(This column was published in DNA edition dated June 4, 2010.)
There’s a story that’s told of a staunch Hindutva leader who, while once travelling abroad in the tireless service of the motherland, was seen to be heartily tucking into a juicy beef steak. When other members of the delegation, who were more used to seeing the beef-eater as a swadeshi campaigner against cow slaughter, enquired of him if he knew what manner of beast he was devouring, his response was as comical as it was honest. “Yes, I know it’s gomata,” he said in chaste Hindi. “But this is a videshi gomata!”
Many a politician has yielded too readily to the temptation of forbidden pleasures of the flesh on overseas sojourns. Perhaps the mere fact of crossing immigration control serves to sever the umbilical cord that binds them to home-grown notions of propriety, lends a frisky jauntiness to their step and gets them salivating.
But President Pratibha Patil is manifestly made of firmer mettle. On her recent visit to China, Patil, who is irremediably vegetarian, even travelled with her own entourage of cooks, groceries and – I kid you not – cooking utensils, and stuck to a spartan fare of dal-chawal-sabzi even at the state banquets organised in her honour.
Patil’s steadfast abidance by her preferred dietary regimen may have endeared her to the Dal Chawal Sabzi Sabha (Oh, I’m sure there’s one such), but it also effectively served to reinforce cultural stereotypes – in China and elsewhere – of Indians as extremely fussy people to eat with or host because they come with a mile-long list of food taboos.
And to think that this was a “goodwill tour”, to a country where more goodwill is typically generated by breaking bread around banquet tables than by framing anodyne statements about “mutual understanding”!
Not for a minute am I suggesting that Patil should perhaps have surrendered herself to some exotic Chinese delicacies in the cause of improved Sino-Indian relations. But to bring a retinue of your own cooks and kadais (which were probably mass-manufactured in a factory in Zhejiang province in the first place) just seems a trifle excessive.
It isn’t just about President Patil. Even Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, in whose honour US President Barack Obama hosted a White House banquet last year, is a colossally boring teetotaller and vegetarian, with a marked preference for kadi chawal, curd rice and bland Punjabi food!
The bigger point here is that India isn’t drawing the full merits of the “dinner diplomacy” circuit because it has a plateful of geriatric leaders whose gastronomic indulgences are limited to ghas-phus.
Mercifully, not all our leaders are such boring ‘food ambassadors’. Patil’s predecessor, Abdul Kalam, too was a teetotaller and a vegetarian, but in the ‘food diplomacy’ stakes, he played admirable offence, and was a Brand Ambassador for the south Indian vada. Historians have recorded that while on a state visit to Iceland some years ago, he advertised the tasty goodness of the sambar-vada to Nordic plenipotentiaries, and won quite a few converts.
My all-time favourite story involving Indian politicians and food relates to Mani Shankar Aiyar’s dare, while campaigning for an election in 1991, to his opponent who was baiting him with anti-Brahmin rhetoric. Aiyar projected himself as a “meat-eating Brahmin” and even challenged his rival to a contest in the village square to see who could eat more chicken biryani. His campaign’s masala recipe went down well, and he won the election. I can readily imagine how, if he had been in Patil’s place in Beijing, President Aiyar would have spiced up Sino-Indian relations with his chicken biryani recipe.
Of course, not all stories involving banqueting Presidents are as bland as Manmohan Singh’s preference of Punjabi food or as lacking in drama as Patil’s dinner in Beijing. During a visit to Washington in 1995, Russian President Boris Yeltsin, who was given to late-night drinking sessions, was found near the White House clad only in his underwear and trying to hail a taxi because he wanted a pizza!. On another occasion, in Stockholm in 1997, he made a slurred, rambling speech, gulped down a glassful of champagne, and almost keeled over from the podium.
Perhaps Yeltsin and Patil could both draw inspiration from a uniquely Chinese idea to enliven state banquets without being overly boisterous or colossal killjoys. Local-level Communist Party officials in China are required to host countless banquets to maintain their social standing, and in recent years, many of them died of excessive alcohol consumption. At which point, they began to appoint ‘drinking assistants’, who would raise toasts on their behalf – so the leaders themselves could live to host another banquet. Perhaps Patil and Manmohan Singh can appoint ‘food ambassadors’ to stand in for them at banquets. Any volunteers in this selfless service of the motherland?