The same if not worse. Sen tried to talk to her about politics but found she had no interest in the subject whatsoever. He made a witty comment about the two of them.”

    • “What did he say?”
    • “They deserve each other!”

    “And Advani?” If Sen found Vajpayee and Sonia depressing Advani could hardly have lifted his spirits.

    “Advani started off by talking about one of Sen’s books. Sen thought he was being polite. But when Advani went on Sen interrupted and told him he had written several articles very critical of Advani and totally opposed to his views. Sen thought this was the honest thing to say. But do you know what Advani said?”

    I waited. I was pretty sure a quarrel would have ensued. That had to be the point of the story.

    “I’ve read them all, Advani replied. That’s why I want to talk to you.” Vishal was smiling as he spoke. He could sense the delicious irony behind it. “Sen said the meeting lasted an hour and a half. It was the only one he enjoyed.”

    By a strange coincidence I met Vidia Naipaul the next day. We were guests at Navin Chawla’s. It was a dinner for Navin’s agent Gillon Aitken. When Naipaul arrived his wife walked up and started talking. Moments later her husband joined us. It was a pleasant conversation. There was nothing remarkable about it. But there was a brief interlude with one of Navin’s waiters that is worth recounting. I shall tell it without comment or conclusion.

    • “What will you drink, Sir?”
    • “What sort of gin do you have?”
    • “London.”
    • “Do you have Bombay gin?”
    • “No, Sir.”
    • “What make of tonic do you have?”

    I didn’t hear the answer but Naipaul turned to ask what I thought of it. I smiled not knowing what to say. The waiter assured him it was a good brand. Naipaul was not convinced.

    “What whisky do you have?” “

    Black Label.”

    That’s what he finally took but after a sip he visibly wrinkled his nose and left the glass untouched. I got the distinct impression he thought it was spurious. His wife, however, quaffed copious quantities without complaint or hesitation.

    The third person was Sri Sri Ravishankar. In case you don’t know, he’s a big spiritual guru. I’m sceptical of such men. I tend to think of them as frauds. That was my attitude to Sri Sri as well. (Incidentally, I’m not sure how else to abbreviate his name). But was I wrong?

    Sri Sri, whose father calls him Guruji, is supposed to have spoken to his mother from the womb during the eighth month of her pregnancy. His father claims it’s a fact. I asked if it was true. He said he didn’t know but he didn’t deny it. In fact, he even suggested that because he was very attached to her it could be true.

    He was more forthcoming when I mentioned another of his ‘miracles’. His father says that Sri Sri knew the Bhagvat Geeta when he was three though no one had taught it to him. If that was so, I asked, how did he account for it?

    “That’s a fact” he said. “Consciousness is quite old. This is not the only time we are here. There are impressions from the past.”

    “Are you saying that at the age of three or four the Bhagvat Geeta you knew was actually a memory from a previous life?”

    “Ha” he said in hindi. “It’s an impression on the consciousness from the past.”

    Hmmmm? Judge for yourself – Wednesday 13th, 10.00 p.m., BBC World.


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