Friday, 16 October 2015

Meet el Presidente

It’s not everyday that you get and invitation to meet the president.

No, we did not get an invite from Raisina hill to meet our dear Bengali ‘husband of the nation’ (Rashtriyapati).

Neither did the good folks in the White House send an invitation over to us asking us to meet Barack and Michelle and the girls.

Alas and alack.  The closest I have come on the track of meeting POTUS was meeting Bill Clinton… in one of my dreams.  It was pretty vivid and recall us having a good time together.  But that was a long time ago, and only in a dream.

We did, however, get and invite to meet the President. 

The president of one my my alma maters…  good ole Yale.

Peter Salovey, who was Dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences when I was doing my masters of Forestry and my masters of Public Health in New Haven back in the day, was in Mumbai.  And we were invited to a ‘high tea’ with him at the Taj.


Yesterday I drove down with Asha in our Papaya – using the magnificent new freeway that snakes over Mankhurd and Chembur and Wadala and over sundry dockyards and touches down just a hop skip and jump away from Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (but on the other side) – a long straight road that ends at the magnificent Reserve Bank of India building.    We followed the road past the various gates and ended up finding a parking space (miracles!) at Horniman circle, just opposite the Asiatic library.  

For us out-of-towners, walking around in South Mumbai (SoBo as it is sometimes called) was almost like being on a different planet.  The stately Indo-gothic buildings.   The quaint splashes of gardens in between.   The oozing of wealth (yes, that is the house where Tatasons is headquartered, yes that is the Bombay Stock Exchange).  The perennial oddness of many odd people loitering around, sitting in gardens in the cool of the day.  The garish hawkers selling mobile covers and other brick a brack along the collonades between Flora Fountain and Regal Cinema (in my day they were ‘smuggled goods’ with cheaply made ‘walkmans’ for sale at ridiculous prices).  Culture everywhere you looked.

We had some minutes to burn – and so we ducked into the Town Hall library and grazed the titles of the books there, wandered past St. Thomas Cathedral (I had never seen it before!), tried to get to the Jehangir Art Gallery (too late) and managed finally to arrive sweaty but on time at the Taj Mahal Hotel.  Mumbai in October is a sweat bath.  The plushness of the Taj welcomed two sweaty Eichers into her embrace.

And there we were, wandering the elegant halls of that 110 year old pile that has had the rich and famous generations as its guests (with photos to show for it…).

We were of course here to meet the President.

We were among the first.  Our badges on – telling our name and where we had studied (Asha’s said she was a F+ES Child).  And the first few folks present in the magnificent “Gateway Room” – waiting for the pres to show up.

The room slowly began to fill up.  Asha and I parked ourselves on one of the couches near the windows that overlooked the gateway outside and the bobbing ships at anchor.  Waiters sidled up to us with a procession of little delicacies and the ubiquitous fruit of the vine (the two of us sampled various unfermented fruit juices).   Folks were milling around.  Suited booted.  Chatting animatedly.  
We relaxed and enjoyed the view.

Finally the man came.   We almost didn’t notice him arrive – he was not mobbed by paparazzi.  Instead, Peter Salovey walked in with a genial smile and mingled around while the organizer of the evening called folks to attention and introduced the introducer of the pres.

Friendly, but to the point, Peter Salovey laid out where Yale is today and what their vision for tomorrow is. 

the only photo I was allowed to take by my daugther!
This truly is a president – Peter Salovey told us that giving to Yale has been up 11% from last year – and that today the Yale endowment is over 24 billion US$!   No wonder we were at the Taj Mahal hotel.  This amount of money is more than many countries have in their foreign exchange reserves (if Yale were a country and put all its endowment into foreign exchange reserves, it would rank between Belgium and Austria!).   

And the Yale corporation manages a vast educational empire.  One that not only runs 22 separate libraries (how does 15 million volumes sound to you?) for the umpteen colleges and graduate programmes that flourish under the Yale umbrella, but also have 2 art museums, a rare book collection, a natural history museum and that not to talk about the Yale repertory theatre, the multiple lectures of the great and the famous which the different programmes have on offer almost around the clock…  And besides this, there are start-ups for new companies, multiple layers of research, students from far and wide attending the different colleges and grad depts.  Yale is not just centered on the town of New Haven Connecticut, but has hundreds of different collaborations with other universities, companies, government agencies etc.  

So here is the head of all of this.  And he uses his time to say that the University wants to keep getting better.  And that it cannot do everything – but wants to do what it does do superbly.  And wants the experience to be one which builds community.

He gave a few snap shots of life at Yale including a current controversy about the name of one of the colleges – named after a certain John C. Calhoun.   In his day, this man not only supported slavery, but he championed it, writing numerous pieces which basically said that slavery was very good.   So now one group of students wants the name of the college changed, because of how repugnant this man’s views are.  While another group of students disagrees, saying that we cannot wipe away history – and even though we don’t applaud Calhoun’s ideas, erasing his name would cut away something about the past that we need to know.    President Salovey clearly was not taking sides, but brought it out to show some of the issues that are taking place, and as an example of the push and pull that each institution goes through, and as an example of the idea of the university itself - a place where ideas are exchanged and lives are shaped.

At the end of the day, Salovey was making a pitch for the liberal arts idea of a university – and said that his graduates all find jobs.  Salovey’s gist is that the ability to think clearly and communicate well and work together  in teams that comes out of the lived-out community of scholars will always trump just information that is gathered for a purpose – no matter how focused that may be.

A few more bon-mots and he was thanking us all for coming out to meet him and encouraging us to meet each other too.

I assumed that there would be a mad scramble to have a word with the good don afterwards – and there was … but in a very genteel way of course.  I doubted that Asha and I could meet him and soon fell into an animated conversation with a young Telegu doctor who had done his MPH at Yale a decade after me – and has been  involved in a dizzying array of consultancies with the WHO and the government of India as well as starting a company to make safety labs and, and!  

Well, my eyes looked over to Peter S. and I saw that he was just talking with 2 suited chaps who clearly were known to him already and so we sidled up to him and had our chat with the Pres himself.
Peter listened graciously as I gave a quick summary of what we do and chipped in that he used to come to Pune as part of a Yale research programme with the National AIDS Research Institute there – and had done work on stigma and discrimination faced by people with HIV in 3 hospitals.  I had to tell him that sadly the issue of HIV stigma continues to be very much alive.

He then asked Asha if she had started thinking about college yet.  She said that she had not.  The pres then told her that he hoped she would consider Yale when the time came.

In many ways that small comment sums up the beauty of the American approach.  Here is a president of a top university asking a school girl to apply to his institution.  The planting of a seed of a dream is taking place.  The thought that you can do it too.  The open access to those who try and strive.  Yes, only 6.3% of the 30,000 applicants actually get admitted to Yale college each year, but the president is doing his part to spread the name and attract more folks.

We stepped out of the hotel into the muggy heat of Mumbai having seen a number of different worlds.  The world of the jet-set go-getter elite (I was one of just a handful of men who was not wearing a suit coat... in Mumbai in October too!).   The wide world of international academia and that men like Peter Salovey criss-cross.  And the world of the servants - a whole bevy of young men who were serving us appertifs and passing the wine glasses around.  Young perky men, many of whom will have taken the local train from a small 1 room kitchen home somewhere in Badlapur to be serving the customers at the Taj.  Young men with dreams of advancement, and who have a small foot in the door by being hired by this hotel establishment.

Asha and I enjoyed the lit-up Indo-gothic sights of SoBo and then were into our Papaya for the 1.5 hour drive up north to Thane.

We walked into our home in Thane at just after 9.30 PM, as the Wednesday men's prayer meeting got underway.  After meeting a president, and walking the corridors where kings and queens have walked, what a blessed time to talk with the King of Kings.

1 comment:

  1. Dizzying juxtaposition. Your home sounds like the real "haven."