Thursday, January 27, 2011

A Wedding to Remember

My brother-in –law, Mohan and his wife, Latha, were in Indianapolis last May on a significant mission. Their daughter, Prarthana (‘Papu’ for us) a budding film director, who had already won a prize for her student production, chose to marry her friend from her institute, Edward Timpe. They went to convey not only their own blessings, but of the entire family to the couple and to meet Edward’s family. My son, Sreenath and his daughter, Durga, were at hand to celebrate the happy occasion. It was a matter of joy for all of us that Prathana had found her life partner.
It was really hectic for Mohan, Latha and the rest of the family ever since, planning and executing a grand wedding in a matter of 9 months. Shopping seemed endless as Latha, with her sisters, Madhu and Shanti, travelled to Delhi, Jaipur and other cities to hunt for the best for the children and the guests. Deepa and Sharu, two avid shoppers in the family, provided local expertise. Lekha was on her own hunt for clothes for herself and the rest of the family and for the best gift for Prarthana.
The first sign of the fruition of their efforts came when the invitation cards for the various events came in a golden box with goodies inside. Anyone, who received the box, could not have resisted the invitation. It must have been hard to choose the right people for the right events, though some of us received the entire package. Lekha and I set aside four days, Jan 22 to 25, 2011 and returned early from the US to get ready for the event. Lekha was busy before our trip to the US and after, handing out invitations to the large group of relatives and friends. Radhika and Hari also helped out. Mohan and Latha came to Thiruvananthapuram to invite some important guests. Many of them, including Princess Aswathy Thirunal. made the journey to Chennai to be part of the celebration.
The first event was a magnificent Chinese dinner at ‘Mainland China’ hosted by Latha’s youngest sister, Shanti and her globe- trotting husband, Ashok Kumar. This was within the family and the bridegroom’s party, consisting of Edward himself and his parents, were introduced to the family. They endeared themselves to everyone with their simple, but sophisticated ways. Till Ed met Prarthana, India was to them just the first two syllables of Indiana! They were travelling outside the US for the first time, but they did not seem to suffer from culture shock. The conservative “Indianaians” had no problem merging with Indians of three generations. The gifts that they brought from Indiana gladdened hearts all around.
The Mehendi Day the next day was primarily for women to get dressed for the wedding, to make merry and to celebrate the last day of Prarthana as a single girl. Artists adorned the palms of women with henna and the women were seen walking around with hands raised to get the henna dry. Dancing came naturally and as the men joined, there was a riot of colours in Hotel Park as magicians, tarot card readers, portrait painters entertained. Colourful bangles were available to adorn the slender female hands. The feast was but a harbinger of many more to come in the next two days.
The day of the wedding, January 24, also the wedding anniversary day of Mohan and Latha, started early when we drove at daybreak to the Shirdi Temple in the outskirts of Chennai for the ‘mangalsutra’ ceremony. In traditional Kerala clothes, Ed tied the ‘thali’ on his bride’s neck with Gopika’s help, perhaps the most important ceremony of a Nair wedding. The rest of the short ceremony ordained by the Nair community took place in a large hall, to the accompaniment, not only of the mandated ‘nadaswaram’, but also the lively ‘chenda’, the masterly percussion instrument of Kerala. The backdrop of the ceremony was the facade of a Kerala temple. The thirty-course sadya on plantain leaves completed the wedding ceremony with an endless line of well wishers lining up to greet the couple.
Those who missed the morning event and some of us who did not want to miss any event assembled for a grand dinner that evening. The bride and groom and the family were in new clothes, lined up against a new backdrop. Between the two events, the Who’s Who in Chennai was covered. We spotted Deputy Chief Minister Stalin, with machine gun wielding black cats, P. Suseela and S.Janaki, the legendary singers, Elayaraja and M.Jayachandran, music directors, Sujatha and Vijay Jesudas, the singers and many others.
The scene shifted to the Radisson Resort in Mahabalipuram for the grand finale on January 25, a gala dinner hosted by Vicky, the bride’s only brother. The youth took over the show, with toasts, singing and dancing. A video presentation showed the bride and bridegroom as they grew from tiny tots to adulthood. Speeches by elders were full of sentiments and love. I said that I was making up for not being present at Mohan’s wedding more than 30 years ago. I mentioned that it was appropriate that the bridegroom for the first international wedding in the family had come from the only super power. Prarthana had done more for India-US relations in a couple of years than what I could through diplomacy over ten years. I said that my son and grand daughter, who went to Indianapolis to meet Ed’s family, had reported that the Timpe family was a great asset. The cake, the food, the d├ęcor and the music were without blemish. It was past midnight when the tempo of the music reached feverish pitch and the young took over the dance floor and the elders took leave.
Presiding over the entire proceedings from the day one to the climax was the the bride’s grandfather, maestro M.S.Viswanathan, who strode the southern Indian film music scene like a colossus for half a century, and his wife. They had tears of joy in their eyes as they came to terms with the first granddaughter bidding goodbye. Mohan and Latha, who were so engrossed in making sure that everything went well, perhaps had no time to think of the distant home their daughter had acquired. The bridegroom and his parents, the only people in the bridegroom’s party, appeared to be enjoying the pomp and show of an Indian wedding, without having to worry about doing much, except to play their roles in the choreography. The absence of a self-important and demanding bridegroom’s party must be the dream of parents of every Indian bride!
For us, the bonus was catching up with youngsters in the family, whom we had met some years ago when they were much younger. Some of them had become adults and had their own families. As we boarded the flight for home after a hectic four days of feasting and bonding, the overwhelming thought was one of fulfillment that we were part of a joyous event of bringing together two cultures, two families and two souls in love.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

India's Smart Power in the US
January 19, 2011 19:59 IST

As India's [ Images ] involvement in the growth of the US deepens, the search for the soul of India gains momentum, says T P Sreenivasan.

Fareed Zakaria's The Post-American World may well be in the making as the East rises and the West declines. But New York is still vibrant and lively, majestic and magical. It has not lost its colour and noise, its variety and verve. Kishore Mahbubani's (the leading thinker on Asian and world affairs and professor at the National University of Singapore) comment that going from New York to New Delhi [ Images ] is like going from a funeral to a wedding seems to be an overstatement.

President Obama [ Images ] may have brought business deals and jobs from India, but what is in evidence everywhere is the Indian smart power. It is palpable not only in the traditional 'Little Indias' in different cities, but in mainstream newspapers, Ivy League universities, and the boardrooms of American companies. Most news channels have Indian anchors and most newspapers have Indian bylines. Indian authors, who write on India, get bought by major publishing houses.

Travel in the US in winter is hazardous even in the best of times. We missed flights, stayed indoors for three days as a snow storm consumed Manhattan and sprinted across five concourses at Atlanta airport to make it to the departure gate at midnight when the monorail came to a grinding halt.

The mayor of New York was taken to task for not cleaning up the roads on time. The snow played havoc with the subway system and yellow cabs disappeared from the streets when they were wanted most. But New York seemed to have recovered from the worst of its recession woes.

India is very much a part of the recovery of the US. The gifts that President Obama brought back from India do not tell the whole story.

New York is a happening place whether it is frozen cold or steaming hot. A peep into the control room of a CNN live show, featuring the media star Anderson Cooper, is enough to know the zest that goes into television production here. In the electronic maze of the control room are multiple men and women glued to television and computer screens, performing specialised functions which a single individual may be required to do in an Indian studio.

Cooper has about 40 people working for him in his production team -- this is for a single, nightly one-hour show. But his stardom does not keep Cooper from being as charming in personal conversations as he is on camera. He recalled his visits to India and said that India was an exciting place to cover. It was nice to see the walls and screens of the CNN office feature its Indian stars, Fareed Zakaria [ Images ] and Dr Sanjay Gupta.

Stars aren't just on television in America; the best chefs are celebrities, too. Manhattan's proud Indian fusion restaurant, Tabla, with its legendary Goan chef, Floyd Cardoz, closed its doors at the end of 2010. Its innovative Indian cuisine had held New Yorkers spellbound for ten years. But the owners of the restaurant found it harder after the recession to fill its massive dining rooms night after night. But I am sure Cardoz will not be wasted in the city that loves its Indian haute cuisine.

An equally resplendent, expensive Indian restaurant, Junoon, has opened its doors just around the corner from where Tabla thrived. Vikas Khanna, a young chef from Amritsar [ Images ], who began cooking at the age of eleven, has become the talk of the town.

The owner of Junoon, Rajesh Bhardwaj, originally from the Taj group, whose Cafe Spice chain is popular with New Yorkers, seemed confident that the US economy was on its way to full recovery and invested in a first-class gourmet place for Indian food. And just last week, Chef Hemant Mathur, part of the widely-acclaimed Devi with Suvir Saran, has opened another high-end Indian eatery, Tulsi.

Talking of the Taj group and the Tatas, it was an experience to walk into the Pierre Hotel on Fifth Avenue, the place I spent my first day in New York back in 1979, then famous for having been Nixon's campaign headquarters.

Today, it is a Taj establishment with special Indian decor in many suites. Anand Giridharadas of The New York Times launched his India Calling, An Intimate Portrait of a Nation's Remaking at the hotel's Rajput suite. His launching his book at a Tata enterprise in New York in the presence of his parents had its own story to tell. His father had left a Tata establishment many years ago in pursuit of the American dream, but now Tatas had become part of the American dream, the story that Giridharadas tells in his book in his own inimitable way.

Giridharadas tells the familiar story of the Indian miracle from the point of a returning native to whom India is an enigma wrapped up in mystery. But the style is refreshing and his keen eye for detail makes it enthralling reading. Living in India and reporting on a country he had to understand first and analyse it for the West, makes his book a must-read.

But like any number of foreign correspondents, Giridharadas spends too much time pondering over India's contradictions than its promises. He uses the technique of comparing what he heard about three generations of Giridharidases to the real people who met in India to explore modern India's dreams, ambition, pride, anger and love. The fault of this methodology is evident, but the book is an intimate account of his encounters.

The growth of literature on India by Indian and American authors, which began in earnest at the turn of the century, continues steadily. US bookstores are filled with new fiction and nonfiction about India and about other topics by Indians. They include familiar names -- Salman Rushdie [ Images ] (Luka and the Fire of Life), William Dalrymple (Nine Lives), Parag Khanna (How to Run the World: Charting a Course to the Next Renaissance) -- as well as newcomers: Shilpi Somaya Gowda (Secret Daughter).

Meanwhile, presiding over the entire US publishing industry is its most powerful editor and impresario, Sonny Mehta, editor-in-chief of Alfred A Knopf. While I was there, the news came that Mehta, the man who had earlier bought Bill Clinton's [ Images ] memoirs for $10 million and Pope John Paul II's for $8.5 million, has also clinched a deal with Julian Assange of Wikileaks fame.

One of the books that Mehta personally championed last year, Cutting for Stone by Dr Abraham Verghese, has been on the NYT bestseller list for 50 straight weeks. Mehta is the son of Ambassador Amrik Mehta, one of my predecessors in Vienna [ Images ].

Business with India is very much on the minds even of immigration officers. Among the intriguing questions that an immigration agent of Thai origin asked me on my arrival in Atlanta from a short trip to Montego Bay was whether India was purchasing defence equipment from Atlanta.

While the other members of the family moved past the immigration with ease, the immigration officer suddenly got interested in a bundle of five diplomatic passports I passed to him as the US visa was on the oldest one. He began examining every page, reading out the names of countries I had visited in the last 10 years.

Then he began asking me political questions, which were of no relevance to my visit to the US. "Why did India accept Partition?" he asked with the curiosity of a research scholar. I was not in a mood to recount the history of the subcontinent and mumbled something about the colonial legacy.

Then came the interesting question about purchase of military aircraft. Apparently, he was referring to F-16s, which Lockheed Martin manufactures in Atlanta. He also asked about my views on China! My mind was more on my connecting flight I was sure to miss than on the future of China. I was relieved to see him stamping my passport.

An American friend saw a pattern of harassment of Indian diplomats in the questioning of the immigration official, having heard recently about the experiences of other diplomats. Perhaps, the days of diplomats breezing through immigration and customs lines are over in the US.

Reports that certain countries might be issuing diplomatic passports at a price must have alerted the Americans to the danger of terrorists masquerading as diplomats. But the question on F-16s lingered in my mind.

I am not sure if there are Indians building F-16s, but Indians continue to play a major role in US business. Two of the most powerful CEOs in New York are Pepsico's Indira Nooyi [ Images ] (named by Fortune magazine for the fifth year in a row to the top of its '50 most powerful women' list) and Vikram Pandit of Citigroup (who has successfully brought the bank back from the depths of the economic meltdown), not to speak of many other Indian business wizards at different levels in hundreds of US firms.

As India's involvement in the growth of the US deepens, the search for the soul of India gains momentum. India's smart power gets projected in the US in very many ways. The effort of Indian public diplomacy in the US should be to accentuate the positive elements.

T P Sreenivasan is a former ambassador of India to the United Nations, Vienna, and a former Governor for India at the International Atomic Energy Agency, Vienna. For

Sunday, January 02, 2011

Clear Objectives in Foreign Policy in 2010


By T.P.Sreenivasan


At the end of the first decade of the new millennium, Indian foreign policy has clear objectives. These are not vague or ideological. India pursues them with dogged determination. Had it not been for multiple scams and signs of emerging political instability, India could have accomplished much more in 2010.


The significance of 2010 was not that the leaders of the permanent five and others visited India in one year. India never had any dearth of visitors, particularly in the salubrious winter months in Delhi. Our hospitality and accessibility are legendary. Perhaps the largest number of important foreign visitors came to India when sweeping changes took place in Delhi in 1977, 1980 and in 1998. There was always curiosity about Indian openness, just as there was curiosity about the Chinese enigma. But the visits in 2010 were not exploratory. They came to do business, to firm up long term relationships, to give and take. The balance sheet, in the end, was in favour of India.


India is no more the “elephant in the room” in multilateral negotiations. Nor are we the peace makers or honest brokers anymore. We are the builders of coalitions, not in pursuit of some vague idealistic goals, but with clear political and economic objectives. India now has a clear agenda and the world is willing to go more than half way to meet it. The world is convinced that the emergence of India on the global scene is largely beneficial as India plays by the rules. Bilateral relationships with India are now the building blocks of global governance.


Combating terrorism is not a new priority for India. But it was never the touchstone of our bilateral relationships as it has become today. We have blown hot and cold even with Pakistan on this issue and tolerance of terrorism was no sin for our friends if they saw it as an instrument of freedom fighters. For fear of our anti-terrorist policy being construed as anti-Pakistan, we set the conclusion of a comprehensive convention against terrorism as our goal, which has eluded us even in the aftermath of 9/11. Today, a country’s position and policies towards Pakistan’s trade in terrorism is a major factor in our bilateral relations. For this reason, the UK and Russia gained, the US and France won points and China failed in Indian eyes.


Nuclear policy is determined today not just by pursuit of disarmament, but by the need for energy. NPT may be taboo and CTBT may be problematic still, but FMCT is not untouchable. Nuclear cooperation is paramount in our calculations and that explains why it was possible to conclude the reprocessing agreement with the US and to sign the Vienna Convention of Supplementary Compensation for Nuclear Damage. India was also able to overcome the objections to the purchase of the French Evolutionary Power Reactors. Non-prolifertion is part of our global agenda today and we are willing to be part of the NSG and MTCR. We are willing to consider even other arrangements relating to chemicals and conventional weapons if these bodies enhance fruitful cooperation. We object to China building nuclear reactors in Pakistan and Iran experimenting with explosion technology because of the risk of proliferation in our neighbourhood. We have no quarrel with either country developing nuclear energy for peaceful purposes.


Pragmatism and clarity of purpose are visible in trade and environment also, though the path to be pursued appears confusing. We have begun to look at our own protective tendencies in return for major concessions from the rest of the industrial world. Even at the risk of diluting the principle of “common, but differentiated responsibility” and the concept of per capita emissions, we have moved from no binding commitments to voluntary commitments on reduction of greenhouse gases, subject to international monitoring and verification. The nation has not accepted the new approach, but these are issues in which we are more than willing to tango with the Chinese. India has matured enough to find our causes and our allies in different fields.


The pursuit of permanent membership of the UN Security Council is another clearly stated objective that has emerged in 2010. It may not be attainable in the near future, the sacrifices we have to make to pursue it may be too big and even its value as an objective may be called into question. But at no time had this objective been clearer since we first mooted the expansion in 1979. India knows well that individual commitments to India without a universally acceptable formula are meaningless. But we expect that the contours of such a formula will emerge sooner than later and we should not be wanting in support at that time. France, the UK, Russia and the US, perhaps in that order of warmth, acceded to the wishes of India and even China could not remain altogether silent. The objective of entering the Security Council, even without a veto is clear. What is not clear is the value of being there, except as an acceptance of our political status, commensurate with our economic growth. G-20 is an accomplished fact, which has whetted our appetite for a larger horse-shoe table at the United Nations.


In 2010, India demonstrated that it is possible to secure political concessions from others for economic deals, even when such deals are mutually beneficial. In the old days, Santa Claus came with a bag full of gifts, but went back empty handed. But in 2010, his bag was more than full on his return journey too. Each one of our visitors had something to show to his people as the gains from India. Except for China, they made gestures of various kinds in return in areas of our priority- anti-terrorism, energy, environment, trade and a role in global governance. Such gains at the global level have not been forthcoming in the past. India demanded reciprocity and equity on issues ranging from diplomatic immunity to Jammu and Kashmir, without being brow beaten by more powerful nations.


We seem to have succeeded in insulating foreign policy from chaos at home. One telling example was delaying the firing of the Maharashtra Chief Minister till Air Force One was clearly out of sight. India may have lost heavily in the Commonwealth Games, but the foreign athletes went back fairly happy. The communications network survived the 2 G spectrum scandal. The world has not lost faith in our democracy even after an entire parliament session was wasted. The steady course of our foreign policy may well have helped us survive 2010
NEW YEAR WISHES AND THOUGHTS 2011

I have the privilege this year to greet you in the New Year from the island paradise of Jamaica, where all the Sreenivasans have assembled. For some of us, it is a holiday from holiday, but for our children and grandchildren, it is a welcome change from hectic work and study. The holiday was meticulously planned by Sreenath and Roopa. Sharavati, Sreekanth’s wife, who joined the family in November 2009 was also actively involved. The most excited are our grandchildren, Durga and Krishna, who have begun to value family bonding.

The year 2010 was a year more of continuity than change for us. I continued my second career as a writer, broadcaster and an evangelist for foreign policy. As a member of the National Security Advisory Board, I travelled frequently to Delhi and participated in intellectually stimulating discussions with some of the best minds in India. The Kerala International Centre today is a credible think tank with an impressive membership and interesting activities. I had more invitations for talks in India and abroad than I could accept, but I did as many as I could. My third book went to the publishers this year and it should be out in the New Year.

Lekha continued her artistic and charitable pursuits. She realized her dream of setting up a Karuna Charities home for the sick and the destitute in Thiruvananthapuram, which has the facility to put up and look after about 20 people at a time. She finds peace and joy in giving attention to the sick and the poor.

My elder son, Sreenath, who is in his 17th year at Columbia, turned 40 and used it as an excuse to connect 40-year-olds around the world in a social-media effort to help those who live where life expectancy is less than 40, via Giftof40.com. He has added social media to his academic repertoire, and was named by the prestigious Poynter Institute as one of the 35 most influential people in social media and by the Society of Professional Journalists as of the 20 journalists to follow on Twitter (but as a teacher, he was most proud of the fact that three of his students were on the same list!). If you are on Twitter yourself, you can follow him at @sree.

Sreenath's wife, Roopa, (@roopaonline) continues to play senior roles at Pfizer, the world's largest pharma company. She is now a vice president of strategy for the company, which is going through major changes as it transitions in a new CEO and deals with the integration of another pharma giant Wyeth, which it bought for $68 billion. I continue to marvel at how Roopa does it all: being a corporate executive while being a highly engaged mother to her twins. She's a role model for working mothers everywhere.

The twins, Durga and Krishna, now 7.5 years old, are thriving in second grade. Their extracurriculars include fencing and basketball for Krishna; fencing and Bharata Natyam for Durga. They both study Hindi on Saturdays. One of the highlights for me this year is that I've gotten to spend more time with them, including on this extended Jamaica vacation. Though I have been nervous as they, like their mother, have become daredevils. My heart has been in my throat as they do things like parasailing, whitewater rafting, snorkeling and ziplining.

My younger son, Sreekanth and his wife, Sharavati have just celebrated their first wedding anniversary and settled down well in Gurgaon. Shree is now the General Manager of Netra India Limited which has made much headway in establishing its business in India. His passion for music of all kinds and social networking has won him a broad circle of friends around the globe. You may follow him at @shreedel.

Sharavati, who left her position as an anchor in ‘Headlines Today’ just before marriage, partnered me in my new book as a researcher and writer.

As for the wider family circle, my brothers and their families have done well in the year. One significant decision taken by my elder brother and his daughter, Suni and her husband Jayakumar to rebuild our family home in Kayamkulam gladdened all of us. My younger brother, Madhu retired as an Air Vice Marshall and moved to Jamshedpur to serve the Tatas. My brother in the Foreign Service, Seetharam, enjoyed his tenure as the Joint Secretary (West Europe) in the Ministry of External Affairs. The younger generation too brought laurels to the family.

The first international marriage by a member of the family was fixed during the year. We look forward in the New Year to the wedding of Prarthana, the daughter of my brother-in-law, Mohan, and Ed Timpe of Indiana.

The overwhelming sense about India in the year, despite our many accomplishments, particularly in foreign policy, was one of despondency about corruption growing deeper and deeper. The sense of resignation about this cancer is terrifying. In my view, the danger of this trend is that fewer people will be willing to make sacrifices for the country since the fruits of their labour will go the crooked and the corrupt. The best we can hope for the future is that the corrupt will be brought to book and that a sense of responsibility and fair play will prevail. My year-end analysis of India's foreign policy is available at http://bit.ly/tpsfp2010

The end of the year is the time to learn from our experiences and to plan for the future. We may still make mistakes, but the history of mistakes will not repeat itself. Good New Year resolutions should be made even if some of them are broken.

Lekha and I thank you for your kindness and friendship in the year 2010, for the messages of good wishes in various forms that we have received in the past weeks and wish you and yours the very best in 2011. We hope our paths will cross in the New Year and we will have much to share and cherish.

Sincerely,

Sreeni
(@sreeniv)

December 31, 2010