The United Nations (Photo: Mayank Chhaya)
New York is a people watcher’s paradise and in that the United Nations Building at this time of year is even better. Reporting the UN General Assembly has its rewards—being able to watch people from around the world is one of them. It is riveting. I did that for about three hours yesterday waiting for India’s Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj to wrap up her seven bilateral meetings. Waiting, incidentally, is intrinsic to journalism of this kind. You wait and wait and wait and then wonder why you are waiting and then forget that you are waiting at all. That is where people watching is a reward.
The density of black business suits worn by male diplomats is occasionally broken by a strikingly colorful printed African shirt here or handsomely tied ornate turban there sported by women. There are so many languages being spoken simultaneously that the fusion of all those seem to create a new global language. For a few seconds I thought I understood that new global language but not quite because as soon as the babble made sense it also stopped making it. It was like thousands of words climbing atop each other, each in a rush to get to the summit of this hybrid language mountain and then come crashing down like an avalanche of incomprehension.
At the UN, everyone walks with a great sense of purpose and as if the next global crisis would devour the world if they walked any differently or any slowly. There are little throngs of people everywhere you look. Each throng has one person, usually a man, who is the center that holds everybody else’s attention and loyalty. He is most likely a foreign minister or a deputy prime minister or sometimes even a president. There are aides whispering things into the ears of the man in the center from many different directions even as he goes about nodding to indicate that he has understood the intricacy of the upcoming bilateral or multilateral engagement.
Each such throng is like an organism in itself. Every part of it moves in unison even while performing tasks unique to them. Servility grows in concentric circles. The center is not servile at all because he or occasionally she is the reason why everyone else is servile. The outermost circle consists of utterly obsequious and servile minions who, paradoxically, also have the most possibility to break free from the gravitational pull of the central figure because of their sheer distance. They hang on because otherwise they would go floating about aimlessly in this vast diplomatic space.
One comes across the so-called movers and shakers of the world here. I caught former Vice President Al Gore during the climate summit that preceded the General Assembly. I tried presenting myself as a correspondent of a rural newspaper to him but my voice just skidded past him. It was as if it had bounced off a smooth bubble around him. Because it is the UN, all those who come here are who’s who somewhere on the planet. Each carries their own little ego as illustrated by the size of the entourage. Of course, the real powerful ones such as President Barack Obama are never found urgently rushing through the halls and lobbies. They don’t carry any files or folders or sheaf of papers. They magically materialize at famous General Assembly podium, say their piece and disappear.
And then there are those like me who are happily inconsequential and who wait. Bilateral meetings go on. For instance, Swaraj had seven yesterday between 2.30 p.m. and 5.30 p.m. They included U.K. Secretary of State Philip Hammond, Sudanese Minister of Foreign Affairs Ali Ahmed Karti, Maldives Foreign Affairs Minister Dunya Maumoon, Norwegian Foreign Affairs Minister Borge Brende, Kyrgyz Foreign Affairs Minister Abdyldaev Erlan Bekeshovich, Greece Deputy Prime Minister Evangelos Venizelos and Nigerian Foreign Affairs Minister Aminu Wali. It was a diplomatic version of speed-dating. The only difference is that the purpose is not find a life partner at the end but quickly engage with countries of interest—strategic or economic or both.
Looking at the Maldivian Foreign Minister Maumoon, I was reminded of my visit to the Indian Ocean islands in the 1980s and the story that I wrote about the likely danger that the islands could soon be under water because of the rising sea levels. They are still above water as evidenced by the presence of Dunya Maumoon. Incidentally, Dunya means world.