Savera R Someshwar

One hundred and eighty United States legislators had signed into Capitol Hill. But most of them didn't make it to the joint session of the House to honour Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee.

For the record, the total strength of the US Congress is 535 -- 100 senators and 435 congressmen.

Seventy-five White House interns were present to make up for the absent members.

The officials at Capitol Hill place the number of law-makers who listened to the prime minister's speech at between 50 and 60.

That number, you would agree, is a pretty sad commentary on the importance White House places on the prime minister of the world's largest democracy.

But wait a minute... ministry of external affairs officials say the number was a lot more than 60, and more importantly, that all the important leaders were present.

Maybe. But the fact that the House wasn't exactly brimming does not make the organisers of the PM's visit look good; neither does it speak much in terms of their influence in the US.

Outside Capitol Hill, life had taken a slight diversion to accommodate Vajpayee. Three uniformed police personnel directed foot traffic around one of the entrances.

"Sorry, sir, you'll have to go all the way round."

"This way, sir. Please keep to the crosswalk."

The road was being cleared for the prime minister, who was due within the hour to move from Capitol Hill to the House Canon Building located on the opposite side.

"Keep to the crosswalk, please," was the cops' constant refrain to the people, predominantly joggers.

Now Capitol Hill is a must-halt point in the itinerary of every tourist visiting Washington DC. And terms like 'crosswalk' can tend to be confusing.

Anyway, the cops managed the situation beautifully, with instructions that were both polite and patient.

The joggers, however, weren't too happy: "So who's visiting the Capitol anyway?"

The last people you would expect to see relaxed in these environs are members of the Special Protection Group responsible for Vajpayee's security.

But looks like they trust their American counterparts a great deal: we found the SPG behaving more like tourists than security details.

They even stopped for a chat, which is something they rarely, if ever, do in India. Back home their behaviour is rather brusque, as any reporter who has come in contact with them will attest to.

The reason behind this change was not hard to find and runs thus, "Yahan ka system bahut achcha hai -- civil, security, sab kuch."

Mary Masserini is one of the most respected -- and feared -- people on Capitol Hill.

She is over 70. It is her job to herd the press to their destinations and, as such, was in charge of the Indian media.

Mary is not very tall. She took charge of us by brandishing her walking stick -- first waving it in the air to get our attention, and then using it to guide us.

After Vajpayee's speech, she took a small contingent to the Foreign Affairs Committee room for a photo-op. A half-hour wait produced a one-minute opportunity to photograph the leaders shaking hand, smiling at the camera, and signing guest books.

Then little Mary was waving her wand -- oops, stick -- with a smile and saying, "Samapti, samapti, which is her version of the Hindi word samapth, meaning 'the end'.

No one dared to argue with her.

Driving me to the hotel from the Hill was a former resident of Eritrea. He has been in the United States for the last 20 years.

"You Indian?" he asked.

I gave him a big yes-grin.

"I'm from Eritrea. Do you know where it is?"

I didn't and confessed that shamefacedly.

"It's a country in Africa." He was not in the least put-off by my ignorance.

"Do you know where Ethiopia is?"

That I knew.

"We're near Ethiopia," he said.

He said he dreamed of visiting India some day. "I like India. I like Indians. I have many Indian friends. I was taught by Indian teachers."

Thanks to that, I had what you could call a whistle-stop tour of Washington. He pointed out every landmark en route, including the Watergate hotel.

"That is important to you journalists, no? That was where Nixon did all his mess."

He knew the prime minister was in town, but recommended that we still take time off to see Washington "since it is a very beautiful city."

As for Vajpayee, he hoped he would have a good visit, even as he tut-tutted over the average American's level of ignorance.

"For the American, the world begins and ends with America. They are only interested in their own country. So they will not know about your prime minister. But we foreigners, we are interested in other foreigners. That is why we know that your prime minister is here."

This is Savera R Someshwar's first visit to Washington DC.

See our complete coverage of The Vajpayee Visit.

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