The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Sam’s night to remember

Before Pratibha Patil’s, the last Indian state visit to the UK was from 3-6 April, 1990, by President Ramaswamy Venkataraman who held a banquet for the Queen at the St James Court Hotel (now the Crown Plaza) in Buckingham Gate.

“It was a night to remember,” recalls Sam Bhadha, then the hotel’s general manager, who had the “Tata family’s personal gold cutlery” flown in from India, along with “80 dozen mangoes, 80 dozen pomegranates, 60 dozen chickoos and 60 dozen custard apples”.

The Duke of Edinburgh turned to Satish Arora, one of the chefs who had come from the Taj group in India, and declared: “The dosa was excellent — are you from south India?”

Sam, now resident in New York as executive vice-president of the Highgate Hotels group that includes the Radisson Lexington, is reckoned by the Bollywood fraternity, desi netas and Indian tycoons to be the best hotelier in the world.

That night, he says, “the Queen, Charles and Diana looking very beautiful, the Gloucesters, Princess Margaret were all there — the biggest gathering of royals at one banquet — plus Margaret Thatcher. Ravi Shankar played the sitar in the courtyard.”

Bhadha remembers: “Prince Charles had a dosa stuffed with lobster but ‘Why is yours different?’, he asked the president, who cut half of his vegetarian dosa, stuffed with wild mushrooms, and passed it to Prince Charles. We whipped Prince Charles’s plate away and ordered him a fresh dosa — it caused chaos in the kitchens.”

There has been only one other Indian state visit to the UK — by Dr Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, from 12-23 June 1963. The Queen and Prince Philip have made state visits to India in 1961, 1983 and in 1997.

Patricia and Pratibha

Woman to woman, Patricia Hewitt should be able to exchange more than a few words in Hindi with Prathiba Patil when the Indian President begins her state visit to the UK later this week.

Patricia has been taking Hindi lessons as the new chairman of the United Kingdom India Business Council (UKIBC), a British-government supported body which strives to promote bilateral trade.

The UKIBC’s annual summit, a huge affair which is being held in the regal surroundings of Lancaster House, will be opened by Patil.

“I will welcome her,” says Patricia, who will introduce the President to powerful captains of industry. “It is the first Indian state visit for nearly 20 years so there is a great sense of excitement and expectancy.”

Patricia visited India in August when she launched the UKIBC’s landmark report on the nine “emerging cities” — Pune, Chandigarh, Jaipur, Baroda, Ahmedabad, Nagpur, Goa, Indore and Kochi.

“I did the opening part of my speech in Chandigarh in Hindi,” reveals Patricia. “That was the first fruit of my Hindi lessons that I have been taking in London.”

She explains: “I thought about learning Hindi years ago when I first became a member of Parliament (in 1997 for Leicester West) but I was just so busy, I never managed to organise it. Then I became a minister and did not have any time at all.”

Maybe Patricia, who held many senior posts in Tony Blair’s cabinet, including “minister for women”, will be able to share her views on “women’s empowerment” with Patil — and in shudh Hindi, too.

Incidentally, Kamlesh Arora, a language teacher at the School of Oriental and African Studies, can be identified as the person giving Patricia Hindi lessons.

“I hope to have another lesson this afternoon,” Patricia tells me.

Rising daughters

Time passes. Once I wrote about mothers. Now, their daughters are making waves.

Such it is with author and scriptwriter Rahila Gupta and her 21-year-old daughter, Atiha Sen Gupta, whose debut play, What Fatima Did, is being staged at the prestigious Hampstead Theatre Club in north London.

It is about a 17-year-old Muslim girl, Fatima Merchant, who “drinks, smokes and parties” but suddenly adopts a hejab on the eve of her 18th birthday.

“This is a proud moment for Hampstead Theatre,” says the club, which was established in 1959 and has featured such greats as Noel Coward and Harold Pinter.

It is an even more wonderful moment for Rahila, who co-wrote the script of Provoked, Jagmohan Mundhra’s film on Kiranjit Ahluwalia, the Sikh wife (played by Aishwarya Rai) given life for setting alight her abusive husband.

Atiha, who is reading politics and sociology in her second year at Warwick University, has absorbed her mother’s passion for literature, theatre and the arts — and maybe a little feminist politics as well.

“I was 13, at school, and after 9/11, I would be called a ‘Paki’ and abused by white people even though I am not Muslim,” she remembers, explaining the genesis of What Fatima Did.

Rahila can still recall: “She came home from school very upset.”

“I think Atiha has a prodigious talent, above and beyond my own,” Rahila tells me. “I am very proud of her and, given our common interests, we have hours of wine-fuelled argument and discussion. What more can you ask for from your children?”

Desai (re)discovered

Lord (Meghnad) Desai realises he is being a little portentous in calling his new book, The Rediscovery of India, after Nehru’s The Discovery of India.

Meanwhile, Meghnad gave a party last week at The Arts Club in London to mark the publication of the UK edition of his political thriller, Dead on Time.

The Indian edition was published by HarperCollins in March. I prefer the cover of the new British version from Beautiful Books, a small publishing venture that brings out 25 titles a year.

Simon Petherick, who set up the firm as an old fashioned publisher four years ago, directs me to a page to explain why he likes Dead on Time.

“It’s entertaining, fun and a bit naughty,” he says.

Rather like Meghnad Desai, as Meghnad Desai would say, when he is not saying, “Anybody can write a Booker Prize winning novel but to write a book that can be picked up at airports is a real feat.”

Politics ’n’ play: Alex von Tunzelmann

Tittle tattle

Alex Von Tunzelmann must be upset that the film version of Indian Summer, which I am reading at the moment, has been left on the cutting room floor. But she is making her mark in a field dominated by male historians.

She popped up last week in the third part of Mishal Husain’s (moderately competent) documentary on Gandhi and suggested he might have helped bring about Partition by snubbing the other Indian delegates at the 1931 Round Table Conference in London.

There are some nuggets in the book, for example, on the dying Jinnah: “According to his doctor, Jinnah saw Liaquat and told him that Pakistan was ‘the biggest mistake of my life.’ Further yet, he declared: ‘If now I get an opportunity I will go to Delhi and tell Jawaharlal to forget about the follies of the past and become friends again.’”

Tunzelmann acknowledges that because the founder of Pakistan died shortly afterwards, “it is impossible to prove whether Jinnah actually said these words or not”.

Isn’t there a better movie here?

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