I could justifiably blame not being able to instantly recognize him and his lovely wife on the fact that it was nearly 2 in the morning when they were ushered next to me on Air India Flight 127. Normally, at that time the brain no longer processes visual stimulation and information.
And since I fly economy, after walking past a mocking business class section, I never expect passengers of high means to sit next to me. I mean no slight for the perfectly hardworking, decent and cheerful passengers who travel economy like me. However, the presence of a couple of unctuous minders should have alerted me to the possibility that someone important was going to be next to me.
As it turned out the couple was the assertively sharply dressed General Joginder Jaswant Singh, the 22nd Chief of the Army Staff of India and serving Governor of the state of Arunachal Pradesh, and his fetching wife Anupam (Rohini, I think I heard that too). My first comment to them was, “You make a fine couple.” To which Mrs. Singh smiled cheerfully and said, “It has been 40 years. So lovely of you to say so.”
Effusive pleasantries were gone through even as I was processing in my private mind why the couple was not in the first class or at least in the business class. And why indeed next to me in the bassinet section in the center? I discovered a little later that the Singhs were on a private visit to the United States and Canada to promote the veteran soldier’s autobiography ‘A Soldier’s General’ and did not think it appropriate to insist on the privileges that might follow his official stature.
“I am someone used to being shot at. I think I will manage just fine,” General Singh said and laughed. That set the stage for what turned out to be a stimulating conversation between the three of us for practically the entire duration of the 14-hour flight. Kashmir, China, Sino-Indian relations, Pakistan, the politics of boundaries, fighting terrorists, painting and designing (Mrs. Singh is accomplished at both), themes kept springing up. In between, when we chose to take a break to catch a movie, the general settled for Mahesh Bhatt’s 1990 hit ‘Aashiqui’ and I for Tim Burton’s ‘Dark Shadows’. That may mean the general is a romantic but by no means that I am dark.
Soon enough we were back to our conversation. Every time I asked Governor Singh something, he would meticulously leaf through a copy of his autobiography published by Harper-Collins India and say, “As I write here….” One could tell that the general was sharp with his references and memory. “I have tried to write it like a series of anecdotes. There is no point writing a boring and heavy book that people may buy out of respect but not read it. I think it is a good book.”
As he autographed a copy very neatly sheathed in a plastic cover, he said in jest, “I will give you a good discount.” My first impression of reading a few passages in the bassinet section of an Air India flight is that it can be optioned for a movie. The general has an eye for the cinematic.
As an aside, let me mention that he also seemed to be fastidious about order and aesthetics. His expensive leather attaché case had neatly arranged documents and properly sharpened pencils. When he removed his pinstriped coat, he folded it with loving care. Even when he loosened his tie, he did it ever so slightly. And not once did he remove his shoes on the flight. After disembarking he walked with measured dignity of a general and alertness of a soldier. I have observed that those who have spent long years being deferred to and fussed over never appear to be in a hurry.
I will do a separate review of the book and interview with General Singh. As I awaited my turn at the immigration I realized that I had left the signed copy on the plane. I will buy a new one now without any discount.
Out of courtesy I informed General Singh about the loss in an email. He promptly responded saying, “Sorry to know that the book was lost. Maybe somebody else is reading it.”