Open Diary

Swapan Dasgupta is an MP and India’s foremost conservative columnist
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The Queen's reception, hazards of flying Air India, and the omnipresent desi diaspora

IT WOULD BE dishonest to pretend that I wasn’t both excited and curious on being given a gilt- edged card stating that ‘The Master of the Household has received Her Majesty’s command to invite’ me to Buckingham Palace to attend the Queen’s reception. The ostensible reason was to flag off the India-UK Year of Culture, an exercise that has the potential of being either great fun or painfully dreary.

The reception was an occasion to observe the monarchy’s understated pageantry at its most evolved best. From the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh meeting all the guests individually and other members of the royal family, including the stylish Duchess of Cambridge, milling around effortlessly to the no-frills drinks, there was nothing stiff or pompous about the event. The purpose of protocol at Buckingham Palace seemed to combine respectful distance with ease and friendliness. In the past I often wondered why ordinary Britons so treasured memories of the time they had been presented to the Queen. The answer, I think, lies in the monarchy’s ability to combine mystique and drabness with a smile.

Indians inevitably succumb to its appeal—just as they fell for the charms of a distant White Queen who had never travelled to Hindustan. I would imagine that the desis who live in the UK are among the most devoted Royalists. I think the Queen is aware of this too, which is why she takes her role as Head of the Commonwealth and daughter of India’s last king-emperor so seriously.

Indians are notorious for nurturing contradictory impulses. We love our independent and sovereign republic with passionate intensity. We hate the condescension of supercilious Brits. But at the same time, we love British institutions and deify their monarchy.

Rationally, it doesn’t make sense. But in a very muddled Indian way, it does.

ONE OF THE pitfalls of travelling on official work is that it is obligatory to travel by Air India. In theory, this is no great problem since the national carrier has frequent and conveniently timed flights to London. The reality, however, is a bit different.

First, you can never be sure that you will reach your destination at the scheduled time. In the past, I have had brusque text messages indicating that a particular flight has been cancelled—with not a word about what passengers are supposed to do. Otherwise, whereas the private carriers make it a point to try and close their doors before the departure time, Air India tends to dawdle and leave late. Punctuality doesn’t count as a public sector entitlement.

Secondly, the state of the cabins is a matter of chance. Last year, I was horrified to find that at least four seats in the Business Class of a Dreamliner to London had mechanical defects. I was more fortunate on this trip, but the relatively narrower seats on the Boeing-777 would not have made it to a full-fare Business Class facility in most other carriers.

Finally, over the years, the Air India staff is becoming less and less able to handle premium class passengers. The air-hostesses were polite, enthusiastic and smiling, but they had obviously not been trained to be attentive to detail. I asked for lunch immediately after take-off since I don’t drink on flights. It came, but minus the butter and any salt and pepper. And they forgot to serve the pudding.

A passenger in the adjoining row asked for red wine. It came in a tall glass and full to the brim. He looked at me in despair and we both rolled our eyes.

THERE WAS A reception for Minister of Finance Arun Jaitley at the newly-opened Lalit, located in a former school in Tower Hill. It was to mark the beginning of the India-UK Year of Culture that had been agreed between the two governments during Narendra Modi’s visit to London in November 2015. Being a Sunday evening, only the real enthusiasts attended.

That’s understandable. However, less understandable is the fact that nearly everyone present was a desi. I met a solitary individual from the British Museum who was White. Otherwise, most of the people present were those who I have met in every Indian gathering since I was a London correspondent for the Indian Express in the mid-1990s.

The diaspora is an important part of India’s public diplomacy. But how about connecting with Whites? To be an influential global player, India has to engage outside its social comfort zones. It isn’t happening.