August 11, 2009

Woman in grey

A friend tapped me on the shoulder. "See the woman in the grey suit?" He pointed to a middle-aged lady with glasses and a wide smile, a few yards away. "That's the President of Switzerland, Ruth Dreifuss." Not one to scoff at the chance to sidle up to celebrity, I walked over and introduced myself.

She was friendly, charming and most interested in me, in India. The few questions I asked, she answered with a seriousness that was, for an Indian used to evasive politicians, startling. We spoke for a good ten minutes.

All through our little encounter, I fought off a steady feeling of being flabbergasted (flabbergastion? flabbergastination?). For I would never have got within a mile of the President of India at an occasion like this in India. But the Swiss President stood on in this small Geneva plaza like anyone else, surrounded not by Black Cats but by all of us. She was relaxed and informal enough to strike up a conversation with a complete stranger.

Mrs Dreifuss broke off our chat when Kofi Annan arrived. "Excuse me, I have to go," she murmured with an apologetic smile, and stepped over to greet him.

The next morning, I was flabbergasted again. Through a driving rain, I walked down a long slope to the German Consulate, where I had to go to apply for a visa. Two rolls of barbed wire blocked the road at the bottom. Two enormous guards stood in a hut beside the rolls, lovingly cradling some very long guns. I fully expected to be accosted, questioned, frisked. It's what I would expect from security men in India, with reason. Why not here?

So I stumbled fearfully down the slope. As I came alongside the hut, the two men snapped to attention, saluted me smartly and said "Bonjour!". I nearly fell over.

Back in Bombay some weeks later, I sent a letter to Ms Dreifuss, enclosing one of my articles that I had mentioned to her. Two weeks later, she wrote to say thanks, and that she liked it.

This time, I did fall over.


  1. Remember Olof Palme? He was assassinated walking home from a cinema, without bodyguards. I believe it was a sort of "end of innocence" for that country. Perhaps nobody wants to assassinate the Swiss president, but I can't imagine Obama or Gordon Brown strolling around without security.

  2. Rahul, you're right, and nor should they stroll around without security. Still, perhaps this is a kind of yearning for a simpler time, and when you run across vestiges of it, you feel gratified.

  3. That's nice of her, but why are you always comparing things to India. I understand you are Indian, but why do you expect people, things or personalities are same in all countries over the world. Do you expect US president will be in same category of security as Indian president?.

    Anyway great post.

  4. That was not to criticize you. All the way nice post. I would like to read more from your blog. Well Done.

  5. why are you always comparing things to India.

    Because I am Indian. I react to things given my own context, which is India.

    why do you expect people, things or personalities are same in all countries over the world.

    I don't.

    Thanks for your comments.

  6. Wow!!! What did you converse about? Please you got me curious