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THE lady in the sari was late to the dinner. "I'm looking for my husband," she said at the door. "He must be at one of the tables," a hostess replied innocently; it took someone else to identify Cherie Blair. Then on she was applauded all the way to the top table in her now famous red-and-green silk sari. That sari said elegantly, perhaps even eloquently, far more than all those friendly words traded between Tony Blair and Inder Kumar Gujral in Edinburgh a few weeks before. India and Britain weren't just friends, this evening they were falling all over one another.
Britain's First Lady carried that symbolic sari well. "She has many Indian friends at the Bar, they helped her wear it," explained businessman Raj Loomba, chairman of this British Indian Golden Jubilee Banquet. To the world of fashion, the sari was the event of the evening, a significant second to the late Princess Diana whose wore those designer salwar-kameezes in Lahore. Through the London fashion shows, Britain is becoming increasingly the door that brings the daring and the new to Europe and the US. And if the British princess and first lady can wear a salwar-kameez or a sari, it could well be just the beginning of a conquest of the West by Indian wear.
An excited Daily Telegraph ran a four-column report on Cherie Blair's sari, with accompanying and rather dubious instructions on how to wear one. It's a little early to say how many English women might have been inspired by all that footage and those front-page pictures of Cherie Blair in her sari. But there are a few hitches: wearing it would need more than a little help from Indian friends, and you could be late to dinner.
That silk sari was charming testimony to what journalists so depressingly call Indo-British relations. But it was far from being the only one. The line-up at the 'top table' at the banquet hall of the Grosvernor House hotel, against the backdrop of a 'Red Fort' erected for the occasion, spoke for itself. The memorably situated Raj Loomba, proprietor of Rinku Knitwear, gushed after the dinner: "Ik paasay mere Cherie Blair baithi sigi, ik paasay Prince of Wales," (one side of me was Cherie, on the other, the prince). The honoured Indian businessman added: "The Prince draped a shawl on me, which is the highest honour for any Indian."
Besides being flanked by Prince Charles and Mrs Blair, Loomba also had as his co-guests, prime minister Tony Blair, former prime minister John Major, his wife Norma Major, two other former prime ministers (Sir Edward Health and Lord James Callaghan) and their wives, leader of the Conservative Party William Hague, his fiancee Ffion Jenkins, leader of the Liberal Democrats Paddy Ashdown and his wife, the head of the Church of England, Archbishop of Canterbury Dr Carey and his wife, Indian high commissioner L.M. Singhvi and, yes, businessman Srichand Hinduja.
And on other tables sat trade secretary Margaret Beckett in a cream-coloured silk sari, home secretary Jack Straw, former home secretary Michael Howard. The gathering made the scores of MPs too boring to list. Diplomats who like to search for atmospherics at such events could have taken a break. Every star of the British establishment was gathered to greet India.
The expression went beyond the appropriate things said at these dinners. Blair was effusive and Prince Charles went almost overboard. India, said Blair, was "one of the great nations of the modern world". Apparently, Gujral's standing at the Edinburgh meeting had told him as much. "I saw at the recent Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (that India) is respected and admired in the forums of the world," Blair said. "And its potential is monumental. There is no doubt at all that India will be one of the great global players in the 21st century." Britain, he said, wants "an ever deeper relationship between Britain and India." And, what's more, the relationship is "based on mutual interest and respect". "India matters to Britain, just as I hope Britain is her principal friend and supporter in all the counsels of world politics. I believe our relations can and should intensify."
Prince Charles rose to propose the toast for "real India, the enduring and everlasting India". And, what's more, proceeded to thank India for its "civilising influence over Britain". The Prince of Wales then recited Vedic hymns and went on to praise India for preserving its identity through its experience of colonisation. India, he said, must now fight the (cultural) invasion of satellite television.
It's just possible that if Charles becomes King, India might one day have the King of England as its ambassador.
IF there was some hint of recent troubles, it came by way of some bashing of the media for creating unnecessary turmoil. "The media reports (of the Queen's visit to India) were somewhat distorted—even, I regret to say, on the BBC," said Prince Charles. Blair said people in Britain and in India "tried to make mischief out of the visit". After statements against the media were applauded warmly by the guests, Blair went on to praise "the richness and diversity the Indian community brings us."
Diversity was on display as always, but the richness as never before. More than a quarter of a million pounds were earned from the 1,000 Indian guests at the dinner, through auctions conducted by Lord Jeffrey Archer, novelist and former minister in the Thatcher government. Yogesh Mehta, a transporter, paid £205,000 for a 1999 Rolls Royce. The V12 Rolls is the first new model of the company in 18 years—the first car of the series which is due to be released only in 1999. Another Indian businessman, Yash Nagpal, bid £125,000 to buy a Bentley, also produced by Rolls Royce. And businessman Raj Sahni paid £40,000 for a sports Mercedes-Benz.
Sundry other auctions followed. Two Air India tickets to Delhi were bought for £6,000, two Air France tickets to New York bought by another guest also for £6,000, two Lufthansa tickets to Hong Kong for £5,000, two British Airways tickets to New York for £8,000. A Vivek Dasgupta painting went for £1,500, a golf club set for £2,000. A picture taken that evening of prime minister Blair with three predecessors went till £2,400 before the hammer went down. Finally, Sir Cliff Richards rose to sing a song, but that too was auctioned. Businesswoman Bina Ramani bid £3,300 for the gathering to hear Cliff Richards sing "Congratulations...".
The commoners among the guests had paid £100 per head to attend the dinner, with 10 guests to a table. Guests paid £250 each to sit at 18 'silver tables', £500 each to sit at one of six 'gold tables', and £1,000 each for a seat at one of eight 'platinum tables', the four-legged snob equivalent of the Rolls Royces outside. The money will be used for four fellowships of £10,000 a year each for five years, one of them at Wales, one to alternate between Oxford and Hull, one at Cambridge and the fourth at Delhi University.
The Mercedes-Benz was donated by the company for the evening auction. The Hindujas, according to Loomba, helped in getting the two Rolls Royces which were bought "at a very special price". The Hindujas and Indian high commissioner L.M. Singhvi had evidently put much of this show together. Loomba was the affable uncle everyone could vibe with, since diversity among Indians presents such predictable difficulties. And the 'affable uncle' carried himself with all the confidence instilled by his education at DAV College Jalandhar—it's not every day that the prime minister of Britain gets to dine with the proprietor of Rinku Knitwear.
British and Indian flavours blended with unusual ease. The Bishop of London read the Grace in Sanskrit. Scottish bagpipers blended with the tabla, the santoor, the sarangi—there wasn't a false note in this evening of fusion. The British were forgiven even for serving British food. Everything was saying what the sari had said.