The ceremonial atmosphere lent the required solemnity to the occasion of the investiture ceremony of the Padma awards. The grandeur of Rashtrapati Bhavan, could hardly be missed. The Darbar Hall was packed with guests, and then the ceremony began.
The home secretary called out each awardee's name one by one, and s/he rose up and approached the President. It looked like a routine affair, with no interest, except to the recipients.
But there were surprises in store for me. I found myself, much to my delight, sitting next to Gladys Staines, wife of Australian missionary Graham Staines who was burnt to death along with his sons in Orissa in 1999.
Graham Staines murder case
A simple women, draped appropriately in a sari, she had a pleasant smile. She told me, "The first thing my daughter said to me, on arrival, was, 'Mama, I am glad to be home.'" Gladys Staines now spends time between India and Australia, her daughter is studying in Australia.
She only had two passes to the event and did not know she could have requested for a few more. She felt sorry that many of the people who had worked closely with her in Orissa, were not with her on that day. I suggested that they could still come, and we could request for a pass, but they were in Pune.
Among the awardees of the year were several public personalities, including Shah Rukh Khan, Olympic silver medalist Lieutenant Colonel Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore, sports women and academics. The legendary R K Laxman of the Common Man fame from the Times of India, media barons and a host of musicians and dancers.
Each awardee was applauded in due course. However, I soon realised, that regardless of whether you were a Padma Vibushan or a Padma Shri, the audience had its own way of rating you. Their applause said it all.
I thought to myself, surely, but surely, Shah Rukh Khan would get the loudest applause. He thought so too. He had come in to Rashtrapati Bhavan with eight bodyguards, who would not allow fans to get anywhere near him.
Then came the most thrilling moment of the evening.
It was Gladys Staines who got the loudest applause. The audience went crazy over her, holding up the ceremony for a few minutes. She received her medal and walked back to her seat.
The other person who got a loud applause was Olympian Rathore. Both of them were awarded the Padma Shri.
I suddenly broke into a comfortable smile and relaxed. I thought to myself, a nation that knows how to recognise its heroes, is on the right track. For a brief moment, my accumulated anger over the genocide in Gujarat vanished. The people of this country have more sense than its politicians. They should be allowed to decide who to award and who not to award.
The ceremony over, we were invited for a group photograph. Again I found myself sitting next to Gladys.
She was sitting next to the President and the home secretary. Like a young girl, she turned to me and said, "I am sitting close to the President."
I looked at her and said, "Are you surprised, after all you were the President's nominee?"
She asked me how I knew that. I told her it was all over the Indian press. She smiled and said she was unaware it.
Clearly, Gladys Staines stole the show that day. She certainly made it a memorable day for me.
Indira Jaisingh, the wellknown lawyer and civil rights activist, was also awarded a Padma Shri at Rashtrapati Bhavan.
Photograph: Prakash Singh/AFP/Getty Images
Image: Uday Kuckian