Mother of all parties for Atal
Basu balm on Mission
People’s computer for just Rs 9,000
Contest of contrasts
Calcutta weather

Washington, Sept. 18: 
Washington, Sept. 18: Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee made it to the White House history books last night.

The banquet hosted by President Bill Clinton and his wife Hillary at the conclusion of his visit to the US had a guest list of over 700 making it the biggest dinner to be held in the history of the White House for any foreign visitor.

It was also a farewell of sorts by the Clintons. No official visit by any head of state or government is scheduled to take place before the presidential elections in November. Even if they do, it is highly unlikely that the First Lady will be able to take time off her hectic New York Senate election schedule to spend a day in Washington.

Vajpayee acknowledged her presence at the dinner last night when he said amidst prolonged applause: “I have been fighting elections for more than 40 years. I am grateful to Mrs Clinton for taking time from her campaign.”

The First Lady did not merely fly down from New York to be present at the dinner in a brown leopard-print dress by Oscar de la Renta. As long as three months ago, she sent the White House pastry chef to the Indian embassy here to collect volumes on Indian floral designs, architecture and fauna.

The result of his efforts was the ultimate tribute to the Indian Prime Minister. Last night, the chef produced a dessert in the shape of a saffron lotus made from mango, banana and lichees in raspberry sauce.

The lotus, members of the Indian delegation told the American guests, is the election symbol of the BJP, and saffron, the party’s colour.

Actually, there were two desserts, the second, a concession to political correctness and christened ‘a majestic tiger’s delight’. It showed a white tiger set in green foliage in the centre of the serving salver, and spread around the reclining tiger were honey almond squares and chocolate-coconut bars. The desserts were served with Tualatin estate semi-sparkling Muscat 1999 in crystal champagne glasses.

The rest of the menu included Darjeeling tea, smoked poussin, chilled green peas, cilantro soup on marble potatoes, young greens and herb salad with heirloom tomato, dry aged cheese, blossom and 25-year-old Sherry dressing.

The main course had wild copper river salmon served with garlic-chanterelle emulsion, Swiss chard custard and red kuri squash.

The chef, who made a brief appearance at one of the tables, was heard telling guests that it was “kuri squash” and not “curry squash”.

Wit flowed from the head of the table as Clinton and Vajpayee toasted each other, the Prime Minister showing no trace of discomfiture from osteoarthritis, perhaps for the first time during this visit.

Vajpayee got a big applause when he talked about Christopher Columbus, “who set sail for India but landed in America. I wonder where we would be if he had actually reached India”.

Noting that Indian-Americans were running over 750 companies in Silicon Valley, Clinton said there were over a million Indians in the US. Casting his eyes across the pavilion tent on the White House lawns with the theme of America-in-the-Fall, the President joked that half of this Indian-American population was at the dinner, the other half was disappointed not to be there.

Among the Indian-Americans at the banquet were Jhumpa Lahiri, the Pulitzer prize-winning, good-looking author from New York, Ved Mehta, another author, Kalpana Chawla, the first Indian-American to go into space, economist Jagdish Bhagwati,’s Sabeer Bhatia, tennis legend Vijay Amritraj, film director and Oscar nominee M. Night Shyamalan and New Age visionary, Deepak Chopra.

Secretary of state Madeleine Albright, who was at the head table, was overheard telling her Indian counterpart Jaswant Singh that she wished she could have “worn a sari tonight”.

Before the dinner, as guests were ushered into the White House State Dining Room on the East Wing for cocktails, there was much discussion on politics, notably South Asia’s nuclear diplomacy.

It was inevitable, perhaps, that with guests such as holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel, environmental activist and model, Christie Brinkley and Leon Fuerth, the likely National Security Adviser if Al Gore becomes President.

But Clinton set the tone for the discussions when he declared in his toast: “Together, India and America can change the world”.

Also at the dinner were actress Goldie Hawn, singer Melissa Etheridge, comedian Al Franken and TV host Riz Khan, who came with former Miss World Diana Hayden.

Ahead of the dinner, the White House had asked Vajpayee what kind of music he wanted to listen to. The Prime Minister asked for Western classical music and the Clintons brought in the Lincoln Centre Chamber Music Society to play excerpts from Don Giovanni.

The First Lady, it was said, had personally chosen the traditional official gift for Vajpayee, given at the end of a visit. It was an engraved sterling-silver cache pot from Tiffany’s with an etching of the dogwood blossom from Arkansas, the home state of the Clintons.

In return, Vajpayee gave the President a glass sculpture of Ganesh by Anjolie Ela Menon, christened Revered Image in Glass.

The celebrations continued long after Vajpayee had left for the airport. The President and the First Lady received all the guests at the East Wing of the White House and then sent them up to the East Room to dance into the early hours of the morning.

It seemed to everyone that this was a night to cherish and celebrate.    

Jairambati and Calcutta,Sept. 18: 
Jyoti Basu today assured the Ramakrishna Mission that the government had taken steps to prevent recurrence of political clashes in the ashram area. Basu wrote to the mission authorities after they sought his intervention to stop clashes at Jairmabati in Bankura.

The chief minister’s deputy, Buddhadev Bhattacharya, said the district magistrate and the CPM district secretary had visited the ashram.

However, the silence of the graveyard still reigns at Jairambati Matri Mandir, the birthplace of Ma Sarada. There are few pilgrims at the temple, usually brimming with people at this time.

On September 6, over 2,000 people had taken shelter in the temple after a Trinamul Congress worker and a BJP activist were killed allegedly by CPM supporters in nearby Sihar village. Looting and arson continued through the day.

Since then, Jairambati has worn a deserted look. Even a regular police patrol has not reduced the tension.

Aneyananda Maharaj, the temple-in-charge, shudders as he recalls the fateful day. Terror-stricken people had made a beeline for the ashram since early morning. “Hearing the sound of bombs and screams of helpless people, I asked the gatekeeper to open the door. As time passed, more and more people poured in.”

The maharaj got in touch with his counterpart at Kamarpukur to requisition vegetables, which were in short supply. “It was a sleepless night. We received constant threats over phone even after everyone except for a few old people had vacated the temple,” he said, refusing to name the party that issued the threats.

Ram Kumar Mukherjee, a student, and Chinmoy Mondal and Uttam Mondal, both milkmen, are still afraid to go back. But Ajay Pal, 25, a Trinamul activist from Hooghly, said Jairambati is “comparatively” safe since VIPs, including Union minister Ajit Panja, have been taking turns to camp in the area.

Nemai Ghosh, Trinamul block president, said: “There will be fresh violence after the VIPs leave.”

Saranan Pandey, CPM district committee member, denied that his party had threatened the temple authorities. But, in the same breath, he added that those who had taken shelter at the ashram were either hoodlums or their associates.    

New Delhi, Sept. 18: 
A bridge across the digital divide is being built for Rs 9,000. The Indian Institute of Science, in collaboration with a Bangalore-based software company, is developing a low-cost PC dubbed Simputer (short for simple computer) to take the information highway to the masses.

The Bangalore institute’s computer science automation department, along with Encore Software, has built the Simputer into a computer which has a touch sensitive screen — implying that commands can be given by touching the screen. It is also expected to have a software for accepting voice commands.

Besides English, the Simputer prototype will have Kannada and Hindi pre-loaded software, allowing users to use the computer in all three languages. With pictographic icons on the screens, Simputer will for the first time enable non-literate users to browse the web using pictures.

“It is a product which has been designed to provide low cost, highly efficient solutions. The gadget is being designed keeping in mind both the urban and rural population. A person who understands only Kannada or Hindi can use it with the same ease as someone who uses English. Since it is icon-based, it will be more user-friendly,” said Vinnie Mehta, director, Manufacturers Association of Information Technology.

The Rs 9,000-per-computer project is another attempt at bridging the infotech gulf between the rich and the poor. Nasscom, the software association, has announced a special campaign from Mahatma Gandhi’s birthday on October 2 to educate political leaders on IT and bring infotech light into the lives of the cyber-unenlightened like Laloo Yadav and Kanshi Ram.

“The product has been designed to take IT to the rural masses. We needed an information-accessing devise unique to Indian situation and Simputer fits the bill. It is important that such products should be developed if we have to match PC penetration levels in the US and Japan,” Mehta said.

India has just 4.5 PCs per 1,000 people while comparative figures in the US and Japan are 500 and 400 per 1,000.

Simputer can serve both as a low-cost home gadget and a computer-kiosk. It can also perform complicated functions like microbanking and data collection. It can be used for educational programmes and dissemination of agriculture information using the Linux free software from the global Open Source Initiative.

“It means the software used in Simputer is free and does not need a licence to alter or customise the software. This considerably brings down the cost of the PC and gives us flexibility to customise it,” said Mehta.

IIS and Encore are also planning to provide manufacturing licences free of cost to Indian PC manufacturers to develop this product on a mass scale,” said Mehta.

With Linux operating system, 32-bit CPU, 32 MB DRAM, Boot ROM, touch screen, privacy encryption software and in-built modem among other features, the device provides support for smart card reader/writer.

“With the demand trickling in from various parts of the globe for a diverse set of applications, the developer team is still debating how to handle it. Simputer is the product which is likely to help bring an IT revolution at the grassroots,” Mehta added.    

One of the first things a tennis player does on arriving at a tournament, is to look at the draw. After all, no one would want to play Pete Sampras in the first round. Last time in Atlanta 1996, I nearly did, but fortunately Sampras withdrew and Richey Reneberg took his place and the rest as they say is history. It also proves one more thing: it’s hard to win anything without a generous slice of luck.

Yet my draw this time in Sydney in the singles is quite tough. Mikael Tillstrom is a typical Swedish player, which means he’s very solid from the baseline. But it should make for an interesting contest simply because we play different styles. His weapon is the passing shot and precise groundstrokes, mine is athletic serve and volley.

We’ve played each other before, a couple of years ago at the Australian Open and he beat me in straight sets. That was Melbourne; hopefully Sydney will be luckier for me.

My toughest task is to overcome the fact that I haven’t played a singles match in four months. It’s important to be match-fit and I am aware of that, but at the same time “thinking positive” has always been my mantra. Complaining is pointless. The good news is that I like the courts here, they’re slower than the Deco Turf at the US Open and bounce higher.

It’s also nice to note that despite the absence of Sampras and Andre Agassi, most of the world’s top players are in attendance. It makes for a very intriguing contest. In the top half of the draw are Marat Safin, Tim Henman, Lleyton Hewitt, Marcelo Rios and Alex Corretja, while the big names in the lower half are Juan Carlos Ferrero, Mark Philippoussis, Nicolas Kiefer, Magnus Norman, Patrick Rafter and Gustavo Kuerten. It’s a very balanced draw and almost impossible to say which half is easier.

I would say the Australians have to be the favourites. Playing at home is a huge advantage because players love to feed off the energy and emotion of the crowd, and here the crowds are a major motivating factor as we saw in the swimming. For instance, I love playing in India because the crowd is able to lift me. Hewitt, who lost to Sampras in the US Open semi finals recently, is a remarkable player, but still if I had to make a pick it would be Philippoussis. I have no idea about his physical condition, but if he’s in top form he will be hard to beat.

Safin unquestionably is the player in form, but I think expecting him to win the US Open and then the Olympics, back to back, is a big ask.. It will be demanding both mentally and physically. He’s played a lot of matches, he could be tired, and as I said the surface here is different from the Open.

In the doubles, again the issue is our lack of match-practice together. Mahesh and I have never played Andrei Pavel/Gabriel Trifu who we are slated to meet in the first round, and though Pavel is experienced I have never lost to him when he has played with other partners.

The big talking point, and the subject of every question I’ve been asked here, is the possibility of meeting the legendary Woodies (Mark Woodforde/Todd Woodbridge) in the second round. It is actually quite an interesting situation. On one hand I’d rather play the Woodies so early, because they have a bye in the first round and would not have any matches under their belt. But, on the other hand, it would be nice too if we ourselves had played a couple of matches before we met the Woodies.

The doubles draw in general is not as tough as the singles. Mainly because established teams have split up because they don’t belong to the same country. For instance, the US Open champions won’t be on show because Max Mirnyi is from Belarus and Hewitt from Australia. But there are still enough good teams out there, each one capable of winning gold. The Woodies, of course, Sebastian Lareau/ Daniel Nestor from Canada, Alex O’Brien/Jared Palmer from America. I wouldn’t ignore Tillstrom/Nicklas Kulti either, and while Safin/Kafelnikov may not win they’ll be wonderful to watch.

Hopefully, so will we be.    



Maximum: 27.8°C (-4)
Minimum: 27.1°C (-1)


43.3 mm

Relative humidity

Maximum: 98%,
Minimum: 81%


Moderate rain, with one or two heavy showers or thundershowers    

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