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The girl who stumped Obama

Last updated on: December 29, 2010 12:12 IST

The girl who stumped Obama

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Abhishek Mande

In our year-end special, Rediff.com looks at people who wrote the India story this year.

Afsheen Irani, a Mumbai college student, asked the one question everyone wanted to ask the most powerful man in the world.

Abhishek Mande on the girl who made Barack Obama fumble.

'Why is Pakistan so important an ally to America so far as America has never called it a terrorist State?'

As Afsheen Irani from Mumbai's HR College uttered these words on the morning of November 7, her mother Taubon clasped her mouth.

Taubon, a lawyer, was watching her 19-year-old daughter on live television pose that question to US President Barack Obama as he addressed a group of college students at a townhall meeting in Mumbai's St Xavier's College.

At the venue, the television cameras failed to catch the collective 'ooohs' that echoed through the 'First Quad,' short for the first quadrangle at St Xavier's.

No one wanted to see the President in a tight spot. Virtually every student present had been enamoured by Obama and his charming wife Michelle.

Only minutes ago, Afsheen was so taken in by his presence, she actually cried! She later told me that she actually felt bad "on a personal level" to have put him in such an awkward position.

Obama hadn't addressed the media in Mumbai. He did speak with industry leaders the previous evening, but he hadn't taken any questions. Before that when he spoke at the Taj Mahal Palace and Hotel in Mumbai and paid tribute to those who died in the 26/11 terror attack, there was no reference to Pakistan.

The question Afsheen asked was on everyone's minds.


Image: Afsheen Irani, the 19-year-old Mumbai college student was the first person to question President Obama on Pakistan during his India visit
Photographs: Abhishek Mande/Rediff.com
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She had 'taken down the most powerful man on earth'

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Back home in Jogeshwari, northwest Mumbai, the Iranis waited as Obama mulled over the answer.

Under her breath, Taubon whispered, 'Oh my god!' She was still looking at the television screen in disbelief. Did her daughter just leave the most powerful man in the world speechless? Apparently she had!

Obama took a full 15 seconds before he started to respond in earnest. This included five seconds of complete silence as he mulled over what to say. And the first relevant thing he had to say was this: Er Pakistan is an enormous country!

The second thing he said was: (It) is a strategically important country not just for the United States but for the world...

Here he shrugged his shoulders and bent a little forward. As he hunted for words, Obama's body language seemed to suggest that he was on the defensive!

As a Facebook page suggests, Afsheen Irani had indeed 'taken down the most powerful man on earth' -- even if it was for a few moments. (Somewhat funnily, the page refers to him as 'Slowbama'!)


Image: President Obama at the townhall at St Xavier's College, Mumbai November 7
Photographs: Jim Young/Reuters
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Obama said, 'The young lady in the glasses... '

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Now it might not have been a moment when all the noises of the universe fell silent, but it was a moment that would make a celebrity out of a teenager, put her in the limelight and make the editor-in-chief of one of the largest English news channels make her a job offer on live television.

Over the days that followed, television crews would line up outside Afsheen's home, waiting to have her on their channels. Cars and vans would be sent to pick her up for live discussions and hundreds of journalists would call her on her mobile phone -- a pretty white Blackberry -- and ask her just why she chose to ask Barack Obama that particular question.

When this wasn't the question Afsheen Irani had prepared at ask at all.

Her concerns were rather simple. She wanted to know his views on education, visa processes and the likes. But minutes before she walked into the venue a chance conversation with a friend over text messages made her change her mind.

"He hadn't spoken about Pakistan at all. So I thought it was an important question to ask," she says.

So when the meeting was almost drawing to a close and there was time for just two last questions, Afsheen raised her hand like she would in class.

Barack Obama looked in her direction and said, 'The young lady in the glasses ...'

Afsheen took the microphone in her hand and said the words that would make her famous:

'Why is Pakistan so important an ally to America so far as America has never called it a terrorist State?'


Image: Afsheen Irani
Photographs: Abhishek Mande/Rediff.com
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That night she was on three of the biggest news channels

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When we met -- exactly a month after the big day -- Afsheen knew the question verbatim.

She tells me that it was grammatically incorrect and what she meant to say was 'so much so that', but in her nervousness said 'so far as'.

She has has been giving out so many interviews that the question is etched in her head. "It was a long blur," Afsheen says describing the week that followed the question.

Almost two hours after the townhall meeting ended, Afsheen was addressing various media houses at the venue. By the time she was home, it was past 4 pm and there were two camera crews already waiting for her!

Later that night, she was on three of the biggest television news channels back to back. First on NDTV chatting with Barkha Dutt, then on CNN-IBN with Rajdeep Sardesai where he offered her a job and finally on Times Now with Arnab Goswami.

Afsheen returned home a little before midnight in a car from the Times Now office. She signed the invoice that the driver presented her, opened the gate, unlocked the door and crashed on her bed.

***

The next morning, Afsheen was back on her toes for a morning show at a Hindi television channel that called her 'Afreen from St Xavier's College' and yet another one where they showed an audio-visual montage of her various newspaper clippings that hailed her as 'the girl who stumped Obama'!

Afsheen confesses she felt like a celebrity and adds somewhat candidly, "People say it's easy to be a celeb. But in the one week that I got a taste of it, I realised what a difficult life it might be!"

"For the first two days I was going from one television studio to another. After that the only thing I was doing was taking one telephone call after another!"

After about a week, the number of calls started trickling down.

Then her college reopened. As she walked through the gates, security guard Vivekanand Salekar got off his seat and congratulated her.

'Main Maharashtra Times mein padha. Bahut achcha laga (I read about you in the Maharashtra Times. I felt nice),' Salekar told her.


Image: Obama was introduced by his wife Michelle before the townhall in Mumbai
Photographs: Jim Young/Reuters
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'I was one of the 20 students from 6,000 from my college to be selected'

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Her friends, her teachers and her principal (Indu Shahani, who is also the sheriff of Mumbai) slapped her back and told her what she'd been told all along -- it was a good question to ask.

Afsheen's friends tell me she was always quite popular in college. But after the Obama question they took to ribbing her! She recalls, "Once we were travelling out of town when one of my friends decided to ask a random couple whether they'd heard of Afsheen Irani."

To her great shock they had. When they learnt she was the one, they shook her hands and congratulated her.

A few days later, Afsheen got a call from her school -- Ashok Academy in Andheri, northwest Mumbai. She was made to sit on the dais as her principal held her as an example of self-confidence and belief.

As the programme concluded, kids surrounded her and asked her for her autograph!

***

Afsheen is almost always in company. She is part of SIFE (Students in Free Enterprise) an international network of students, academicians and professionals that nurtures young students' passion for business and entrepreneurship.

She is also associated with Project Chirag that aims at lighting up villages in rural India and empowering paraplegic patients in Mumbai.

Recently they organised a walk along Mumbai's famed promenade, Marine Drive, to create awareness about Project Chirag. Afsheen was one of the volunteers making phone calls to people from all walks of life, including the media.

Being a familiar name helped, she admits, but is quick to add that the success of the project had absolutely nothing to do with her fame.

I ask if she finds all the attention she has been getting somewhat undeserved.

Afsheen pauses before she answers.

"When you look at it in a certain way, yes it was just a chance opportunity. It could've been anyone else. I just happened to be there, raise my hand and catch his attention. But if you see the larger picture I was one of the 20 students from 6,000 others from my college to be selected to go there."

"The selection was done on the basis of our academic performance and co- and extra-curricular activities. That was not a fluke. I'd worked to get there, applied, got screened and sent as a representative of my college. So I don't think it is undeserved, but yes. it is quite embarrassing sometimes."


Image: Afsheen Irani
Photographs: Abhishek Mande/Rediff.com
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'Politics in India is a mess'

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When we reach her home, she pulls out her pink laptop. She is wearing a pink band around her ankle that her friend made for her and tells me that not very long ago, she even had pink braces!

She has a shy girlish charm about her but doesn't mind being seen as a spokesperson for Young India.

"After this whole thing happened there were a lot of people who congratulated me. Some who told me what I asked was uncalled for and others who told me I should do something now that I have become a familiar name."

Afsheen says that in the long run she wants to do something for the society and give back to the country that gave her so much but isn't sure of what she could do.

Besides Project Chirag, she is also associated with a programme that helps eliminate middlemen and connects small farmers with buyers.

"I want to do something," she says earnestly adding that there is a lot that can be done in India, but isn't happening due to lack of political will.

"Politics in India is a mess," she says recollecting the initial days of Project Chirag. "On paper Maharashtra is supposed to be an electrified state. But we discovered during our initial research that there still are many villages that don't have electricity. Money given to electrify these villages usually vanishes."

Yet she believes that her country has a potential like no other. This is just one of the reasons why if she goes to study abroad, she'll come back and work in India.

"Maybe I'll be a journalist!" she laughs.

The teenager -- though excited by the offer from Rajdeep Sardesai -- says she will take her time and weigh her options.

Has she lost faith in the media I ask, referring to the Niira Radia tapes with recordings of conversations with leading journalists, particularly Barkha Dutt.

Two of her friends sitting with us say that they have. Afsheen, however, vehemently defends the journalist.

"S**t happens to everyone. I don't see it as being such a big deal. Everyone makes mistakes. Why hold a gun to someone's head just because she is in the limelight?" she argues.

So what will Afsheen do when she grows up?

"I don't know. Maybe I'll be a lawyer like my mother. Or maybe I'll do my MBA. I still have a year to complete my education! Let me enjoy a little."

Almost two months after the big day, life has come back to being normal.

"Nothing has changed," she says, "Nothing at all!"

Nothing of course, except everything. Afsheen Irani will always be 'The girl who stumped Obama.'


Image: Afsheen Irani's 5 questions to the prime minister
Photographs: Abhishek Mande/Rediff.com
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