I have been informed, by those in the know of these things, that the Prime Minister is always ready to talk to the common man. Or woman, come to think of it. One has to be ever so mindful of how you employ these gender terms nowadays. If I had not hastily slipped in that ‘Or woman, come to think of it,’ I would have had to face an avalanche of angry mails from the gentler sex. Always trusting to fate that they have no violent objection to being described as ‘gentle.’ Sorry, haring off at a tangent like that. I was reflecting on the Prime Minister’s desire to speak to India’s common citizen at prescribed times on prescribed days. I am excluding his weekly wireless fireside chat Mann ki Baat from the purview of this discussion. This, if it is true, involves a person-to- person chinwag over the phone with people like you and me, and it shows how the leader of this impossibly vast and amorphous nation has his ear to the ground and, evidently, to the phone as well. The common touch, to borrow a phrase. The number given to me was obviously encrypted, this for the PMO to be able to trace any crank calls that are bound to be made, just for a lark. Like this one. ‘Hullo, good morning Prime Minister, this is Rahul Gandhi. I have underground connections in Sicily, through my relatives in Italy. For your own sake, take me seriously. I strongly suggest you had better watch your back. Say hello to my little friend. Capice?’
Any Mafia film buff would tell you that was a phony call. However, the PMO was taking no chances. A trace was placed on Rahul Gandhi’s mobile number, but after a couple of days of snooping and listening in, all they could get was, ‘Mamma mia Mama, how many times have I told you I hate Coco Pops? Where’s my fluffy, cheese omelette? I WANT MY FLUFFY CHEESE OMELETTE.’ Every day it was the exact same line that was being repeated ad nauseum, and the PMO’s telephone sleuths finally concluded that this was a recorded voice and that they had been had by the short and curlies. More likely it was a ring tone put in by some nutter with a corny sense of humour. Even Rahul Gandhi wouldn’t stoop to something like that,
However, I am not one to throw in the towel that easily. I kept trying, those powerful words of Kipling ringing in my ears, If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. My perseverance paid off, eventually. And before any of you clever dicks jump out of your skins to tell me that it was not Kipling who said that but one T.H. Palmer, let me quickly assure you I am fully seized of the fact. At heart I am a bit of a tease and just wanted to have you on. Begging your pardon. Seriously though, this T.H. Palmer’s name should have been up in lights for just that one memorable line he composed, but he was one of those poets who was born to blush unseen and waste his sweetness in the desert air. Thomas Gray. Once again, I am guilty of veering off from the subject on hand, but what the heck? Nobody ever told Shakespeare that he was using thirty words when seven would have served the purpose. My best friends keep telling me that my essays are too long. My philosophical response invariably is, ‘How long is a piece of string? Go figure.’
In case you are wondering, I am having to indulge in all this meandering small talk mainly because getting through to the PMO was no simple task. I was placed at number 375 on the call waiting list. Then all of a sudden, before I could say, tongue-twistingly, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, my mobile started ringing in that familiar shrill ringtone.
‘Good afternoon, are we speaking to Mr. Suresh Subrahmanyan?’ intoned a strong male voice. Not to miss the royal ‘we.’
‘We are, we are,’ I responded with an eagerness that was partly genuine and partly affected. ‘Is that the Prime Minister? Sir,’ I added as a respectful and precautionary afterthought.
“Not yet,’ continued the voice. ‘This is the Prime Minister’s Office, and we have some questions for you before we can put you through to Him.’
I could sense the capital H. ‘Does the Prime Minister’s Office have a name?’ I enquired somewhat cheekily. ‘It is rather unfair that you know my name, I need to keep addressing you as an office. A bit weird, don’t you think?’
‘We do not appreciate your tone. The PMO does not take kindly to smart alecks who make tasteless wisecracks. One more remark like that and you will be taken off the list and your mobile number duly recorded for posterity and future reference.’
Gosh, now I had to worry about my posterior. This was going nowhere, and if it was going anywhere, I did not care for the destination. ‘Sir, Mr. PMO, I did not intend to be smart. My apologies for the unintended solecism. Or gaffe, if you prefer. It’s just that I am number 375 on the call waiting list, I have dropped every other normal household chore that I am expected to perform on a Sunday morning, blocked calls from my entire contact directory and have been sitting and staring at my mobile for “The Call.” My eyes are hurting like blazes from the staring. I was merely anxious to know how much longer it’s going to take before our leader comes on the line to exchange a few friendly words with me.’
‘By and by, and if you keep on jabbering like this, it may never happen. Please answer these simple questions as briefly as you possibly can. How old are you?’
‘That’s a personal question. What’s my age got to do with anything? Let’s agree on 16. I know he likes to speak with youngsters.’ I was bridling.
The PMO was beginning to sound irritated, but no more than I was. ‘You do not sound like a teenager. If you are 16 going on 17, you know that you are naïve, in the words of that famous song from The Sound of Music. Once again, I must caution you. If you do not declare proper and correct information, there will be consequences. For the last time, what is your age?’
‘We need proof. Send me a scanned photo of you in standing position.’
‘I am 99, I cannot stand. I have a picture of me in standing-erect position when I was 43, but what use would that be to you? Later on, I developed a bad case of scoliosis and my spine is bent. And if I sent you a photo of my grandfather standing in crouched position with a walking stick, how would you know the difference?’
The PMO was by now at the end of his tether. Exasperation was clearly evident in his voice. ‘I have never come across such an ornery person. You wish to speak to the country’s most powerful person and you behave like a juvenile delinquent. I am afraid I cannot waste any more Government time, when there are 625 others waiting in the queue. So kindly…’
Just then a sonorous, authoritative voice chimed in. ‘Secretary Saheb, I have been listening in to your conversation with Mr. Subrahmanyan on the hotline. Please keep the line free. I will speak to him now.’
‘Yes Sir, Yes Prime Minister. Right away, Prime Minister. I am connecting you Sir.’
Next thing I know, I was on the line with none other than the PM himself. ‘Hullo,’ he said, very friendly and everything. What do you say after someone says hullo? Not just someone, but India’s leader extraordinaire.
‘Hullo ji,’ I responded, my voice barely above a croaking whisper.
‘My office will allow me to entertain just two questions from each caller, because there are so many on the waiting list, so please ask both your questions one after the other and I will try to answer them to your satisfaction.’ He was ever so courteous and polite. He didn’t say “Shoot” but I was ready with my two questions.’
‘Prime Minister Sirji, whom do you consider your greatest opponent on the Indian political scene? Second question. Who will take over from you as your party’s leader once you decide to retire? Thank you, Sir.’
‘Very good questions, Subrahmanyan ji. My greatest opponent is myself. I am fighting myself everyday to be a better leader for my people. Other opponents from all parties are also fighting – amongst themselves. I hope that is a good answer.’
‘Brilliant answer, Sir. Jawaab nahin. What about my second question, Sir? Who are you grooming to be your successor? And Sir, please don’t call me Subrahmanyan ji. I am underserving.’
‘You are 99. That demands respect. Recently I honoured someone who was 125. As to your second question, I will follow our veteran cricket captain, M.S. Dhoni’s footsteps. No unnecessary talking in advance. In our party, anyone can become the leader, but not till I retire.’
The PM was now off the air. The PMO was back, ‘Your two questions are over, which is more than you deserved. Your time is up.’
Needless insult from the officious PMO. The PM was nice, but I still nursed doubts. Was this real or fake? He sounded like the PM but his English was faultless. Hmmm….
I’ll check later with number 376 on the call waiting list.