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Sunday Sentiments

  • Twenty four hours in Washington

    Posted On November 12, 2001

    By Karan Thapar

    I’m in Washington to interview Condoleezza Rice but you’ll never believe who I have to thank for it. I can hardly credit the story myself except for the fact that the man who told me has no reason to lie. Still it’s a strange tale although well worth telling.

    Early in October I wrote to Dr. Rice to request an interview for our BBC programme HARDtalk India. After a few preliminary phone calls to enquire who we are and what we had in mind there seemed, at first, no further interest from the National Security Council. Because Washington is ten hours behind Delhi I could only push our request by ringing after midnight. More often than not I would fall asleep instead.

    Then, a few days after Colin Powell’s visit to Islamabad and Delhi, I received a call from a certain Mr. Harry Thomas, the Director of the India Office at the NSC. He was ringing to say the interview was on. I was delighted. But that wasn’t all. What followed quite took my breath away. It happened when I started to thank him.

    “Don’t thank me, Karan” he laughed. He has a cheerful sounding voice and a rich rolling accent. “You should be thanking someone else.”

    “Oh” I stuttered. “Who?”

    “General Musharraf.”

    Now that flabbergasted me. What could our friendly local military dictator possibly have to do with my request for an interview with Condy Rice?

    “It’s the weirdest story” Mr. Thomas continued, no doubt sensing my perplexity. “Make yourself comfortable and enjoy it.”

    “You see” he started “I was with Secretary of State Powell during his visit to Pakistan. At the dinner I heard General Musharraf speaking to General Powell and I suddenly realised he was speaking about you. He was telling him that he had been interviewed by you.”

    Oh dear, I said to myself, not a propitious start. This story, which had begun by intriguing me, was now starting to sound ominous. I waited silently to hear more.

    “General Powell asked him what that was like and Musharraf said you were one of the best, tough but fair. Powell then asked on what channel this had happened but Musharraf couldn’t remember. That’s when I stepped in. I said ‘HARDtalk India and HARDtalk Pakistan on the BBC’. ”

    Once again I didn’t say anything but this time only because I did not know what to say. It seemed so unlikely, so utterly unbelievable. And what a series of coincidences to boot. That General M should choose a stray interview as the subject of his dinner table small talk, that the interview in question should have been mine of twenty months ago and that one of the persons listening in should be the man from the NSC considering my request for an interview with Condoleezza Rice ..... even fairies would find such good fortune hard to bestow!

    “So you see, Karan, the Pakistani General got the interview for you.” It was Harry Thomas’s voice and he was clearly enjoying the story he was relating.

    Well, what can I say? Except, of course, thank you General Musharraf!

    I’ve always wondered how the rich and powerful do it. They fly for hours and arrive fresh and cheerful. The rest of us get off a plane dishevelled and bleary eyed. Now I know their secret. It’s British Airways first class.

    This class of service offers a full-fledged bed. As a teenager returning to school I would anxiously wait for take-off before dashing to the back of the plane to grab four empty seats so I could stretch out. At the time it seemed the best way to fight the trauma of a long night flight. Well, let me tell you a bed in first class is infinitely better.

    First of all you can be completely recumbent. Then there are no arm rests to get in the way. Each passenger has a separate couchette so you have an area of privacy. But, most importantly, there are soft white duvets to wrap yourself in. Honestly, it’s like being at home in one’s own bed. The only thing missing were my pyjamas.

    If any British Airways staff are reading this paragraph, I want them to know that the surprise upgrade at the airport was the best birthday present I could have been given.

    I arrived armed with amulets and good luck charms. You’d think I was Dr. Livingstone heading for the Zambezi. Every form of protection had been gifted to me to ward off the malignant dangers of post-September 11 America. My sister, Premila, gave me a little silver turtle. I had no idea the wretched animal brought luck. As he sits on the hotel bedside table he looks distinctly sullen. The jetlag has probably got to him.

    Mummy gave me a silver five-pound coin. “It’s one of a small number to mark the Queen Mum’s centenary.” Mummy obviously hopes to have me around for another fifty years and more. The problem is that five-pound coins are useless in Washington, silver or otherwise. Still, it’s on the bedside table as well. If the roof caves in I’ll reach for the turtle and the coin before I dash through the door. I just hope I remember my slippers.

    What was particularly disconcerting is that almost everyone I know rang to say goodbye the night I left. Normally I would like that but on this occasion there was the distinct feeling they were saying a little more than just farewell. In the 19th century intrepid travellers to Africa or the South Sea Islands would have been seen off in this manner. Today a journey to America warrants similar treatment. Would you say the wheel has turned full circle?

    If you want to experience autumn you have to see it in the north-eastern states of America. They call it fall because that’s when the trees shed their leaves. At the moment that hasn’t happened though the colour has changed. On the drive from Dulles airport I noticed a thousand shades of red, rust, gold, yellow and a rich but indescribable brown.

    “You should’ve been here last week” the cab driver exclaimed. “There was a tree round that corner that had all the colours in one. It looked like my wife’s cooking!”

    At first I found Washington peaceful. I walked the full length of M Street but detected nothing untoward. The centre of town closes early and last week was no different. But then, at the Connecticut Avenue crossing, I discovered the tension that’s never far from the surface. Six police cars had surrounded a large pick up van. All their lights were flashing whilst policemen surrounded the van, their guns to the ready. The pedestrians pressed themselves against the buildings, as far back as they could go. But strangely no one ran away. They all stayed to watch. So did I.

    And then, just as suddenly and just as inexplicably, it ended. I don’t think anyone found out what happened. The bystanders simply shrugged their shoulders and moved on. Perhaps because I was looking enquiringly one of them, a middle aged woman, explained :

    “Happens all the time. It’s become like a thriller without a plot.”

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