April 13, 2001


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The Rediff Interview/Jacqueline Lundquist

He's too busy playing to grant interviews. He doesn't like his hair being tousled. And he'll be four in July.

Which makes Sam -- son of outgoing US ambassador Richard Celeste and his wife Jacqueline Lundquist -- one of the youngest co-authors of a book ever.

It's called There's a Mouse in Roosevelt House (the sprawling residence of the US ambassador in Delhi's Chankyapuri). And deals with a mouse that keeps Sam, his friends, and Jacqueline, the other co-author, very busy.

But the mouse seems to have disappeared after President Bill Clinton left India in March last year. And Sam thinks it must have gone aboard Air Force One and entered the White House!

While Sam took time off from playing "doggie" to give an occasional comment, his mother Jacqueline talked about the book, her plans to promote India, and her father, the subject of her next book, to Senior Associate Editor Ramananda Sengupta.

So who saw the mouse first?

Sam: I did.

Jacqueline: Well, I saw the mouse first, 'coz you (to sam) were only 90 days old when we first saw the mouse. But then when you got older, we started to catch the mouse together... tell us about last year when all your friends were here...

Sam: We were playing, and then we saw the mouse, and we ran around the table chasing the mouse... (demonstrates)

Jacqueline: And then after the president left, what happened? We didn't see the mouse, right? So you said, it must have gone on Air Force One... to the White House...

Sam: Yes, yes, ...

Jacqueline: ... And when we talked to the president this morning (April 3) and you asked him, Mr President, have you seen the mouse in the White House... what did he say? Well, he loved it... he was very excited, and said it was a clever idea...

Sam: The mouse is in the White House!!!

You sure about that?

Sam: Yes!

So how big was the mouse?

Sam: So little...

And was there only one mouse?

Jacqueline: Well, I only saw one mouse.

Sam: Yes!

You saw more than one mouse?

Sam: Yes!

Jacqueline: Well, I didn't see them, you must have x-ray vision... (Sam somersaults and runs off to continue playing...)

Tell us about the book...

Jacqueline: What happened was that the kids would play with this mouse... and then we noticed that after President (Clinton) left, last year in March, the mouse was gone.

Sam was three years old at that time, and had a vivid imagination. And he'd just been on Air Force One. So when I asked him where the mouse had gone, he said "on Air Force One." So how did it get there? "I took him"... and so we began to weave the story...

And kids, they like repetition. So we created the story, and every night when we went to bed he'd say, 'Tell me the story about the mouse.'

So we began to weave the story about how Sam took him on Air Force One, helped him escape etc,

Now kids, if you don't tell them something the exact same way, they call you on it... they know exactly how it goes. So he made me be disciplined about the way I told the story..

And then last summer we were here throughout the entire monsoon. It's not a very hectic time, we had no houseguests and very limited social engagements. So I was able to write the book.

So how much of the book was actually "written" by Sam, in that sense?

The story about the mouse actually leaving and going to the White House was all his idea... Otherwise, there wouldn't have been a story. So when he said there's a mouse in the White House, it rhymed, he enjoyed it... so it's a simple, fun little story...

Was the entire thing read to him, before it was published?

Oh yes, absolutely... before it was even sent for illustrations, I'd take it to him and read it to him like a little book.

And how long did it take to get the book ready?

By the time I sat down and and put it into the computer, it took all of thirty minutes... the work had been done in the preceding five months, from April...

Are you planning to sell the book in the US?

Yes, absolutely, which is why at the back I included these educational aspects about India. I saw that this book could be used by a variety of children of different ages.

For children of two or three as a bedtime story, but then even for older kids, there's some pretty long words in there. So a teacher can weave a whole geography lesson into this, a kind of cultural experience about India, and also things like what an ambassador is, exploring the idea of diplomatic service, and the secret service... (kids like the dark sunglasses and dark suits.)

So I felt it was a way to teach kids in America about India. And also, it's a nice little remembrance for us to take back. To have proof that we actually lived in this wonderful house.

Would you like to tell us about one memorable experience during your stay here??

Sure, it just happened recently. As you know, I've done a lot of cause related work here in India, I've been promoting fashion designers, handicrafts and traditional works, the artists -- I have two art exhibitions going on as we speak -- and raise money for HIV AIDS, women and children, breast cancer, you name it, we've done it...

So the last World AIDS Day, we had a huge event in the backyard, we invited 700 people, the idea being to educate people about AIDS.

We had a cross-section of society, we had servants, slum children, businessmen, millionaires, the whole gamut. And we brought them all together for a two hour celebration of life. We had a personality like Jackie Shroff or Gulshan Grover, Nandita Das or Nafisa Ali... introduce somebody who is doing amazing work. Then there's a young journalist, who's HIV positive, and he writes about it.

So it was a kind of combination of this and that, we had music, and we had Juhi Chawla, Bhangra, Shiamak Davar...

It's a long answer to your question, but the night before the event, I was sitting on the steps, it was a beautiful evening, there were about a hundred people in the backyard setting up for the next day's events, building the stage and the lights... total chaos.

And I loved the idea that I had kind of created this chaos. And then Shiamak Davar went on stage to rehearse. He sang Elton John's Circle of Life, my favourite.. which always makes me cry under the best circumstances, and then I realised that I would never again have this opportunity to evoke change or awareness, to have this kind of platform, or a house like this... And I was then immensely proud of what we've able to do in the last three-and-a-half years.

I was so humbled by the opportunity to be here. I thanked the president when I spoke to him last night, and I thank my husband every day.

What were the things that bothered you about India?

India's not a place where I've had many unpleasant incidents, but when we first arrived here, in the winter of 1997, (I arrived on November 22) I didn't see the sun for six weeks. The El Nino effect had made this huge cloud cover, created immense fog and pollution, and it was colder than it had been in decades.

It was really depressing and sad. I'd thought that India was only sunshine and blue skies, which is true, but that winter... that was before we switched to unleaded gasoline here. So I was concerned about my health, and certainly about my 90-day old son.

So if you ask me what my concerns are about India, it's definitely the pollution level in the major cities.

Not the standard response of poverty and filth, but pollution?

You know, I guess it's because I've gone to these jhuggis. I've gone to these places where poverty is a way of life and met children, talked to them, had them over to the house. And in spite of the fact that their parents aren't earning a whole lot of money, I have to say I was so respectful of the family unit.

Each of these children was loved and had many people taking care of them. They had little, but what they had they shared with me when I went to their hovels, and I wasn't saddened by the experience, in fact, my mind was broadened by the basic concept that they weren't dying of poverty, they weren't dying of hunger.

They were eating, their clothes were clean. They took care of how they looked, their hair was combed, they were washed every morning.

So it's not the scene you see on the streets, where the kids are begging on the streets, so they create the aura of poverty... it's a just a simpler way of life. We have far too much, in any case.

So it wasn't disheartening to see people who had less still loving and being taken care of, going to school, and having pictures of Hrithik Roshan on their wall.

It was just less, it wasn't necessarily bad. I hope that makes sense.

So what are your plans now, when you return to the US?

I think the time is right to introduce a lot of India to the US market. Whether it's in a fashion sense. I see no reason why saris and churidars and kurtas and dhotis can't be part of the new vocabulary that we Americans speak. I can tell you from personal experience, when I'm in the United States and I wear one of these outfits, I literally get stopped on the streets, by people saying:"It's beautiful, what is it?"

So I plan on promoting Indian designers in the United States, and I'd like to bring Indian artistes and artisans, dancers and singers... not just folk, but someone like Shiamak Davar, I think he's hugely talented. I see no reason why a little American kid can't have a picture of some Indian hero on his wall, the same way Indian kids have pictures of Michael Jackson or Britney Spears, or whoever's hot these days.

I've also travelled immensely in India. Once every 10 days we were on the road. We've had 273 house guests, and we've gone on trips with all of them. So I would want to promote Indian tourism. The trips I've taken were magical, and we can certainly create that for visiting Americans or Indians. Or maybe even a furniture buying trip... Rajasthan or Gujarat, for indigenous furniture.

Maybe a silk shopping spree, where you go to Varanasi and down to Orissa and Kanchipuram to buy beautiful stuff, whatever it is, I think there's plenty of opportunity. I hope to be back three times a year. I also plan on writing some books, some on India, some not.


I do, I've written another book, a compilation of letters my father wrote to my mother when he served in Vietnam from 1967 to 1968. I was three-and-a-half-years old when he left for Vietnam. He survived a year in Vietnam, came back and he died of a heart attack just three months later. He was 38. So I never got to know my father.

And it wasn't until I was pregnant with Sam myself, when I was 34 years old, that I finally found the guts to read these over 300 letters, and got to know my father... it's amazing. So I put these letters together, I think it'll be a very interesting tale.

It's more than just the letters, I've done research and I've got file photographs, so it has copies of the citations for his medals, and what he said to my mother in his letters, in order not to worry her. So it's a perspective on Vietnam that I've not read. It's not political, it's about a man who loved what he did for a living. He took his job very seriously -- let the politicians decide what this war is all about. I need to move these many men to these positions by this time.

It's also a love story, he's 37 years old, he desperately loves and misses my mother, so it's juicy. And he's a man who misses his daughter very much -- the paternal side of him. It's quite moving.

Sam: Mom, it's time for dinner!!!!

It was.

Photographs: Jewella Miranda, Saab Press; Design: Lynette Menezes

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