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The Day I shook Hands with the President

(President Kaunda Dancing with Margaret Thatcher, resource:http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/business/5099962.stm)

If there's one thing I love doing apart from writing and listening to music and dining out, it's shopping for gifts, especially for loved ones. It can take me a whole day to do that. Of course, whoever has the misfortune to accompany me is ready to jump off a cliff by the end of the day but I'm ever ready if and when it is shopping we do.


Today, I went shopping the whole day and thought why not write about it. On the way, I picked up Outlook magazine which featured an exclusive interview with India's most talked about dynastic icon, Priyanka Gandhi, grand daughter of the late Indira Gandhi. The interview excerpt was very interesting. She talked about how she tries to live an ordinary life with her kids by taking them shopping or going to Khan Market to buy them cupcakes. Somehow, reading that reminded me about two incidents when I was growing up in Africa.


Looking back at my childhood, I can say I did very little shopping unlike today's kids, my own kid for that matter. I was the elder kid in my family and we lived in Africa for about 14 years of my life, the growing years. So, of course, my only shopping time was when we went to the bookshops.


I remember a particular shopping incident. My parents and i were in Central Bookshop, which was one of the well known bookshops in Zambia. Suddenly, all the customers were asked to leave by cops. I was a kid and I didnt understand what was happening. My dad kept tugging at my arm, saying the cops have asked everyone to go. But I wouldnt budge or let go of the stackful of books my dad and I had decided to buy. Books were the only luxury shopping we could afford at that time.


Suddenly, a ring of cops surrounded us and I clung to Dad, wondering if we were going to be thrown in jail. Even as a kid, I loved drama. Well, what happened was a tall, dark, fine looking, well dressed African man stepped in. I recognized him at once.


President Kenneth Kaunda, the first President of Independent Zambia and a renowned statesman of great repute all over the world. His eyes were warm, kind and twinkling. He asked the cops not to scare the 'child' and told them to break the ring surrounding me and my dad.


He shook hands with dad and asked him, "Sir, what do you do? Which country are you from?"


Dad said, "I am a doctor from India. I work here in Lusaka."


"Good, good. I studied in India. I love Indians." He smiled in a very friendly way.
By then I was playing the drama queen role. I knew Africans curtsy to their President and bow. I wasnt sure if i should do that since I wasnt an African. I debated doing a 'Namaste' but what if the cops thought it was a kung-fu move and throw us into jail, where they dont have books for me to read? Well, then, I decided that I would play safe. Do the decent deed and shake hands with the President.


My turn. My little heart was galloping with so much tension. Alternatives of decorum were running out by then. I wished i had worn my favorite navy blue and white dress with polka dots and a red bow ribbon.


The President looked down into my eyes, shook hands with me and asked, " What's your name?"
"Swapna Raghu."
He asked me the name of my school. I said it.
He said, "Do you like this place?"
I said, "Yes, my dad brings me every week to this bookshop."
He laughed a little and said, "Thats good. I meant do you like my country? Is there something you would like to have here which you can't find right now?"
I thought very seriously. Then I said, "I would like a bigger bookshop so that I can buy more books."


The President laughed out and ruffled my hair. He said to me, "Good girl. It was my pleasure to meet you."
Then he told the owners of the book store."They are my guests from India. Make sure they are happy and comfortable." In a second, he was gone. I was kid back then but even now I remember the love, warmth and gentle way in which he spoke. Truly, He was a real President. He loved his people, cared about them and about those who stayed in Zambia. He was very concerned about the safety of Indians.



Another incident is when Indira Gandhi died. I didnt know about it of course. My class teacher came to me and said with tears in her eyes and called my name. I wondered if she knew I hadnt done my homework. It wasn't that. She said to me. "Today and the next two days are holidays for Indian children."
I asked why. I felt suspicious. Could they be dismissing me?


She said, "Something terrible has happened. I want you to be brave."
I was sure that something had happened to my parents. I felt tears springing up in my eyes. I felt ready to die.


"Who is the Prime Minister of your country?"


I stared at my teacher. Was she mad? What a stupid question when I was facing a life and death situation? As if the Prime Minister is my next relative or something?


I said, carelessly, "Indira Gandhi."


The teacher burst into tears and hugged me. She said, "Darling, go home. Our President has declared mourning for Indians for three days. Your Prime Minister was shot. Please be brave and go home to your parents."
I stared at my pretty Zambian teacher and cried all the way home. I couldnt believe that everything was ok. I thought my world had nearly collapsed because of that stupid teacher. It wasnt so. I cried with relief that I could go back to my parents.


Later, my dad told me that President Kaunda had been one of the first dignitaries to have rushed to India to help the Gandhi family in those most painful moments. His education in India had been sponsored by Nehru and further extended by Indira Gandhi. He looked up to the Gandhi family as his benefactors and it seems when Indira Gandhi visited Zambia, he would personally escort her to all places and not even sit as equals with her. I can imagine him doing that because he had always been a kind, compassionate man more than a politician. Perhaps that is why I still remember him after all these years.


Now I realize how selfish i was, I didnt realize that a country's destiny had been affected at that time, that a family had lost its most important person and that so much would change in my country thereafter. Somehow, an African President understood that while I had cried out in partial relief and joy. Reminds me to say, C'est la vie.

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