Under my byline

His table manner

Posted in Profiles by Rrishi on 11 May 2008

K Shankar Bajpai goes on record about the art of dinner diplomacy

It’s blazing down outside, but in here the sun enters obliquely, almost apologetically, and just strongly enough to emphasise the shapes of K Shankar Bajpai’s round head, from the bow-shaped thought-wrinkles on his forehead to the learned dent in his skull.

Bajpai, now 80, is one of India’s most senior retired diplomats, having served as our ambassador in China, Pakistan and the United States. We are seated in his study, a quiet, book-lined and china-strewn room, talking about dinner diplomacy — an art of which he is an acknowledged master.

He will hesitate to say as much himself, because he is careful with every word. But, so long as diplomacy was the preserve of cultured individuals of aristocratic background (in the West until after the First World War at least, and in India into the first generation post-independence), it was conducted with a certain style and ruthlessness.

Now that diplomats are bureaucrats, and there is so much more diplomacy at so many more fora, things have changed a great deal.

Yet impasses happen, and often public negotiations will not reveal a way around them. That’s where dinner diplomacy — the old way of doing things — comes into its own. Get a few key people around a congenial table under the eye of a good host, away from the public eye and notes-takers, and compromise can flower.

“There is an atmosphere about it,” says Bajpai. “A nice quiet dinner, few people — people open up a bit, people relax. At somebody’s home particularly, with good conversation, good food, good wine. It makes for confidence-building in each other.”

That’s exactly what is needed, Bajpai says, because “It doesn’t make people change their opinions — whatever their governments decide, they decide. But it makes dealing with each other more open and productive.”

Harold Macmillan, the late British PM and, apparently, a devoted dinner diplomat, once told Bajpai that “the ideal number at the table is eight — it makes for a good conversation.”

Bajpai has learnt otherwise: “The host and hostess cannot sit opposite each other. I find 10 a very good number. Unfortunately, in India we tend to invite everyone we know and have a mela, and unless you have three different kinds of cuisine neither the guests nor the hosts are satisfied. There’s not more than two minutes’ conversation [with each guest].”

Bajpai keeps his food “simple — so long as it is properly chosen. It’s not so much presentation as a nice table and a venturesome menu,” he says, which means he does some of the cooking himself. “You try to think what that particular set of guests will enjoy,” he says, and adds, “I’m always a great believer in snacks.”

So he has invented such items as the tuna-stuffed golgappa and litchis stuffed with cream cheese and “just a touch of mango chutney”. Even as an ambassador, he says, “I always made one dish for every dinner.”

“He’ll go shopping for the strangest things in the strangest markets,” says one frequent invitee to Bajpai’s dinners at home in Delhi, “and then he serves these amazing eats. You have to spend on a certain scale to be able to do these things and he’s not afraid to do that.”

Bajpai is a fan of Keynes, who described Lloyd George (above) at Versailles in 1919 as "this syren, this goat-footed bard, this half-human visitor from the hag-ridden magic and enchanted woods of Celtic antiquity"

How does Bajpai choose his guests? He won’t offer any recent examples on the record, but from his Washington tenure: “Let’s suppose there’s an American VIP, say a senator. You want him to become friendly towards India. You don’t just tell him how great India is and the usual blah about democracies. You try and get somebody who knows India, preferably somebody local, and somebody who knows about American politics, and then your conversation can be about Indian politics and how cultural factors can make for differences in political processes, and hope that your guest goes away with a little more knowledge about India.” (It’s no surprise then that after retirement Bajpai helped found and currently chairs a think tank, the Delhi Policy Group.)

In Bajpai’s mind, talk rules the table. “[Former US ambassador to India] Blackwill’s dinners were really very good,” says Bajpai. “Frankly they were more like seminars,” he qualifies, “but in India that works. We don’t have small talk, can’t keep a conversation going. We can’t switch from politics to theatre to holidays in the hills. Persuasiveness is an art and it involves strict control of the ego, which is not an Indian tradition.”

Where did he learn the art himself? “At my father’s dinner table,” he says. His father was Girja Shankar Bajpai, Nehru’s seniormost diplomat and a former Governor of Bombay. Young Bajpai found himself sharing the dinner table with his father’s guests in Washington as early as 1941, when I was what, 13″.

Bajpai doesn’t seem to quite belong to Delhi, circa 2008, even if he still has friends (and dinner guests) in the highest places. His home resembles a museum, dim and filled with attractive objects posed on dark, glossy furniture.

And he sounds like Cicero On Old Age, who wrote that “it was a good idea of our ancestors to style the presence of guests at a dinner-table — seeing that it implied a community of enjoyment — a convivium, ‘a living together’.”


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