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September 17, 2000
'We have overcome challenges to become close'
Amberish K Diwanji in Washington DC
Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee clearly showed that speaking extempore in Hindi, he is in a class of his own. Speaking at a huge reception organised by India's Ambassador to the United States Naresh Chandra, Vajpayee initially spoke in English, reading from a prepared text that spoke about Mahatma Gandhi, and the role of the Indian American community and the future of Indo-US relations.
Except for the piece on the Mahatma, the rest were things that he has said many times at various functions being held in his honour.
The large crowd, primarily of Indian Americans, heard the speech and applauded politely. But clearly the josh was missing in the speech.
Perhaps the prime minister, a politician for over 60 years, sensed that something was lacking. On completing his speech, instead of returning to his chair, he stood at the podium, and then said, "Main do shubd Hindi mein kehna chahoonga (I would like to say a few words in Hindi)."
The crowd responded enthusiastically, with some youngsters whistling out loud!
The early speech itself was simple enough. "My trip to the US is a journey, a journey between the world's two largest democracies... But what it shows is that if we work with effort, feelings, and keep a long-term perspective in mind, then differences can be resolved. We can come closer. And what has happened in the past two years is remarkable, we have overcome challenges to become close.
"Every year I see changes in the Indian American community, and without them and their effort, I cannot think of Indo-US relations.
"India is your matrubhoomi, America your karmabhoomi, and you must work for both. I salute the Indians here," the prime minister told the appreciative audience.
Then came the best part when Vajpayee turned into a shayar who improvised upon a well known shayari.
There is a wellknown shayari that goes: Badle badle meri sarkar nazar aate hain; ghar ki barbadi ki asaad nazar aate hain (Changing changing my government is seen; the destruction of my home is seen).
Vajpayee was clearly in his element, telling the audience that he would not say the second line but change it to suit the present context. And he said: "Badle badle meri sarkar nazar aate hain; ghar ki abadi ki asaad nazar aate hain (Changing changing my government is seen; the people of my home is seen)."
To the people spoken to, all said the Hindi part was the one that mattered. "He spoke with feeling, it was why we all had come here," said Dr Yogi Bharadwaj from Chicago, who has lived in the US since 1978.
Jayant Singh Kalotra, from the DC area and here since 1983, looked pleased as punch. "It was only correct that he started speaking in English," said Kalotra, "since many second generation Indian Americans cannot understand Hindi fully. But I am glad he spoke in Hindi, because that connects us with India and makes us feel good."
Even those who did not understand Hindi agreed that while the words were incomprehensible, the warm feelings were clearly felt.
"I do not understand Hindi, but it was evident that what he said in Hindi was very emotional," said Michelle Maynard, a state department official present at the reception.
In his earlier part of the speech, the prime minister spoke of the function that he and US President Bill Clinton attended on Saturday morning where a statue of Mahatma Gandhi was dedicated to the American nation.
Vajpayee then turned to how the message of the Mahatma was not just Indian but universal, having been applied by Martin Luther King in the US 37 years ago. He said just as the Mahatma inspired the Americans, the US in turn had inspired Indians in their struggle for freedom, none more so than Abraham Lincoln and his fight for the emancipation of slaves.
Vajpayee told the audience that an American, Samuel Evans Stokes, from Philadelphia, had come to stay in India. "He was the only American involved in the freedom struggle and even changed his name to Satyanand Stokes," he added.
After Vajpayee completed his speech, deputy chief of mission at the Indian embassy in Washington Ambassador T P Sreenivasan told the prime minister that Stokes's grand-daughter, Asha Sharma (and who has written a biography of her grandfather) was present in the audience.
Asha Sharma stood up to receive warm applause, and Vajpayee asked her to come up on the stage to meet him, which she did, touching his feet on meeting him. Later, Vajpayee asked that she join him at his table where snacks were being served.
rediff.com has assigned Associate Editors Amberish K Diwanji and Savera R Someshwar to cover Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee's visit to the United States. Don't forget to log into rediff.com for news of this historic visit as it happens!
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