Comics, Communism and Chocolate - P Chidambaram talks about his passions, regrets and Red salad days over some red meat.
After seating the two of us at a window table, a stewardess asks what name she should put down. She doesn't say where. I give my name but she probably only wants to know whether the chap in the striped blue T-shirt opposite me actually is P Chidambaram. He is, and he's enjoying himself: "You should have said Lord Mountbatten. I would have said John F Kennedy." He doesn't actually laugh at anyone, just sits there poker-faced and repeats "food guide?" loudly when a girl in a school uniform (catering to the Lolita complex, a hotel industry friend explains) is introduced as "your food guide for the evening."
We've chosen West View, the Maurya's new "occidental" place. He's already tried the Blue Elephant at the Hilton and gushes that its world-famous counterparts in Europe demonstrate Indian, specifically Mizo, entrepreneurship. In fact, he eats out about once a week at a range of restaurants, even Nirula's and TGIF—to see what people are spending on. Abroad, "I drag the ambassador off to window shop, to see what people are buying, why they're not buying Indian goods."
Did he drag Naresh Chandra to Fifth Avenue? I try to picture the portly former cabinet secretary being propelled into Saks' lingerie section. I can. But no, he didn't. He does wish, though, that people would realise that "shopping is a national hobby. The US President is safe as long as there are no body bags and the shelves are full." So his formula for Indo-US talks is simple: Spend 10 minutes on intractable issues like CTBT. Then engage on economic matters.
Window shopping is West View's way too. It's as eclectic as American can be, with elements ranging from Mexican to Chinese. The food guide's job is to show us around a buffet of raw meats and other semi-cooked stuff. It includes something called Melanzane that looks suspiciously like stuffed brinjal. I'm amazed he tries one. But when the first two offerings of starters are introduced as vegetarian, he demands: "Who told you we're vegetarian?" He likes the chicken winglets that soon turn up.
His favourite cuisines are Chinese, continental, Malayali (appams with chemmeen curry), Marwari (particularly at Shobhana Bhartiya's), and home food (No, not thayir-sadam. "We are non-veg"). Sure enough, when two soups are offered, he chooses the non-veg one and finishes the last drop. A chef insists on serving us a lamb chop each. No wonder. It's the best I've eaten. The prawns aren't bad either. As for the rest (curried pomfret, etc), we agree that the food at Bali Hi next door is better, only the music is too loud. Chidambaram's unfazed by the Punjabi gentleman who asks to "join you for five minutes," the bread manufacturers' association chiefie who wonders if "Sir" remembers him, the lad who grins a wide "Vanakam, saar," and all the staff who want to know if we're enjoying our meal. "At least they feel warmly towards me. They're not sitting there giving galis," says he, sounding a bit like a benign royal.
Our chat somehow turns to comics. He read the entire Amar Chitra Katha series with his son — though he hated the "crass, crude" (his nose screws up) TV epics. He read Western comics voraciously as a child, apart from Enid Blyton, et al. One romance series he can't remember the name of has become soft porn now. How does he know? He read one recently.
"I'm told I went to a village school briefly, but have no memory of it. My first memories are of Madras. At the convent, we used to sing hymns and say 'Our Father,' and 'Hail Mary'. The first god I knew was Jesus." So the RSS is right, I say, all these convents are for conversion. "No," he bridles, "not one of us was converted." As for Hinduism as a basis for nationalism, he won't have any of it "We are a nation already." But won't the global market and the chip make nationalism redundant anyway? He gets a little wary here and mumbles something about it taking a long time. His "I don't know" is crisp, though, when I observe, as casually as I can, that interest rates will surely fall further. Wondering how close I can get to news, I ask if the fisc gives him sleepless nights. No. He worries, but he's sure income and corporate tax targets will be met. And if excise and customs don't match up, what can he do but wait for industry and trade to pick up? And didn't Manmohan Singh end up with a 7.4 per cent deficit after projecting 4.6? As for reforms, he says the people, even in villages, are 10 years ahead of most politicians.
He leans back in the high chair as he opens up about himself. It turns out that Prophet Chidambaram of the Market was a Red when he returned from Harvard and began politics alongside a law practice in 1969, aged 24. "I was left of the Congress," and believed in Garibi hatao and all that went with it. "I was a trade union leader — MRF and KCP and the city transport corporation. I used to edit Radical Review, along with N Ram and Mythili Sivaraman." He read a lot of Marx then but now believes that "aspiration drives consumption and consumption drives production, which leads to development." Greed or aspiration, I ask. Aspiration, he insists.
He wishes he'd spent another decade as a lawyer — travelling, making friends — before joining politics. Narasimha Rao's keeping him out of government for two-and-a-half years still rankles: "He would call me every month and say, don't worry, I'm sorting it out. What was there to sort out?" As for Rajiv, "he was such a warm human being." They became very close after the Congress lost power, he says, constantly discussing things, drafting papers or taking off in a car "for a spin".
Yes, Chidambaram likes to drive as fast as his 1991 Premier Padmini lets him. He rode horses in his youth and played tennis and some cricket. And he'd "devour all the sports news." Now, he dismisses a couple of newspapers as "rags," says another has proved you don't need an editor and yet another that you only need a manager. Only The Hindu is well edited.
Perhaps that reflects a regional bias. For he says that, compared to today's political leaders, there were giants when he entered politics: Indira Gandhi, Kamaraj, Nijalingappa, Sanjeeva Reddy, Rajaji. When I point out the regional concentration, he points to Indira Gandhi. And in case I think he's parochial, he adds that he and his son married outside his caste.
It's time for dessert and I wonder if he's going to ask what non-veg sweets they have. He chooses the chocolate truffle, though he claims to be bothered about the paunch that shows under the T-shirt: "I love chocolates. Rajiv used to order a box for me at midnight if we were working late." He was better off without my chocolate mousse anyway. It had the consistency almost of ice cream.