January 18, 2020
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The Man I Met In Mid-Flight

There was something about KRN: a child of Nehru, deep, smiling

The Man I Met In Mid-Flight
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Our Indian Airlines flight from Cochin to Delhi had been a good ten minutes in the air when, as usual, I began writing in my notebook. Deeply immersed in my writing, I did not immediately notice my neighbour in the seat next to me, curious as only Indians can be, trying to read over my shoulder. He did not succeed; I write in French, my mother tongue. Finally, he coughed softly and asked: "What are you writing so furiously ?"

After some years in India, I had become familiar with this very special kind of curiosity, a characteristic I found to be typically Indian. We French people, we like it. In the eighties, the French writer Helene Cixous had written a long play about the Indian struggle for Independence, staged by Ariane Mnouchkine, the well-known French director. Among the characters, there is an old Indian female beggar who, at the beginning of the performance, walks among the audience, gently asking each and everyone, with that direct yet gentle, unintrusive curiosity that only Indians have: "Hi ! You ! Where do you come from? Tell me. What is your birthplace?".

President K.R. Narayanan picks up the broom during a Clean Delhi campaign

My neighbour on the plane was clearly curious. I raised my head. I saw a round face with curly white hair, a face in which everything was smiling—cheeks, lips and eyes; bright and deep eyes behind the kind of spectacles that Gandhiji used to wear. He was dressed in a simple kameez, a blue and white cotton scarf over his shoulder and all of a sudden, because he had something childlike and innocent in his attitude, he became close to my heart.

This brings me to another defining Indian experience—it is only in India that a friendship can blossom so quickly, where within two-three seconds you can establish an immediate, deep and intuitive rapport with someone you have never met before. This is what happened with my neighbour on the plane, who suddenly became an intimate friend. I was captivated by his kind eyes and his smile. An Indian smile. Of course, not all Indians have that radiant, guileless smile, not at all. I had met enough hard, cold politicians and arrogant civil servants to know that.

Nehru addressing the nation on Independence day

But my neighbour’s smile, which seemed to come from the depths of his soul, was so irresistible that I put my pen down and began to tell him about the novel I was writing. It was the story of a Jewish woman born in Portugal in the sixteenth century, who became Sulayman the Great’s banker in Istanbul. He listened attentively and from time to time said a few words—"A Jewish lady! We had a very old Jewish community in Cochin. What a pity, they are leaving us for Israel!" I noticed he said "us" as if he was in charge of all the past of India. By the end of the flight, I realised he did indeed bear the burden of India’s past.

Two hours later, the Jewish banker lady of my novel was forgotten, as he told me his own story. He was born a Dalit, well before Independence and could perfectly remember the 7 km he had to walk barefoot every morning on his way to school. Just after Independence, he had been selected by Nehru to become a civil servant in the foreign affairs ministry and he was lucky enough, he said modestly, to have been posted as ambassador to China after serving in some other countries.

He was now flying back to Delhi after having campaigned for elections as a member of the Congress party in his home state. He told me a delightful story from his campaign experiences: illiterate women in Kerala, when they want to know if a candidate is reliable, press the palm of his hand—if he sweats, he’s a liar and his campaign promises are empty words. The only time that luminous smile faded was when he told me how he was forbidden to enter some temples.

When I met him again, it was at Rashtrapati Bhavan, where he was living with his beloved wife Usha. "This place is too vast for us—we feel lost," he said. Since that Cochin to Delhi flight, when we had become friends, he had successively been MP, vice-president and then president of India, and in all these posts, he had been a fearless symbol of tolerance and secularism. Which brings me to the third thing I want to say about my Indian experience.

The India that I relate to is indifferent to the new maharajas, the tycoons who are often talked about as the new gods. The India I love is deeply secular and fights any sign of intolerance, for example, launching a fatwa on a woman because she is an atheist (I am one too). My beloved India is Nehru’s India, the new-born India at the dawn of Independence, achieved after years of ahimsa. This Indian president was the epitome of this India, vivid, generous, serene, irresistible, smiling. This India will never disappear.

A few years later, I met him again, at the Marigny Palace in Paris, during his official visit as Indian head of state—a state governed by the bjp. I found him haunted by anxiety. The smile came back after he retired peacefully, then vanished again when Usha fell ill. But even when he was sad and anxious, the luminosity remained. After his death, I dedicated a novel about Mirabai to his memory. Forever, my first image of India will be the face of K.R. Narayanan, whose smile came from his soul and from the soul of India.


The author is a French novelist and philosopher, whose books include Edwina and Nehru: A Novel

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