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Sunday Sentiments

  • A lady, a school and my favourite ice-cream

    Posted On October 23, 2000

    By Karan Thapar

    “Can I ask you a question, Mr. Thapar?” the young girl said as she approached me. She was smiling and I could hardly refuse. I stopped and waited.

    “I read a lot of the stuff you write and what I want to know is simple.” She then paused as if to suggest it was a problem that had long troubled her. “What sort of people do you admire? I can’t seem to tell from your writings.”

    It wasn’t a simple question and when I tried to answer I realised I wasn’t sure what to say. It’s the sort of thing you believe you know but when it comes to expressing yourself you realise how uncertain your views are. At the time I struggled to sound convincing but I fear I failed. I don’t even think I was able to convince myself.

    That night, however, I found part of the answer. It was a bit like a discovery but when it happened I knew it was what I was looking for. It had the ring of truth. Admittedly not all of it – not by any means – but still a significant portion of it.

    I had been invited by the Pakistani political counsellor to dinner. Tasnim Aslam has spent four years in India and is due to return home next month. The evening was planned as a farewell. I showed up late and found the other guests sitting in her garden in neat rows facing a low platform. On it were a few musicians and at their centre, beside another lady, was Tasnim. The two were deep in song.

    My instinctive response was to head for the bar. I pretend to like Indian classical music but, to be honest, I don’t – or, at least, I don’t understand it. That night I did not feel like acting. A drink seemed more inviting.

    “Isn’t it amazing?” said the lady by the bar. I had assumed that, like me, she was avoiding the music. I was wrong. Standing by the bar afforded her a clearer view and she was listening intently.

    “Ummm” I muttered not at all sure what she was referring to. I tried to make it sound as if it could be both yes and no.

    “Do you realise what Tasnim is singing?” The lady had seen through me and her question made that obvious.

    “No, sorry. I am afraid not.”

    “She’s singing a Ram bhajan. Just think of it? A Pakistani diplomat, in the present state of relations between the two countries, singing a Ram bhajan in Delhi and in public!”

    The expression on her face said the rest. This wasn’t just difficult to believe – and if I hadn’t heard it myself I certainly wouldn’t have believed it – it was also an act of incredible courage and of great respect. Tasnim was defying conventional politics. She was also, through her simple human gesture, bridging the divide. On that cool October night, silhouetted against the black still sky, lost in her bhajan, Tasnim symbolised a rare moment of hope for India and Pakistan.

    I turned to hear her more attentively. The entire party was absorbed in her music and I think the same thought passed through every mind. Suddenly I knew I had the answer to the morning’s question. I admire people like Tasnim because they have the courage to be themselves despite politics and prejudice. But I admire Tasnim for another reason as well. She has the strength of character to rise above the pettiness of public opinion and show the rest of us – particularly politicians on both sides – how narrow and limited we have become.

    As her soft voice floated over the garden I found myself wishing Tasnim could stay longer. We need to meet more Pakistanis like her.

    I’ve just returned from spending Founder’s Day at Doon School. It was my first after nearly 28 years. That’s such a long time you actually don’t remember what it used to be like. Instead nostalgia and your own distorted memory have created an impression that takes precedence over reality. But once back the old truths fall into place.

    This year the chief guest was Arun Shourie and in his speech he complimented the School on its excellence. Arun was generous with his praise and deservedly so. As he spoke my mind flashed back to the Founder’s Day of 1968 (or may be it was 1969). Morarji Desai was the chief guest. He was also Indira Gandhi’s deputy prime minister. Christopher Miller, the last englishman to serve as headmaster, had invited him and the School was looking its best.

    Desai arrived by helicopter touching down on the sacrosanct main field. He raced through the many and interesting school exhibitions laid on for him. I was twelve and waiting to show him what I could do with pippettes in chemistry. But he was not interested. The photographs of the occasion show him looking over my tiny shoulders towards the exit.

    It was Desai’s speech that angered and hurt the School. To begin with he spoke in Hindi, a calculated affront to our English Headmaster and a language he fully knew the boys could not easily follow. But Desai hated public schools and wanted to rub it in.

    ?What I remember of his speech was the way he chided the boys for greeting him with a handshake. Why had we not done namaste instead? This, he admonished, was aping the west and forgetting our own culture. Indians he said, sounding particularly supercilious, should always do namaste. The handshake was alien, improper and a characterless imitation.

    It made us bristle. In those days politicians were not commonly disliked but Desai left school a universally hated man. He had barely spent two hours on the campus, claiming he had to get back in time to greet Mrs. Gandhi on her return from a foreign visit. We were only too happy to be rid of him.

    A surprise, however, was to follow. When the next day’s papers arrived they carried front page photographs of Desai at the airport receiving Mrs. Gandhi. And what was he doing? He was shaking her hand.

    Desai had tried to belittle the School but in the process made himself seem small. Arun recognised the School’s worth and visibly won us over. But I wonder if he noticed that it excels not just in the knowledge it teaches but, even more so, in the bigger wider lessons it encourages each boy to imbibe. On the day he visited the boys sang Song No.3 from the School hymn book. It’s by Iqbal, the man who first thought of Pakistan.

    • Lab pe aati hei dua banke
    • Tamanna meri
    • Mere Allah burraiese
    • Bachanna mujhko

    As I joined in the singing, words long forgotten suddenly returning to memory in precise and perfect order, I recalled another truth about the School. At Doon you know nothing of caste or communal division. Ram or Krishna, Allah or Christ are the same. An aggarwal and a garg live side by side with a rathore, a vashisht, an ahmed and a henderson. And they all have silly nicknames.

    Could this be one Indian equivalent of Tasnim?

    Oddly enough you used to get the best ice cream at Doon School. It was made in large hard-turned wooden vats and was creamy yet light. But that was a long long time ago. Today good ice cream is difficult to find. So here’s a spot of good news.

    If you’re fond of decent ice cream I have a tip for you. Drive down Lodhi Road to the petrol station beside the HUDCO building, park your car in the shade and head straight for the little shop. Walk past the cash counter, avoiding the biscuits and jams, all the way to the far end and open the freezer marked Movenpick. It’s Swiss ice cream and it’s delicious. It is one of my favourites and I had not expected to find it in Delhi leave aside in a petrol station. But it’s here and lets hope it stays.

    There are three flavours to choose from of which, I believe, the capuccino is the best. But if you prefer strong tastes then try the strawberry yoghurt or even the chocolate chip.

    Last sunday they were doling out free samples to taste. I’m not sure if that will be the case today. But if you decide to try your luck keep a 50 rupee note handy. That’s what it will cost in case you’re asked to pay.

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