Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Obama and the Fly

From the Tribune, Chandigarh

“Cruelty to animals”, cried the SPCA. “How do flies get into the White
House?”asked the health authorities. “With such skills, he should be
in Afpak, hunting Osama bin Laden”, said the terror warriors.”The
President should have the freedom at least to kill flies”, said the
apologists. “We always knew there were flies on the walls of the White
House”, said the Republicans. “He is not the Buddha (or Mahavira) to
waste his time saving pests”, said the rationalists. “He should be
cloned for every home to be a human fly swat”, said the super
marketers. “This is the change we have been looking for’, said the
Democrats. “Yes, we can”, said President Obama. The cacophony

The affair was simple. President Obama was in the White House, sitting
for a chit chat with a CNN editor, exchanging ideas on how to bring
about change in this world. There appeared a tiny fly, much like the
one that sat on Shakuntala’s nose, giving an opportunity to Dushyanta
to make a dramatic appearance with a sword in hand to save a damsel in
distress, and began to hover around the President much to his
annoyance. The CNN camera whirred on, though the editor stopped
questioning the President and began following the fly. The President
did what any one else would do in such dire circumstances and began to
wave the fly away. But the fly, like a disguised demon, determined to
seek salvation by dying at the hands of the Lord himself, settled on
his suit sleeve. Then it happened. With a swift karate chop, which
would be the envy of Bruce Lee, the President struck the fly, and
wonder of wonders, got it. He threw the carcass on to the White House
carpet and resumed his dialogue as though nothing had happened.

The scene was played on TV screens a million times, as though the
President had accomplished one of his many feats. It was as though he
made a brilliant speech without the teleprompter. He deserved all the
praise, because it is not easy to kill a fly with bare hands. The fly
is very swift in movement and you have to be swifter than the fly. And
to do it in one shot in front of the cameras is nothing short of a
miracle. But in a free country, there is no dearth of opinions and
hence the flood of commentaries ranging from high praise for his
courage to condemnation for taking the life of an innocent being.

For me, the event was evocative. I once served with an ambassador,
whose forte was karate; he was indeed a black belt, pretty high in the
karate hierarchy. He liked demonstrating martial arts to his admiring
colleagues, though there was a rumour in town that diplomats came in
the expectation of a demonstration of “marital” arts by the youthful
ambassador. He took pride in the fact that he could kill flies by the
dozens with his serviette on the dining table and he demonstrated the
art every time he had guests for lunch or dinner. The city was not
Washington and flies were a perennially present everywhere. He would
challenge his guests to beat him in the game, but most of them shied
away even from trying. My not joining the younger colleagues in
cheering him was seen as part of the inevitable squabbles between the
number one and the number two. But once I had to speak up, but only in
his ear in Hindi that it was not polite to engage in his pastime at
the dinner table of a pious Buddhist former Prime Minister of the
country! I reminded him that India too is a non-violent nation, though
in his own part of the country, chopping of heads was a part of the
sporting tradition.

I wished I had the skills of the venerable ambassador when I was
confronted with a fly when I was trying to record a conversation in a
studio. Every time I came to make an important point, a fly came and
settled on my nose. The cameraman cut off the shoot and chased the fly
around in the room and I myself joined in the hunt. The fly
disappeared till we resumed the recording and came to the same point.
Since it was targeting my nose and not my suit sleeve, there was no
way we could even try to kill it. Nor could we record the programme
for the week. I smiled when the anchor announced that the week’s
analysis of world events could not be brought to the viewers for
technical reasons. She should have said that there was a fly in the

As we go to the press, public opinion in the United States has not
determined whether the President was justified in his action. It will
be left to the Presidential historians to pass the verdict. But the
fly must have been preserved for a pride of place in the Obama library
in Chicago.

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