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  Life   More Features  19 Aug 2018  Vajpayee and the Phantom

Vajpayee and the Phantom

THE ASIAN AGE. | ARVIND ACHARYA
Published : Aug 19, 2018, 12:08 am IST
Updated : Aug 19, 2018, 12:08 am IST

Almost everyone who knew of Atal Bihari Vajpayee, invariably knew him as a man of letters – writing, reading and speaking. The last one was his forte.

The former PM of India relished an evening out in New York city, where he watched The Phantom of the Opera and enjoyed a quiet meal at the Cajun restaurant with a Hyderabadi.
 The former PM of India relished an evening out in New York city, where he watched The Phantom of the Opera and enjoyed a quiet meal at the Cajun restaurant with a Hyderabadi.

The former PM of India relished an evening out in New York city, where he watched The Phantom of the Opera and enjoyed a quiet meal at the Cajun restaurant with a Hyderabadi.

Almost everyone who knew of Atal Bihari Vajpayee, invariably knew him as a man of letters – writing, reading and speaking.  The last one was his forte.

Just after the Emergency had been lifted, Atalji started his poetry, caricaturing the people who had surrounded Mrs. Gandhi.  Actually, not caricaturing, but lampooning would be the better word to use.

Among Mrs. Gandhi’s cabinet members was a minister called Bansi Lal.  He was very supportive of the project to sterilize men – somehow they thought they could control the population growth through aggressive plans.  Coming out of jail, Vajpayee said:

Nasbandi key hain teen dalaal
Indira, Sanjay Aur Bansi Laal

Later, when he learnt how N D Tiwari had kowtowed to Sanjay Gandhi, he quipped: “Main Sanjay ka Savaari hoon
Main Narain Dutt Tiwari hoon”

My friend and classmate, Srikant Singh has a very interesting story to tell.  When Srikant was in New York, he had befriended the man who was the Head of the Indian Mission to the United Nations.  Vajpayee had come to the UN to speak.  Invited to a private party on a Sunday, Srikant realized he was the only non-politician there.  As was his wont, Vajpayee started reciting poetry.  Srikant, after listening for a while, sidled up to Vajpayee, and introduced himself.  He explained his background – Srikant’s father Prof Satyanarain Singh taught English Literature at Osmania University – and said that he was very much in touch with the literature scene in New York.  He said he enjoyed poetry readings, discussions and watching plays.  When he mentioned plays, Vajpayee perked up.  He said he very much wanted to see a Broadway play but that everyone – the Indian diplomats as well as well-heeled BJP supporters – said they couldn’t get tickets!  

Srikant Singh and Atal Bihari Vajpayee.Srikant Singh and Atal Bihari Vajpayee.

Sensing an opportunity, Srikant asked, “Is there a specific play you would like to see?”

Vajpayee answered, “Yes, I want see Phantom Of The Opera”.

Hearing this, Srikant’s heart sank.  The Phantom of The Opera was playing at The Majestic Theater.  It was such a success that there were no tickets for the next six months!  

Still, Srikant said, “If I can get tickets, will you go with me?”.  Vajpayee nodded.   He said he was busy the next day, Monday,  as BJP leaders from all over the US were coming to New York to meet him.  He said the day after, Tuesday, would suit him better.

Srikant was banking on his classmate John who had a job as an Assistant Manager at the Majestic Theater.  He called John and explained the situation.  John assured him he would do his very best.

Come Monday afternoon, Srikant received a call.  It was John.  He said he had both good news and bad news.  The good news was that he had two tickets – best in the house, Orchestra – and the bad news was that it was for the same day, ie. Monday.

In turn, Srikant called Vajpayee and explained the situation.  Vajpayee said “aap ney mujhey sankat mey daal diya”  (You have put me in a dilemma).  After about ten seconds of silence, Vajpayee said “Aap aaiyey.  Hum chalengey”.  (You come, we will go)

That evening, Srikant went to the Waldorf Astoria where Vajpayee was staying.  He was ushered into a conference room, with about 100 people around.  On seeing Srikant, Vajpayee coughed.  He then reached for a glass of water, and coughed again.  Clasping his throat, he said “pataa naheen kyun, mujhey apney kamrey mey jaana padhega”.  (“I don’t know why, I may have to go to my room (to rest)).

The guests dispersed.

Within a minute, Vajpayee emerged and with Srikant in tow, took the service lift downstairs to the car and then to the theater.

Vajpayee was extraordinarily impressed with the play.  Afterward, he told Srikant, “that was exceptional acting.  I don’t think our Indians can come close to it!”.  He also greatly admired the sets, and was very vocal about his admiration.  

As it was late in the evening, Srikant suggested dinner.  Vajpayee was reluctant; he ate only Indian food.  He said he did not go to Indian restaurants as he would be surrounded by people and the owners would not let him pay for his own food.  For these reasons, in New York, he said he always had only a glass of milk for dinner.

Srikant then suggested that he would take him to a restaurant that served similar food.  They went to a Cajun restaurant. Vajpayee ordered shrimp and wild rice.  Later, Srikant dropped him off at the Waldorf, and walked out into the cool night air.

Tags: atal bihari vajpayee, srikant singh, the phantom of the opera