19th July 1998
Flying with a Defenceless Minister
Delhi is hot. Very hot but it is the happening place, for better or for worse and this week I like to share with you a happening which took place when I took a sky walk instead of a street walk.
On Saturday July 4 I was traveling on Indian Airlines flight IC 539 from Madras to Delhi and my seat No. was 20 E. Half an hour before the plane took off a tall, lean man-a familiar figure-dressed in a light green kurta and a white pyjama with only a shoulder bag accompanied by a lone Indian Airline ground assistant boarded the flight.
The man gently walked past and sat on seat 25A, economy class. I just couldn't believe it. The man who recently challenged China and created a stir, the man who leads the Indian nuclear front and the man in charge of Indian forces today, the socialist fire brand, India's controversial, Defence Minister George Fernandez. He sat and started to read a book. Red cover.
I overheard an Indian mother-in- law whispering to her British daughter-in-law, "That's our Defence Minister". I became restless. India's powerful Defence Minister armed with only a book and a sling bag. No camouflage, no walking stick, no AK 47 or black cats. Not even first class, just like any normal citizen.
I couldn't wait any more. I sent him a note through an air hostess. " 'Honourable sir' I am a journalist from Sri Lanka and I am surprised and honoured to see the Indian Defence Minister flying like this. May I have the honour and privilege of meeting you". He immediately replied, "Thanks, please give me your contact number in Delhi. I will call you over". I wrote back thanking him, noted my contact number walked up to and handed over the note.
But I was still not convinced and hoped to see the elite black cats swarming all over the tarmac, the rest of the passengers asked to stay back when we landed in new Delhi. He proved me wrong.
George Fernandez got into the Air India bus with all of us. I couldn't wait anymore. At the airport entry point I walked up to him and said, "Sir pardon me. But I am shocked, how can you travel like this?" Then he asked me "Why? What's wrong, why shouldn't I?" I said, "No sir this can't be". He answered "most people take their positions to their heads. This is nothing."
Thereafter he asked me about my stay in Delhi and promised to call me and grant me an appointment.
I am sure George will. If India allows me to vote I will cast my vote for George Fernandez and scream, "Let George do it" because Fernandez can. He is real." Indian Airlines is expected to portray the image of the modern India but sadly it is not happening. I feel that most of the stewardesses are overworked, overaged and may be overpaid. They hardly smile and practise tough talk very often. The stewards are better, balding and kind, many of them must be grounded if the Air Line plans to fly high with stiff competition coming from the private airlines.
I think the private Airlines in India boast of the most beautiful girls. They smile, they are polite and they charm you. They get around very sweetly. I noticed that most passengers were eye balling them anyway.
Politician turned diplomat Mangala Moonasinghe, Sri Lanka High Commissioner in India, completes three years in New Delhi. It is clear that Moonasinghe is doing an excellent job, traveling around India and building a strong bridge of friendship. Mr. and Ms Moonasinghe hosted a few of us to a simple 'Indiappa' dinner on the day of the Indo-Lanka cricket final.
The guests included Indian journalist and bureau chief of ITN, S.Venkat Narayan, and his son Subash, Gabia, a Lithuanian television presenter, W.A.Wijeratne, minister counsellor, and his wife, first secretary Sumit Nakandala, Press Secretary Dhammika Semasinghe and the newest addition to the Sri Lanka High Commission in India, Defence Attach attaché Captain D.W.A.S.Dissanayake, RSP, Sri Lanka Navy, and his wife.
Dissanayake's functions include providing assistance to the many defence personnel now being trained in India (over 400 in number) and to build a better rapport with the Indian defence establishment.
The cricket fever is at fever pitch at the embassy, and it was clearly evident that cricket has brought Sri Lanka and India much closer as the two countries always play the game in good spirit.
I have been informed by a state media bigwig in Colombo that another dream of Mangala has become a reality. The tie-up of the Discovery Channel and Rupavahini. Moonasinghe has worked round the clock to get the agreement signed with the licence holders in India.
I toured New Delhi on a rainy Friday and visited some places of interest which included the 17th century Red Fort in the old Moghul-built part of the capital, the black stone 'samadhi" of Mahatma Gandhi on the banks of the river Yamuna and the Indira Gandhi museum in the heart of the city.
One feels really sad and emotional while visiting the Indira Gandhi museum at No.1, Safdarjung Road where she lived and died.
The same complex also displays the life of her son and successor Rajiv Gandhi in pictures. It is the place where Ms. Gandhi was shot dead by one of her bodyguards.
It houses the saree worn by Ms. Gandhi on the day of the assassination, all her items on her office table as they lay that day, the saree woven by Jawaharlal Nehru for her wedding day (she was Nehru's only and affectionate child) and many more pieces of interest.
Rajiv's section includes his pilot wings, cap, letter of resignation for the Indian Airlines, photographs taken by him on various visits in India and abroad and a letter written by him requesting his mother to visit Dehra Dun (in India's north where he did his private schooling).
Sri Lanka figures prominently in both their lives. There is a beautiful picture of a beaming Sirimavo and Indira, Rajiv and JR and of course a picture depicting the attempt by Vijithaminu the Lankan Naval rating, on Rajiv Ghandi's life.
Indira's and Rajiv's thoughts are recorded and well displayed in English and Hindi.
One comes out wondering what happened to all the Gandhis. All their lives having tragic ends. I am planning to go there again. I need to absorb more words of courage.
Now it is mango mania in India tops in Mango production, – nearly 10 million tons a year. This is 64% per cent of world production. India's mango varieties add to about a 1000. Some hotels organised mango festivals, some states get up mango meals, some host mango parties. Many restaurants serve mango milk shakes and the latest at chemists is a mango glucose.
Stop over: Few bill boards near New Delhi's traffic lights read: Abortion, Rs. 500. Navjivan Clinic, behind AIMS Hospital, open 8 am to 8 pm-cheap and bold, isn't it? How many people have died, I have not been able to find out yet.
Stop over 2: The lorry's and trucks in India seem to be very horny, you will not find any lorry without the message "Horn please ok."
Next: Mind your language at the Indian Institute of Mass communication, New Delhi, where 24 journalists from 24 countries (including yours truly) have gathered.
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