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Sagarika Ghose
Saturday , December 01, 2012 at 09 : 50

Power, Pretension And Lemon Tarts


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In tribute to IK Gujral, we reproduce Sagarika Ghose's article published in Outlook magazine when he became the prime minister in 1997.

Prime Minister IK Gujral's real alma mater was Delhi's hallowed India International Centre

OH, think upon the pleasures of this grey-green palace, the India International Centre! This liberal, rationalist Nehruvian dream immortalised in brick and mortar (with a little help from architect Joseph Allen Stein). This monument to the fashionably radical, to the thinking, chattering, policy-making, handloom-wearing, environment-friendly classes who ooze in and out of its tasteful corridors discussing the fate of the Indian Black Buck.

"Lots of prime ministers come here," says a staff member. "VP Singh used to come here, Indira Gandhi when she was not in power. In fact, everyone here is a VIP."

    

"Lots of prime ministers come here, old prime ministers, new prime ministers, ex-prime ministers, aspiring prime ministers," says a staff member, beaming beneath a 15th century Ghirlandaio painting which hangs on the panelled wall. "VP Singh used to come here, Indira Gandhi used to come regularly when she was not in power. She used to watch all the programmes, she was just another member. And as for Mr IK Gujral, he's an old old member! In fact, almost everybody at the India International Centre (IIC) is a VIP!"

India Inc swirls around the IIC. The high-spending, conspicuously consuming constituents of Budget '97 rush by in their Cielos with FM sets blaring. Coca-Cola culture beams down from passing satellites. But up the flower-lined drive of the Centre come the Fiats and Ambassadors of old India. Out step clones of the prime minister, respectable, right-thinking citizens of the Republic. The Preamble of the Constitution is still their religion and their memories go back to speeches made at midnight. Clad in starched white trousers and bush shirts or safari suits with pens in their front pockets, they are the keepers of the Nehruvian flame, the writers of articles entitled "The Need Of The Hour", with bio-datas (not 'CVs') detailing professional lives in the public sector or the foreign policy establishment.

Says Pran Chopra, founder-member of the Saturday Lunch Group which began in 1951 and still meets regularly: "Mr Gujral has been a long-standing member of this group which comprises about 30-40 members-people from senior levels of their profession who are interested in public affairs." Among others, the members are DH Pai Panandiker, George Verghese, Dharma Kumar, Swaminathan Aiyar, Amrik Singh, KC Pant, Arjun Sengupta, Saifuddin Soz and Jagjit Singh Aurora. "We invite speakers ranging from senior ministers to former prime ministers and the proceedings are strictly off the record," says Chopra. The Saturday Group, by inevitable selection, has chosen the IIC for its meetings. "There is no place like this one in the whole of Asia or the Third World," says Bhabani Sengupta,"except perhaps the International Centre in Japan which inspired the founders of the IIC."

The bougainvillaea clings delicately to the grey stone facade in this temple of cerebral yearnings, juxtaposed skilfully on the capital's prettiest gardens (the Lodi Gardens). This is the sylvan spot, complete with a bubbling fish tank and a serene lily pond which Gujral visits when the nation's first mind is in need of stimulation. And it is to this determinedly gracious building to which he repairs when the nation's first palate is in need of some discreet delicatessen. The Uninitiated may denounce it as 'pretentious' even as they queue up for membership, The Chosen inmates may float by proprietorially lamenting the slowness of the librarian, but in these cloisters, it is still infra dig to be seen with a cellular phone.    

AT the IIC, even the sandwiches are Secular and the apple pie is Empowered; here the Bloody Mary must be savoured strictly accompanied with discussions on the Future of Indian Federalism and the Chicken Kiev tastes a little different than anywhere else because it is inextricably linked with the Exigencies of Coalition Politics. Conference rooms buzz with current and former policy-makers discussing Ethnic Violence, scholar-statesmen stroll along the hedgerows pondering the fate of Water Disputes. Is that VP Singh under the neem tree over there arguing about 'Mandalisation' with the editor of a national newspaper? Is that Sonal Mansingh performing in the auditorium? And there is Jagmohan, former governor of Jammu and Kashmir, poring over his papers in the picture window library.

On the border of Lutyensland, this is where the heart of the Capital's intelligentsia beats quietly but with the force of a thousand seminars. The IIC is where you must be seen if you are dedicated to the life of the mind (and of course, the nation).

The Centre was set up in 1958, reportedly on the initiative of Dr Radhakrishnan and Pandit Nehru and was, in the words of its founder president, CD Deshmukh, designed for "exemplars of different cultures...to stay together awhile for a not too professional or hurried exchange of ideas...but in order that the sharpness of intellectual exchange is softened by the graciousness of good fellowship".

At the start IIC was a residential facility for visiting scholars from overseas and still remains, as former foreign secretary J.N. Dixit puts it, the "winter camp for Experts From Abroad". Ramchandra Gandhi, grandson of the Mahatma, is a well-known figure here. "Here there is a culture of thought rather than of library scholarship, modest comfort rather than a celebration of affluence," says Gandhi. "This is a place quite reminiscent of the '50s and '60s, of a time of courtesy, when conference tables were long and not round, when the chairman of a group would turn to one or another member from overseas and say, 'and what does your country have to say about this?' But suddenly it became a place where there was too much food all over the place. People were eating all the time. This place is not a hotel, nor is its library an archival heaven, it's not JNU nor is it the Taj hotel, it's found a middle path." Epicureanism may be okay for the pleasure-seekers in theirGymkhanas but for the founding fathers of the IIC, mindlessly gorging on lemon tarts or lying under an endless supply of martini was considered not only vulgar but an assault on the fabric of this nation-building building. "

To some extent, the dilemma of this place," says Eric Gon-salves, former foreign secretary and director of the IIC for six years, "is whether it should be a social or an intellectual place. But it is a place where you can be educated on the issues of the day, meet lots of people. There are a range of programmes andwhen Kamladevi Chattopadhyay was here, there was a great deal of encouragement given to new artistes and dancers. Romesh Thapar made it into one of the most interactive of places." Indeed, dancer Mrinalini Sarabhai, breezing in amidst the fragrance of fresh flowers, says she likes the informality and interaction available here the most. "It's such a comfortable place to talk and a lovely place to perform," she says.

The small auditorium is a platform for cultural activities from North-eastern epics to talks on the Public Distribution System. "The programmes are the heart of this place," says Deepa Nag, lecturer in philosophy at the Delhi University. "When we joined in the '70s, it was fairly ordinary place, not hep. It was very cheap and there were only a few research scholars walking around. But it had its charter. At one time they wanted to make a roof top bar but Stein, the architect, refused saying the charter did not permit us to compete with five-star hotels in creating the best bar in town. There has been an effort to make sure the right sort of people join, who will make the most of the Centre's facilities."

But is the Centre a little too elitist? After all, the hamburger-inclined, cellphone brandishing, non-thinking classes that are beating at the doors of gentility could also be excellent human beings who may like to read foreign newspapers in the salubrious library. What objective criteria are there after all to decide which social group will best carry forward Deshmukh's idea of gracious fellowship? "It all depends on how you define the word elitist," says Jagmohan. "Any city, if it is to fulfill its function of being a creator of ideas, must have centres like this. There is a dire need for these centres. Interaction of this kind goes back to the good old days of the mushairas of Ghalib and Zauq during which people would meet and exchange ideas. And people must be interested in doing these things if they want to be part of a place like this. You can't have people who only see it as a social spot. It is a place where thinkers, academics, artists and intellectuals can gather." "The IIC," says assistant programme officer Purobi Mukherjee, "is for renaissance men, to meet, talk, read and exchange ideas at a leisurely place among beautiful surroundings, over a cup of coffee.

We do make an effort to cut down on purely commercial activities, although we do hire out some rooms because we need the funds." "But the IIC must encourage younger people to join," says Bim Bissell, owner of FabIndia boutique. Adds another old member: "The Centre cannot just be made up of the rich and the powerful, that would be the end of it." The board of trustees is headed by Kapila Vatsyayan and includes L.M. Singhvi, high commissioner in London, jurists Soli Sorabjee andLeila Seth and Karan Singh. A list that leads journalist Rasheed Talib to comment: "There seems to be quite a clear connection between the IIC and the government. Several of its directors have been retired civil servants. In many ways it is like an Intellectuals Club, or a Faculty Club," Talib says.

There are some who scorn it, of course. Says Rohit Acharya, an investment banker: "I never go to that place. It's so stuffy and full of old people discussing pseudo subjects." But Bhaichand Patel, formerly of the UN, says he prefers the IIC to any other club: "Even the Gymkhana." "But this is not a club," argues Deepa Nag. "I'm glad it does not have a swimming pool or a card table!" At the IIC even if you're having fun, you've got to be thinking all the time. Even if it's about the next low-calorie tart.

Club or scholarly centre, elitist or repository of good old values of thought and discretion, the prime ministerial watering hole may be far removed from India Out There, but it has always been and will always be within discussing distance of Raisina Hill. Whether for a political 'adda' or a power lunch with a TNC, there's nothing like the 'nimbu pani' at the IIC to reassure the cognoscenti that those who read and write are not entirely irrelevant in IK Gujral's India.


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More about Sagarika Ghose

Sagarika Ghose has been a journalist for 20 years, starting her career with The Times of India, then moving to become part of the start-up team of Outlook magazine, subsequently joining The Indian Express as Senior Editor. She was anchor of the flagship BBC World programme Question Time India.
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