The late Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi
I am sure India’s former Foreign Minister K. Natwar Singh has it in him to understand sarcasm when it comes his way, particularly when it comes labeled in all capital letters “ I AM SARCASM.” But then again, may be he does not.
The Press Trust of India (PTI) reports from London Singh recalling a meeting that took place between Apollo 11 astronauts, including Neil Armstrong, and India’s late Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in New Delhi. The astronauts were on a world tour after their historic moon landing.
Photo ops dealt with, the astronauts were ushered into Gandhi’s office. It fell on Singh, who has occasionally referred to himself as an intellectual, to initiate a polite conversation with the astronauts. The PTI quotes Singh as telling Armstrong, “Mr Armstrong, you will be interested to know that the Prime Minister kept awake till 4.30 am, so as not to miss the exact time of your lunar landing.”
To which the self-effacing Mr. Armstrong replied, “I apologize for the inconvenience we caused you, Madame Prime Minister. Next time, I shall make sure that we land on the moon at a less unearthly hour.”
There is much that is incongruous about what Singh told the two visitors but let me just point out some of it. It is hard for me to decide which one is a more historic act—the first human being ever to set foot on another celestial body or someone having to stay awake till 4.30 in the morning to watch him do that? The answer is not as simple as you might think.
If you are India’s foreign minister laying it on thick for your boss, at very least her bothering to stay awake until that unearthly hour is as historic as Armstrong walking on the Moon. I mean can you imagine the trouble she took to stay awake? Armstrong had to be made aware of her heroic act.
In his private mind Armstrong probably thought, “Was I just told that someone kept awake so as not to miss my moon landing? Wow! Let me see how I can get out of this one without being directly rude.”
What sounds gently humorous in Armstrong’s reply is actually distilled sarcasm. I am willing to believe that Singh realized just as soon as he said what he did that he had screwed up. Also, that he had set up Armstrong for a sarcastic riposte. At the same time, I would not put it past Singh to actually believe that it was important for the American visitors, whose day job was wearing silly suits and helmets, fly to the Moon and gather some dust, to be made aware that a personage no less than madam prime minister had deigned it worthy to stay awake.
It is entirely possible that Singh, in reminiscing about the meeting, is being self-deprecating about his own faux pas. All of the above are possible but for the purposes of this blog I am going with the version that at the time he did think it was significant to highlight Gandhi’s historic sacrifice in staying awake for a sideshow like the first human landing on the Moon. Why? Because it is juicier.