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A SMALL THING

Royal pardons used to be dramatic displays of power. Apart from a merciful monarch, they involved a quaking petitioner, a disappointed hangman and awestruck spectators. Modern heads of state are not encouraged to be prodigal with their clemency. But presidents of the world’s greatest superpower have indulged themselves from time to time. Vietnam dodgers, fugitive billionaires and a former president are among the diverse people allowed to get away with a variety of crimes and misdemeanours by American presidents wanting to impress the world with their power to forgive. Everyday life, with its ordinary humane gestures, is the sort of theatre that suits Barack Obama’s presidential style the best. So, he chose an 11-year-old schoolboy as the first recipient of something like a pardon, though charmingly diminutive in its appeal. On learning that the boy had skipped school for the first time in his life to see the president and hear him speak, Mr Obama asked a minder for a piece of official stationery and wrote the boy’s teacher a note asking him to be excused for his absence from class.

Heartwarming as this may be, it only goes to show that terribly important people, like the president himself and his secretary of state, visiting India from the United States of America fail to learn from the wonderful ways of their hosts. Life comes to a chaotic standstill when great men and women grace the country with their presence, and a single schoolboy missing school for a presidential darshan is hardly something to be noticed when roadblocks, no-go zones and general pandemonium are the order of the day. And schools are not spared either — think of Hillary Clinton and La Martiniere. In India, the advent of global VIPs and ceremonies of state have a special loveliness for young students, for they usually mean a holiday (or series of holidays). But they can also mean having to stand by the wayside and cheerily waving little flags in the scorching sun — and that cannot be very inspiring. Mr Obama’s gesture is made on the assumption that it is irregular for a child to be missing school to come and see the president, that there are rhythms of normal life that being very important cannot presume to disrupt. Such scruple, however theatrically expressed, is admirable. But it would have been baffling, if not entirely pointless, on an Indian stage.